“Please no more potatoes!” we all pleaded in jest.  It was summer 2010, I was on a missions trip to work with orphans in Estonia.   Our team of 3 Americans and 2 Russian interpreters had our fill of potatoes after being Bread & potatoes!with the orphans for only one week at their summer camp.  I wish I could say we ate them in a wide variety of recipes (think shrimp from Forrest Gump: ‘There’s shrimp kebabs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo, pan fried, deep fried, stir fried…’) but we were not that lucky.  When the orphanage workers served potatoes, they were usually peeled and boiled… I got excited if we could have them with ‘sous’ or ‘smetana’ (syrupy ketchup or sour cream).  Yes, I know Rule #1 of any missions trip is to not complain about anything,  we would just joke about the potatoes… but we kinda meant it too. Winking smile

After spending the first part of our trip at the kids’ summer camp, we returned with them to spend some time with them at their orphanage in town.  I was so excited to be welcomed into their home.  We got a tour of the building, I was very impressed by how blessed the kids are.  Some had their own So many potatoes!bedroom and others shared with one other child their same age.  It was really special to see they had a place to call their own, which is a rarity for most orphans.  The kitchen was kept locked up any time that meals were not being served, so we didn’t get to see it until a little later.  The kitchen was… a kitchen, and I was curious to see what was in the cellar.  I went down a few steps and just started to laugh.  Even more potatoes!!!

Our first full day in the orphanage, our team was asked to cook breakfast, lunch, andLearning how to peel a potato dinner because the cook was taking the day off.  Of course, we said yes, we were there to serve and it was a small orphanage.  How hard could it be to cook for 30 kids? Let me tell you, we were in the kitchen all day!  I guess that explains why being a cook is a full time job. C: For dinner, we were told each person should have 3 of the small potatoes.  It became my job to count, wash, and peel 100 potatoes!  That day I learned how to peel potatoes and felt like I mastered it within a couple hours.  Our potato creationOur translators encouraged us to get creative with the potatoes this time around.  So instead of letting them boil, they came up with the idea of baking them, sliced, with meat, mayo, and cheese on top.   Yes, weird combination, you’ve got to improvise in these kinds of situations.  We were so proud of our creation and many of the kids loved it!

Our time in Estonia quickly came to a close, and we made our way to St. Petersburg, Russia, for the last few days of the trip.  One day while we were there, we spent the entire day, literally since before it opened until after it closed, at The State Hermitage Museum.  One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, housed in 6 historic buildings along the Neva River, the main one being the Winter Palace. Potatoes on Yellow Paper. By Renato GuttusoThere are millions of fascinating things there, but there is one that particularly caught my attention.  As soon as I saw it, I told the others “Oh my goodness, guess what this is!” as I covered up the title of the painting.  They looked at it for a while, made some guesses, and then realized “Oh! It’s potatoes!!!” We had a good laugh.  The painting is “Potatoes on Yellow Paper” by Italian artist Renato Guttuso.  We thought we had left the potatoes in Estonia, but they followed us to Russia.   It was fun to joke, but something the painting stuck with me.  So much so that I purchased a canvas print of it at the Hermitage gift shop and now have it framed and hanging in my apartment. 

Potatoes, potatoes. Who really cares about potatoes?  They are so plain and tasteless.  They are very cheap and seem to be in never-ending supply.  No one really seems to seek them out, crave them, or favor them.  And to top it all off, they seem to be the filthiest things in the grocery store, the skin nearly hidden by the caked-on dirt. 

And in all of that, I see a metaphor.  This painting not only reminded me of my time in Estonia, but came to represent it.  They are the orphans in Eastern Europe that my heart breaks for.  There seems to be no way to really know how many orphans there are because the problem is so prolific.  The children are housed in institutions, nameless and faceless statistics.  They are neglected by their families and communities.  They have dirty, messy lives that people would much rather not know about any of the gritty details of their reality.

But now, when I look at this painting, I see much more.  Potatoes may be plain, but they are nutritious and sustaining.  There are societies around the world that thrive with the potato as their main staple.  They are actually very versatile. I can’t think of another vegetable that is used in so many different ways.  Potatoes are very hardy and can withstand a variety of harsh climates and conditions.

I see hope.  What a beautiful representation of these children.  They may be plain, drowning in anonymity, and seem to have nothing to offer… but there is so much more there.  They have so much potential and talent.  They have dreams and could be used by God in so many different ways.   They have had to weather very difficult circumstances, but their spirits are not broken.  They are resilient, they can still have a future.

Who will meet these children where they are and embrace them in all their dirt and pain?  Who will validate them and help them to see that they are unique individuals?  Who will help them discover their talents and help them find their place in the world?  Who will tell them that they are so dearly loved? Who will share with them about their Heavenly Father who has a purpose and a plan for their lives?

Pray for these children and ask God to send believers to lead them to Him.

To all who mourn in Israel,
      he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
   a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
      festive praise instead of despair.
   In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
      that the Lord has planted for his own glory.
Isaiah 61:3 (NLT)