My first question was, 'where in the world is Abkhazia?'
“Rob, what’s your calendar look like in mid-July?” my OM Canada mission director asked. “Well, it’s pretty clear,” I replied.
“How would you like to join a small missions team from your hometown going to Abkhazia?” my director queried further.
“Umm. I can pray about it. But … where in the world is Abkhazia?”
Thus began my Abkhazian mission adventure this summer.
Abkhazia is a little-known region east of the well-known city of Sochi, Russia, on the Black Sea. Sochi too was little-known in the West before it was chosen to host the 22nd Winter Games in February 2014.
Technically, Abkhazia is still part of the country of Georgia to its east. Realistically, it’s under the control of Russia, its huge neighbour to the north and west. The region considers itself independent, but is only recognized by Russia and a few small countries. As for religion, most Abkhazians are Eastern Orthodox.
Abkhazia hugs 240 kilometres of the north-east shore of the Black Sea. Its climate is sub-tropical and its coastal soil is fertile. As a result, it produces an abundance of palm and fruit trees, tea plantations and lush vegetation. One million Russian tourists (and a few Canadians like us) flock to visit its beautiful lakes, rugged Caucasus mountains and long gravelly beaches on the Black Sea.
In fact, during the Soviet era it was more prosperous than Russia. As the western province of the Republic of Georgia, its temperate climate, natural resources and location on the Black Sea attracted tourism, industry and trade. Today, it’s a different story.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and a bloody two-year civil war (1992-93) between Abkhazia and Georgia, the country was devastated. It was common for us to see bullet holes and shrapnel scars on buildings. The population plummeted when most of the Georgian residents fled. Now a quarter-century later, it is slowly recovering thanks to Russian aid and tourism, which props up the economy. Russian is the main language spoken, although Abkhazian is the official language.
Our destination was the area closest to the Georgian border. It had borne the brunt of the civil war. Several cities are called “Dead Cities” now with small populations and numerous buildings (homes, factories, train stations) abandoned, overgrown with vegetation and overrun by animals.
But there is hope and spiritual life in these dead places. Small church families have emerged which worship God, share the good news of God’s love and salvation, and help the needy. Vibrant, mission-minded Canadian churches are partnering with some of these young, struggling Abkhazian congregations. Making that connection was the purpose of our trip.
By the way, Abkhazia means “land of the soul”. In spite of its sad, recent history, God is at work changing the lives of the people there. As precious souls are saved, lives, families and communities are being transformed.
Rob Weatherby joined OM (Operation Mobilization) in 1982. The inter-denominational mission is active in 110 countries, operates an ocean-going book ship (Logos Hope) and has its Canadian office in Port Colborne, Ont.