On a warm morning in April, more than 2,500 kilometers away from Beirut, Lebanon, a handful of Nazarenes from Germany, Bulgaria, Moldova, Russia, the USA, and Ukraine joined 15,000 participants at the ‘START’ line of a track in Kyiv, Ukraine. Despite their diversity, the Nazarenes shared one common goal — they were running to raise US$7,000 for the Agape Table Project, which provides hot meals to the children of the Beirut Nazarene School. The group surpassed their goal, raising $9,000 for the project.
The 50 children who attend the Beirut Nazarene school belong to refugee families from the civil war in Syria. Because of their refugee status, they cannot attend a Lebanese school. To minister to children traumatized by their war-torn past, the Nazarene church in Beirut has been providing school and meals for the children over the past year. In October 2015, the ministry was running out of funds. Pastor Andrew Salameh was struggling with the reality that he would have to tell teachers, children, and parents that the doors of the school were closing. In the very midst of those dark moments, an email arrived, bringing hope.
Tanya Cantarella, a Nazarene pastor in Russia, contacted Pastor Salameh with the idea of having a team of Nazarenes that would run in a Kyiv half-marathon to raise funds. She committed that all monies raised would go to Agape Table. It was a lifeline for the Beirut school.
Running for a reason
Last November, sitting together at Eurasia Regional Conference, the Cantarella and Sukanen families, both serving in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Field, began to discuss an idea. Less than six months from that night, Kyiv was scheduled to host a marathon. What if the families would commit to run in the event together? Everyone at the table was willing except for Tanya’s husband, Davide. Running in an organized race was not an activity that he would do for recreation alone. The question was posed to Davide, “What cause would be important enough for you to run?”
He responded, “I would run if it helped Syrian refugee children.” Inspired by that answer, the Nazarene runners joined together to raise money for the Agape Table Project. It was at the same conference that Tanya found one of the key members of the running team: Cindy Phelps, who is serving with her husband, Dick, in Varna, Bulgaria. Now in retirement, the Phelpses have made a home as Mission Corps volunteers in Bulgaria’s seaside city.
Soon, the team of runners was well on its way to meeting their projected goal and the group of runners was growing in numbers and diversity. Tanya connected with friends and colleagues to raise awareness of the refugee situation. As she and her Italian husband, Davide, trained for the marathon during Moscow’s harsh winter. Neither the snow, nor ice, nor sickness managed to stop the couple, who are also parents, from training. The Sukanens, Mission Corps volunteers in Moldova, organized logistics for the team.
Meanwhile, the Phelpses in Varna were getting the word out to friends in the U.S., hoping to stir hearts. Cindy, a child psychologist for 30 years, knew that research demonstrates children cannot learn without proper nutrition. Phelps said the Agape Table Project is an example of the church going back to the roots of Christianity by providing for the social needs of their society. When the day of the race dawned, there were 16 Nazarenes runners amid the 15,000 participants competing in the race. As a team, they were a large presence showing their unity and cause with matching shirts that said “AGAPE TABLE PROJEKT.”
The team was well supported on the sidelines by CIS Field Strategy Coordinator Scott Rainey, his wife Jenni, and their two daughters; Linda Russell from the CIS; Pastor Vladimir and Sylvia Masyuk, and Phelps’s husband, Dick. Moldova church planter Sergey Talalai, who is Ukrainian, brought his Moldovan youth group to Kyiv to be a part of the event.
When asked why she chose to participate in the Kyiv marathon, Phelps said, “Everybody can do something; you just have to have the desire in your heart.”
As the day of races came to a close, weary but elated athletes came together for a celebratory ceremony and the Nazarene team received a baton for participating. Addressing the crowd, Kyle Sukanen spoke for the group, “We did our part of the race, now we pass the baton to the people in Beirut. Continue the race.”