Tom Popelka Ministries hasn’t missed a trip to Russia since 1994 — but it will this year because of COVID-19 and other factors, according to a newsletter sent by the Thomas Popelka Evangelistic Association Inc.
This year the group can’t go to Kurgan Oblast because the Russian embassy isn’t open, the U.S. borders are closed and no European nations will let a U.S. plane land because of COVID-19 — so the trip will be postponed until later.
What won’t be postponed are the distribution of goody bags to 1,250 children. Funds are needed to purchase the bags’ contents for 1,200 because the ministry group has 50 left over from last year, Popelka said. Because of the flu epidemic, the group couldn’t go into the children’s hospital.
This year is the 18th one for the Christmas ministry project that started in 2002, inspired by a shoe box gift delivery in 2000 by Samaritan’s Purse. The children at school were so excited to get something for Christmas that school had to be cancelled, Popelka said.
“The children are like bees buzzing around each other. It is like pandemonium at school,” he said. “There is no reigning those kids in and they’re so appreciative.”
According to Popelka, the children will keep the toys and put them in their windows.
“It’s really hard to describe the looks on their faces. It’s usually the only gift they will receive at Christmas,” he said.
In its first three years, only two orphanages received goody bags with a pound of loose candy, a giant chocolate bar, two packages of cookies, two pieces of fruit — an apple and orange — and a toy. Then small villages were added to take the Gospel to the children. A puppet show with a Christmas message, Christmas songs, the Christmas story, and a Christmas drama were presented. Then a message including an invitation to accept Christ was given.
“A new generation is being brought to Christ by the Gospel,” Popelka said, adding that two churches, seven villages, a school for special needs children and a children’s hospital were added to the ministry project.
The children want to know why Americans who don’t know them send them presents and candy, and that is a perfect door for sharing the Gospel, he said.
In one remote village, a child held up an orange and asked what kind of apple it was.
“It’s a different world in those villages,” Popelka said.
However, $24,000 must be raised for the project — $10 each for the goody bag contents and $10 for the toy.
Currently, donations are slow and so is monthly giving — and the goals have increased with the number of ministry locations, too, Popelka pointed out. But no goal has ever been missed.
Funds are needed before Oct. 30 to pay for the Christmas ministry project, and Cristina Matkina, Popelka’s interpreter in Russia, will buy the contents this year for the goody bags. Matkina is a full-time staff member who takes care of things when Popelka isn’t there.
“Anyone and everyone can donate. It’s $20 per child. You can donate for one or more children. We’re a 501(c)(3),” Popelka said.
“It’s a gift that will be loved by the kids,” he said. “It will touch lives.”
Funds may be donated to Thomas Popelka Ministries, which is located at 4311 S. 31st St., Ste. 150, in Temple.