You’re in good company if you’re not sure where Georgia is (no, not Jimmy Carter’s state, but the former Soviet Union republic in the Caucasus). Henry Kissinger had to ask the Soviet Union’s foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze the same question once. Shevardnadze, now Georgia’s president, is one of this small nation’s two most famous sons – along with Joseph Stalin, whose portraits are still peddled on sidewalk stalls in Tblisi, Georgia’s capital.
Together with Al and Carolyn Akimoff, I enjoyed a delicious supper of fresh strawberries and ice cream on Saturday evening in the Tblisi apartment of Shevardnadze’s former press secretary Zaza, and his wife Nino. Zaza is now an ambassador at large for Georgia. He was helping to fill the gaps in our knowledge of both ancient and recent history of this ithsmus between the Black and the Caspian Seas, where so much of human history began.
Noah’s Ark, which came to rest on Mt Ararat on the present border between Armenia and Turkey just south of Georgia, features in the historic Georgian coat of arms. Greek tradition holds that Georgians discovered how to smelt iron, and pioneered work in copper and bronze. Georgia was one of the earliest sites of agriculture, the original homeland of many cereal crops, fruits like apricots and species of grape. Zaza pointed out that the name “Georgia” comes from ‘earth digger’. Winemaking may have developed here first – Noah got drunk somewhere in this vicinity!
Georgia was also one of the first countries officially to adopt the Christian faith – in 325. Tradition holds that the Apostle Andrew preached on the Black Sea coast, and that the first Christian communities date to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. But it was a woman, St Nino, whose preaching led to the conversion of King Mirian and Queen Nana, and the Christianisation of the state.
The first shall be last?
Yet Georgia is one of the last countries in Europe for YWAM to be actively involved in (along with Armenia and Slovenia). Al, Carolyn and I were making this trip to learn about the country and its spiritual situation, and to meet those already involved in ministry. Also with us was Lena from St Petersburg, who is working with the Mobile DTS (more about that next week).
We have encountered fervent spirituality on the one hand, and corruption and deep lack of trust on the other. Seventy years of communism seems to have only deepened the spiritual hunger of many, young and old, who cross themselves three times each time they pass a church building! On Friday morning we were surprised to see so many entering and leaving a church, lining up to see the priest or standing and praying before the icons. At Sunday morning’s jam-packed service in the cathedral, presided over by the archbishop, I stood in a corner and watched the intense and actively-engaged faces of young men and women, as well as those older. Polyphonic singing burst alternately from small choirs in three corners of the church as the liturgy attempted to reproduce scenarios from Revelation and thus give glimpses of the coming kingdom to the faithful.
Yet horror stories abound concerning the darker side of Georgian life. The wounds of the civil strife of the early nineties are still fresh. Mafia bosses and corrupt officialdom have not yet been tamed. A pentecostal congregation was savagely attacked a few months ago by a defrocked Orthodox priest and a gang of 50 roughs, while police turned a blind eye.
Is there hope?
Earl and Jan Treat, our gracious hosts in Tblisi, have several children in YWAM service around the world. They are the unlikely movers and shakers behind a far-reaching school project that is already effecting many lives – young and old. Several hundred children are crammed into inadequate facilities as a building project is underway, scheduled to be ready for early 2003, subject to financial releases. Many of the parents hold key governmental and business positions and are keen for their children to learn English, as well as Georgian. This private initiative is a rare opportunity for their children’s futures.
The school director, personally discipled by the Treats, happens to be the wife of Zaza the ambassador. Nino happily testifies to a radical change from the depression resulting from her typically Soviet past, after she met Jesus. Still actively involved in the Orthodox church of her youth (despite her father having been a KGB agent), Nino understands the significant role she now plays in raising a generation enjoying a personal relationship with Jesus.
This generation is Georgia’s hope. After our short visit here, we believe that somewhere God has a role for us as YWAM in shaping that hope too.
Till next week,
director, YWAM Europe