Belarus has a Major Baptist Summer Camp

Turning Swords into Children’s Camps


„Children’s Healthcare Centre Zhemchuzhinka” has much to offer




M o s c o w – Near the White Russian village of Imenin seven kilometres north of the Baptist stronghold of Kobrin, a sword has been transformed into a children’s camp of impressive dimensions. After two years of reconstruction, the „Children’s Healthcare Centre Zhemchuzhinka” (Little Pearl) was officially opened on the site of a former missile base on 3 June 1995. “Our government was hard-put to find takers on unused military bases and our Baptist Union was willing to take them up on the offer,” reports Ivan Gritsyuta, this major project’s Deputy Director. Soon, the goods of both military blocs were mixing with each other when the late Helmut Sonnenberg (Wernigerode), a German Baptist, began to ship in equipment once belonging to the armies of NATO.


By now, more than 14.000 children and youth from throughout the country have passed through its gates; the Centre’s primary service remains the summer camps. Only half of the children come from Baptist families; the Centre’s publications state that more than 5.000 made a decision to begin a life with Jesus. This summer, Zhemchuzhinka intends to use its 230 beds for four 15-day camps with 190 children each time. An eight-day camp for youth and a six-day camp for children suffering most acutely from the aftermath of Chernobyl are also scheduled. During the camps, children will be given a thorough medical examination including, of course, the thyroid. Medical examinations are also given to adults; 41.000 of them have already been checked-out at the premises. A polyclinic and dental practice are part of the repertoire – all services being offered without any government funding. Thanks to the camp’s abundance of both nature and rooms, at least 12 conferences and five weddings are to be held there this year.


But the Centre has much more in mind: An impressive, reconstructed building with 28 rooms for the elderly is to open its doors in the foreseeable future. In a forest opening at the appropriate distance of five kilometres from the camp a drug rehabilitation centre is in the making.


One could ask whether the project is too large for a 13.500-member Baptist union to digest and whether it is consuming too much of the scarce financial resources available. That question is nearly impossible to answer objectively – and perhaps the general public only notices Protestant projects when they are of a size such as this one.


Particularly convincing regarding the project is the fact that the Centre is taking initial steps towards financial independence. Several greenhouses are in operation and the farming of open fields is starting up. To this end, additional acreage has been bought – the entire campus now totals 40 hectares (89,5 acres). Clients from the drug rehabilitation centre are to receive their occupational therapy there. Warm biscuits are probably in demand everywhere: A bakery is to be installed in the former officers’ sauna. Staff were puzzled by a visiting US-American some months ago who was interested almost strictly in the camp’s electricity bills. But his questioning was not in vain, for he ended up buying the Centre three new, Belarusian-produced, medium-sized wind turbines. Very soon they are to provide the camp with the electricity it requires. Zhemchuzhinka should be only the third wind park in all of Belarus. Deputy Director Gritsyuta admits: “That’s something we never would have thought of on our own. But who could be against a project such as this one?”


A project as big as this Centre is in need of virtually everything: furniture, motor vehicles, spare parts, farming implements, bed linen, clothes, kitchen equipment – without even beginning to mention the needs of the still-empty home for the elderly. For the present, the camp’s living quarters are barely useable during the winter. There, where heating systems are already in place, the problem of heating costs arises.


Human volunteers are of course also needed. carpenters, construction workers, vehicle drivers, cooks, teachers, doctors, nurses and farmers. Is there a retired baker willing to pass on his expertise to younger persons? Could Western missions teams also lend a hand? One of the major past donators was the medical ministry of the State Baptist Convention of Missouri. Initially, Russian-German missions from Germany such as “Logos” and “Friedensstimme” (Voice of Peace) were also involved. One of the still-active donators is “German Baptist Aid”.


What should keep Western groups from holding a conference in the greenery of western Belarus? The Centre reports that health ministry officials in Minsk are appreciative of the contribution being made to the general health of the young. Consequently, Zhemchuzhinka is in a position to insure that interested parties receive the letter of invitation necessary for non-tourist visas as quickly as possible. Costs remain modest: A train trip the whole breadth of Poland presently costs as little as 16 euros ($22 US). The distance to Kobrin from the Polish border at Terespol/Brest is only 45 km.


Yet camp leadership admits that contacts with Poland remain minimal. The “Schengen Wall” – the European Union’s outer border – has arisen between them and even Baptists on the western side of the barrier prefer to gaze in the direction of the setting sun.


Barely believable but true: Belarus could compete with Switzerland in terms of public tidiness. Its streets are virtually free of rubbish. But is Caesium-137 peeking through all the green? There are doubters who claim all of Belarus has been contaminated by the atomic catastrophe of 1986 and that any serious camp recuperation programmes for children can only take place outside the country. Yet staff members such as Ivan Gritsyuta insist that Imenin receives excellent ecological marks on par with those of the West.


The Director of Zhemchuzhinka is Vladimir Vandich, a Baptist pastor. The Centre remains exclusively the property of the Minsk-based “Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in the Republic of Belarus”. The Centre can be reached via the address of: „kobrincamp@mail.ru“. A Russian-language webpage can be found under: „www.campkobrin.org“.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Department for External Church Relations, RUECB

Moscow, 19 June 2009


A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. May be published freely. Release #09-19, 977 words, 6.131 keystrokes and spaces.