Firsthand Report on Central Asia Conference


By Tom Swanson

Heading 13 times zones to the other side of the world, I started reflecting on “the 2nd timer effect.”  Having attended the 2004 Young Life Central Asia Winter Conference, it made me wonder if this year’s conference could match up with a most successful 2004 conference.  The 2004 conference was my introduction to Young Life overseas.  Being somewhat suspect and curious, I wanted to get a sense of the quality of the Young Life work in another part of the world.

My concerns about a second trip began with the exceptionally high bar that was set during the 2004 Conference.  You can read my ’04 reflections in the memories section at

Also, I didn’t want to disappoint my wife Donna who was joining me on this trip.  She was so intrigued by my response to the 2004 trip that she said she would never let me go alone again.  This is our 5th trip together to visit Young Life in the former USSR.

After 30 hours of traveling, we were met at the Almaty, Kazakhstan airport at 1:30 in the morning.  We were nervous getting through customs since we had 4 large suitcases, a stuffed snowboard bag [for which we didn’t have to pay extra: thanks United!], a small carry on suitcase with 6 handmade quilts, a small travel suitcase, Donna’s stuffed purse and my bulging backpack.  Since most of the bags were gifts and things leaders requested, the Lord must have gone before us.  Nobody gave us a second look.  I tried not to look surprised with nobody checking anything.

After battling through the throng of taxi drivers, 8 leaders met us with big smiles and most welcome hugs.  We were staying in S's * flat.  After packing everything up 4 flights of stairs, the table was set and the party started at 2:30.  My immediate impression was that hospitality and friendship are valued.  They really enjoyed being together. We visited and finally got to bed a little after 4 AM!

The next morning we met their 18-month-old son, R*.  R* is a typical busy, curious little boy.  He learned a few new English words, especially while playing with his new “tractor”.  He is a well-behaved little fellow who is deeply loved by his parents.

When we arrived at Amagould, the church and YL office in Almaty, we were met with the busy preparations for the conference, only three days away.  Stuff was everywhere giving the impression of extreme disorganization.  We met many leaders and staff that had all the moving parts under control.  We were constantly introduced to another detail and project.  We had serious doubts if everything would come together.  They just kept smiling and working long and hard.

One of the personal highlights was a pizza party at the new mall with 18 leaders from Almaty. As we listened to their stories and involvement, we were blessed to realize the commitment to Christ and the young people.  Referring to Romans 10: 13-15 [How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!], we said thanks with a little gift of colorful socks to the gals, and normal socks to the guys.  A small gift bringing big thanks.

After a few days of thick fog and a little touring Almaty, we headed up in the mountains to the conference center, a small hotel near the base of a ski resort.  It was valuable to get there early to see the empty meeting room.  The stark, bare room was transformed into an Oriental meeting hall with a huge rising sun as the stage backdrop.  Hand made banners hung from the ceiling and walls, along with lanterns and wall hangings.  They went ‘over the top’ creating an energetic conference.

A powerful moment developed when the leaders and campers started arriving. The worries about getting across the Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan borders did not materialize.  Everyone was celebrating just seeing each other.  The friendships were authentic and genuine. It was most encouraging seeing many leaders from the ’04 conference continuing to love Jesus and young people.

Supper set the tone for every meal. The sense of a loving, caring community came alive.  It was energizing watching and listening to laughter and deep conversation.  With translators, we used every meal to hear the stories of leaders and young people telling their journey of faith, and the Young Life happenings in their communities.  The joy of the Lord was clearly evident.

Surprise, a big surprise is the operating philosophy of YL Central Asia.  They always want young people to say “WOW!”  When everyone entered the meeting room, they were greeted with a 30-foot, handmade Chinese dragon, countless confetti poppers, everyone getting a Chinese hat.
It was a grand start to a great weekend. While not knowing the language, it was exciting to see and hear the energetic laughter.

My strongest memory of the ’04 conference was the beautiful and energetic singing.  I was not disappointed.  The beautiful melody and joyous faces communicated the joy of the Lord in spite of the language barrier.

The morning sessions started with an hour of singing and praying.  The first morning focused on praying for their personal walk with the Lord.   Then they wrote the names of individuals whom they are asking the Lord to draw to Himself.  The slips of paper were then put into a wire screen wall representing the “wailing wall”.  It was a very special time.  The next morning was spent praying for the leadership teams in their city and asking the Lord to lead them into a growing and more effective outreach.

Kung Fu Panda and his assistant made their appearance.  Leaders from Oshkemon in northern Kazakhstan did a terrific job of providing humor and entertainment.  The level of involvement and laughter indicated their success. Skits, contests and outdoor games went late into the night.  Donna and I excused ourselves from the late night activities claiming “jet lag” and old age.

Since the speaking and seminars were in Russian, leaders shared what was said. The main speaker’s focus on how the Lord shapes and empowers vision.  The breakout sessions were for established leaders, and introduction to leadership.  Lee Corder, YL VP for the Northern Hemisphere lead one session for staff and senior leaders.  Gary Parson, Senior VP for YL in the former USSR talked to new leaders about YL always starts and continues with their relationship with Jesus Christ.

The conference came to an end all too soon.  The conference ended about 10 pm.  The 2 busses couldn’t make it the last half-mile to pick up the leaders, so they packed their stuff down to the busses.  The bus drivers decided it was unsafe to transport a full bus down hill, so they left empty.  Everyone hiked back up to camp.  After contacting the vans from Bishkek and some shuffling of folks, we left at 1 am for Bishkek.

Going through customs and passport checks at the Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan border made us appreciate living in the USA.  At 5 am it still was a busy place.  Getting to Bishkek meant getting most of the leaders into taxis, and getting to bed at S’s* flat at 7 am.  So much for a good night’s sleep

S and L's* flat was a little disorganized.  Gary Parson had spent 5 days in Bishkek before the conference.  Seeing a need, he helped move kitchen furniture and purchased new linoleum for the kitchen and hall.  Donna quickly got involved and S’s* mom helped get the new wallpaper installed.  Noticing L’s* sink was hanging by the faucets and propped up by a stick, Donna took her to the bazaar and ordered a new sink and cupboards. Imagine a sink, stove, refrigerator, washing machine, table and chairs in an 8x8 kitchen. From an American viewpoint, it was small, crowded, but it was neat, full of love and the joy of the Lord.

We enjoyed their 2-year-old daughter, N*.  She is a beautiful, bright, exceptionally busy little girl. It was once again a joy to see loving caring parents.

S* and L* attended the YL in the former USSR Labor Day weekend at Woodleaf.  They visited us in Idaho, sharing their story with friends and churches.  When they left, S* knew he would not have a clubroom and was excited to see what the Lord would do.  Having befriending young people at a local orphanage, the director became friends with S* and helped connect him with a school principal.  The outcome was free use of a bigger room in the middle of Bishkek for three years.  What an answer to prayer!

A significant part of the story is that leaders and friends in Bishkek raised the first $1,000.  S’s* friend had sold his car and loaned Stass $2,000 to be repaid by S* from his regular rent budget.  A credit to their commitment and creativity.  Wait till you see pictures of their remodel.  The quality of the work is excellent.  They are looking forward to finishing the kitchen, office, computer room and sleeping loft.

S*, leaders and club kids are doing all of the work on the remodel.  A special friend H* has been volunteering full time to help remodel the clubroom and S's* apartment.  The workmanship is excellent.  They were excited to get some more materials so they can keep working.

One day we took a lunch break S* and H*.  We kept getting further and further off onto bad streets and alleys.  We finally stopped at a Korean restaurant.  S* and H* ordered a “dog” stew.  Even for them it was extremely hot and spicy.  Maybe the pulled a fast one on gullible Americans, but the swore it was dog.

We had a special visit with 9 Kyzyl Kiya leaders and students. They were about to leave on a 12-hour bus ride home. They live in a town with only a few hours a day of electricity and cold, running water.  A few spoke broken English, but we did see the joy of the Lord in their lives.

We had a brief visit to the local orphanage that S* visits every Thursday.  The director and psychologist were informative hosts and very much appreciate S's* friendship and faithfulness.  Several older kids at the orphanage attend club.

We had supper at a very popular local restaurant.  S* said they make the best ‘saschleek” in town.  That is Central Asia shish kebabs.  We had beef, chicken and lamb: very, very good!  During the meal Donna caught my eye and asked if I had tasted a certain salad.  I said I had and she gave me “the look”.  They she said that it was made with beef tongue.  So much for adventures in wild Central Asia dining.  I survived.

When were we asked why we were going to Central Asia our answer was always, “the special friends we know there”.  We return being blessed by knowing certain friends much better, and a whole group of new friends.  We have already had several emails in very broken English and several skype conversations with dear friends.  It brings special joy to be with members of God’s loving family.

Last time I went to Central Asia to lead a seminar and see if I could help.  Returning home, I realized I had been the student.  Once again, we return the students having learned some wonderful lessons.

Living with staff in their flats, and spending so much time with leaders, we return especially blessed.  The two staff couples are a great example of a loving, caring supportive couple, being effective young parents.  They are teachers and cheerleaders to their leadership team by word and deed.  They live out the joy of Jesus in a challenging, very different culture.

They never let what they don’t have, or can’t do stop them from doing what they can.  We found the leadership family to be optimistic, loving and full of energy.  They know the best of Jesus and the best of Young Life and are making strategic inroads into the culture of young people.  The battle the perception of being a “Christian cult” and must be careful of political and religious restrictions. 

They take the Great Commission to heart and “Go!”  They are making an eternal difference in the lives of many young people.  Second generation leaders are befriending others and the network keeps growing, both wide and deep.  Young Life in Central Asia is in good hands.  God continues to lead, bless and use their efforts to reach young people for Christ.


Young Life Former Soviet Union Div | 420 N Cascade Ave Colorado Springs, CO 80903-3325

Phone: (719) 381-1774

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