Latvia Then & Now
Aug 19, 2014 | 7 min read | Amy Nickerson
He is only 17. With a cowlick and great sense of humor, Valters seems like your average teenager living in the small town of Priekule, Latvia. He’s been a Christian for a few years now, has “Jesus always loves you!” written on his Facebook cover photo, and enjoys being involved in his local youth group.
Yet he is much more than your average teenager. Valters is a young Josiah, bright-eyed and smiling, with a passion, as the only Christian youth worker in his area, to lead his peers to Christ.
Kelly and Donna Hargan are Josiah Venture’s country leaders in Latvia.
“You could just tell that Jesus was in him,” Kelly says about Valters. “He had a vision for what he was doing. He left School of Leaders and was all gung-ho to apply to our discipleship conference. He comes to our conference in February, and he was busting his seams. His small youth group had just doubled in size in two weeks! He brought one guy with him who had only been a believer for a week.”
Donna captures JV’s feelings about this well, “It’s really cool to see that God has given that kind of light to these kids, even 17 year olds. And they’re the ones who are going to change things in their churches and in the country. Josiahs are out there, we just need to find them.”
JV’s journey to find these young Josiahs in Latvia began back in 2003 when Scott and Lisa Runzo, along with their children, moved to Riga, the country’s capital, to help pioneer JV’s mission among the youth there.
Scott describes this time, “The spiritual climate was very dark, and they were still in the after effects of the cold war. There were no youth leaders to speak of and the youth were stuck trying to find a place in the church that was dead.”
For the next 5 years, they worked hard to form an interdenominational organization dedicated to the task of training Latvian youth leaders and encouraging them to be disciples who make disciples who make disciples.
In 2008, the Runzos left Latvia to pursue other ministry opportunities in the States, but Donna and Kelly Hargan had already joined the team the year prior.
Their church had been bringing short-term teams with JV for a number of years and in 2005, Kelly led a trip to Latvia for the first time. “It was on that trip that I really felt God saying that this was where we were supposed to be. I love developing young leaders, and when I came here I saw both the need for that and the opportunity to work with ministry team students. So I went home and told Donna.”
In 2007, the couple moved to Latvia to step into a support role on the team, then later took on the country leader position.
Despite a history under Swedish rule where 25% of Latvia’s 2 million people claimed loyalty to the Lutheran church, under 5% of Latvians actually had a personal relationship with Christ and building trusting relationships with teens takes time. Finding young Josiahs like Valters in small country like Latvia is not easy.
However, slowly, but surely, God has brought committed Christ followers to the JV Latvia team.
Today, Kelly says proudly that God has brought JV Latvia “the cream of the crop in this culture.” The team has grown to 17 members with 11 of those being nationals with high character level. It is also expecting more growth in future months.
Donna says this is incredible because, “We feel like, and have felt like this for a few years, that things are just about ready to take off. People are open to the Gospel here. They want to hear, and they want to grow once they become believers. They want to have a solid faith, and they want to know what to do when they are working in ministry. It’s just a matter of having enough people on the ground to train them.”
Kelly explains that when the team leans into ministry, they are seeing fruit. “The fields are ripe for the harvest. I see God moving and really drawing young people to Himself.”
This summer the team partnered with eight churches to put on seven evangelistic camps, three of which were Fusion camps.
Fusion, JV’s music ministry, has been really effective in Latvia. Kelly says he’d love to see this expand. “Outside of Fusion, I can’t think of any ministry in the church in Latvia, that is actively reaching the unchurched. None. We have four Fusion choirs that are doing that very effectively, and I want a national team in place that can move that forward.”
Besides Fusion, this year the team is starting a second level of School of Leaders which meets four weekends a year. They also want to continue developing their annual conference that has taken place twice so far with between 70-100 youth leaders attending. Plus, they would also like to see sports ministry start soon.
Another way that the team is hoping to develop more leaders is through a new ministry starting this fall that Kelly is calling Josiah House. As Riga is the center of the country and holds much of the population as well as many of the educational opportunities, the youth ministries will gain momentum in other places but then the top leaders will leave and things fall apart.
Kelly says, “A lot of those leaders come to Riga and aren’t in Christian community and get sucked in by the world away from serving and studying together. Our vision is to create a place where some of those students who are going to school in Riga, that are involved in ministry and are serving somewhere, can come here and live in community, be discipled, disciple others, and be plugged in and serving in specific ministries.”
The hope would be that this fruit would spread as the students mature and go back to their communities and serve as adults.
As the team in Latvia continues to serve faithfully and gain more opportunities to train and encourage young leaders like Valters, pray with us that God would give them the people and resources they need to spread His kingdom.