RIGA, Latvia—Members of First Baptist Church of Longview, Texas, just returned from Latvia, where they built relationships, cared for orphans and led Vacation Bible Schools during a 10-day mission trip.

The group traveled with Buckner Orphan Care International, a ministry of Buckner Baptist Benevolences. Buckner is a Dallas-based agency ministering to children, families and senior adults.

The 25-member team brought smiles to the faces of orphan children, delivering bags of humanitarian aid, shoes and handmade blankets to orphanages.

Buckner’s “Shoes for Orphan Souls” program has distributed more than 1 million pairs of shoes to orphans around the world since 1999.

The group also conducted Vacation Bible Schools at several locations, including four days at a former naval base in Leipaja, which serves impoverished families from the surrounding area. At the Leipaja camp, the team saw numbers swell from 75 children to more than 120 by week’s end as children warmed to their American guests.

Group members led children in recreation, crafts and Bible stories, while giving hugs and individual attention to each child. More than 50 children and adults accepted Christ during the week, including several mothers who brought their small children to the camp.

Overall, the group ministered to 300 children, while creating valuable relationships with government officials, orphanage directors and church members in the nation in Eastern Europe, formerly a part of the Soviet Union.

The trip also marked a successful launch to a relatively new Buckner ministry in Latvia. Well-known for its work in Russia, Romania, Guatemala, China and Kenya, the agency has recently added Bulgaria, Botswana and Latvia to countries it serves.

The mission team included Buckner President Ken Hall, Buckner Orphan Care International  director of operations Jeff Jones and BOCI board chairman Rodney Henry. They spent time in the capital city of Riga, attending the church where several members also serve on BOCI’s Latvia board.

Among dignitaries who met with Buckner representatives were Latvia’s vice premier, minister of social welfare and national representative to the European Union.

“All the officials that we spoke with are evangelicals–or more precisely Baptists–and are very interested and enthusiastic about what we are wanting to do here in terms of orphan care,” Hall said.

“They are very concerned about the recent decisions about the Baptist World Alliance…and are looking to shape their government into a political system that crosses religious boundaries and creates greater relationships between party members.”

Jones said Buckner looks to continue to reinforce those relationships by sending other teams like the group from Longview into orphanages around the country, providing love and humanitarian aid to the children in their care.

“Buckner will continue its ministry in Latvia and expand its mission as we attempt to fulfill the mission of founder R.C. Buckner, whose dream was to help ‘not one orphan child, but all orphan children,'” said Jones.

Robert Cooke Buckner, a Tennessee-born Baptist pastor, founded Buckner Orphans Home in 1879. In 1961, the agency’s charter was changed to Buckner Baptist Benevolences to reflect its wide-ranging services.

The Longview team also made a valuable first impression on many of the Latvian directors in orphanages that they visited in Riga, Leipaja and Tervete.

One of the directors was overheard saying, “It is good to see the children smile again.”

With a population of 2.4 million, Latvia is located between Estonia and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. After a brief period of independence following World War I, it was annexed by the USSR in 1940. It regained its independence when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991.

With 89 congregations, Baptists are the fourth largest denomination in Latvia, behind Lutherans, Catholics and Orthodox, according to government figures from 2002.

Justin Henry is a Baylor University student who worked as a summer intern with Buckner Baptist Benevolences communications department. He is a member of First Baptist Church in Longview, Texas. A daily journal of his mission trip to Latvia is available on Buckner’s Web site.

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