Tarzier Memoirs

Part III Two Decades of Freedom



Our youth work, the Sunbeams, started from scratch in the decade of the 30’s. The program grew in response to a need my wife Olga perceived in the community, shortly after I accepted the pastorate of the ailing Golgotha Church. Olga noticed that a number of youngsters regularly loitered in and around the church property. They seemed quite aimless. They played with matches, tossed pebbles, or sat on the sidewalk. In other words, they were ripe for trouble. Olga befriended them, and as she gained their confidence she learned that several came from Baptist families, which explained why they happened to hang out near the church. The parents had ceased participating in church activities because of harsh treatment by the church leaders. In fact, some families had been expelled from the church by the “holier than thou” faction.

Olga wanted to help the youngsters and hopefully bring their families back into the fold. As was her practice, she sought advice in prayer. The children were not interested in Sunday school as such, and in any case Olga felt they needed more than two hours on Sunday. By then I had become involved in the project. The very first thing Olga and I did was to organize a choir. Bible study followed, made attractive with quizzes and prizes, then sewing classes for the girls while the boys formed a choir. We eventually created a uniform, white shirts and gray pants for the boys, white blouses and gray skirts for the girls. The boys’ choir became quite good. Ansis Schwalbe, the director of the choir, was a very effective leader. Someone called him “general to the wind,” because of his muddled thinking, but he nevertheless became quite an asset to the Sunbeams.

In addition to the choir we also formed a small orchestra, at the initiative of Arvids Purvs. A talented young fellow, he had already lined up four or five young musicians, and one day he requested my permission to make his instrumental group more official. I personally loaned them several instruments, including a clarinet, cello, cornet, and violin, and the “orchestra” was on its way. It eventually grew into a regular group of about twenty. Their music was very popular with the congregation.

Our next move was to create a summer camp. It was customary in Latvia to send boys to the country to work as shepherds during summer, to spare them idleness and bad company in the city, and to bring in a little money for the family. But one comment from the parents was that the months of unsupervised summer work turned the children into little savages. In response to this need, we established a Sunbeams summer camp. We found a suitable spot some 70 km from Riga, in the central part of Vidzeme-Liveland, not too far from the Ramuli railroad station. We ran it as a combination of Bible study and work camp. The children worked four hours a day in the fields, two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. The work consisted of clearing pine tree stumps from a newly established small farm and splitting the stumps for firewood. As a veteran of the independence war, the new farmer had free use of the land, provided he use it for farming. To make the work easier for the boys, the Agriculture Department loaned us stump pulling equipment.

From these beginnings, learning as we went, we developed a complex organization. We divided boys and girls into separate households, each with its own leader. The household leaders in turn participated in the governing body or council, with Olga as chairperson and three adults as her assistants. They held monthly meetings when the heads of households brought in problems or suggestions to meet the needs of the children. The youngsters eagerly participated in decision-making, and every one had his or her area of responsibility. Membership in the Sunbeams grew to almost one hundred boys and girls between the ages of eleven and sixteen, approximately forty boys and sixty girls.

Not everybody approved of the Sunbeam effort. Some church members thought it was not proper to let “unsaved souls” hold programs in the church. I remember one complainer, a tall woman with a voice like a trombone. She did not like all the attention on the children. She was a problem during services, too. I don’t think she knew how to say “Amen.” We encouraged spontaneous prayer in our less formal Sunday morning services, but she monopolized the floor and prayed on and on, giving no chance for anyone else to pray. I managed the situation as best I could, usually by breaking into a hymn: “Into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” The congregation would soon join me and soon we’d all get up from our knees and declare the prayer session over, whether or not she was finished. I regret, though, that I made no effort to find out more about her. Who knows what her family life was like.

Our work earned the attention of the president of Latvia, Karlis Ulmanis. He promised a personal visit to us during his next trip to Vidzeme. We also learned, through his representative, that he intended to buy all the firewood we produced, to heat his personal residence in the coming winter. As an incentive, he promised a new woolen suit and a pair of shoes to every boy in the camp. The boys were delighted at the thought of new clothes, not to mention the official attention. With the rapid expansion of the Sunbeam movement, which now numbered almost one hundred youth, we even spawned imitators. Other churches began to provide for their youth, and even tried to compete with the Sunbeams. As for us, we began to dream big dreams. We wanted to buy a run-down house next to the church, to be used as a sports building. Our humble efforts were beginning to pay off handsomely.

However, our experiment was soon to end. On Sunday, October 5, 1939, Stalin sent his henchman Molotov to deliver an ultimatum to the Baltic countries. We were to “request protection” by the Soviet Union and to welcome the arrival of Communist tanks. President Ulmanis returned to Riga in a hurry and never got around to visiting the Sunbeam camp. On that Sunday we met for a service in the local town hall. The hall was packed to hear the boys’ choir, as well as two visiting ministers, but the occasion was bittersweet. Everybody knew that evil days were upon us. Olga and I and the visiting pastors took the evening train back to the capital. The first orders from the occupying forces disbanded all youth organizations and prohibited any work with youth. The Sunbeam camp was padlocked and the children returned to their parents. Thus ended our ten years of love and work.

Latgale Characters

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