The Adventurous Side I Never Knew

Missionary son returns to childhood home to discover his parents' legacy

Sarah Freyermuth

He grew up as a missionary kid, but 21-year-old Chris Wiewiora never really thought of his mom and dad as more than that, just mom and dad.

To Chris, his mom is a homemaker and part-time seminary student; his dad a quiet copy editor for Cru's magazine, Worldwide Challenge.

Rebels, Trailblazers and Risk Takers

Glad for another opportunity to travel, Chris flew with his father to Poland  for a short trip on college break. Chris had grown up there, along with his older brother Joseph, but his family moved back to America when he was 9. He thought it would be fun to go back.
Chris had no idea the trip would change his perspective of his mother and father into rebels, trailblazers and risk takers. 

His Parents Rose to Challenge of Communist-Gripped Poland

Rich and Ruthie Wiewiora became missionaries with Cru in the late 1970s. As newlyweds, not too many years older than Chris is now, the couple committed to go where few American Christians could go: Poland.

"My parents didn't just live in a foreign country," says Chris. "They were among the first Americans forming the ministry in a Communist state. It was difficult to do."

His father welcomed that difficulty all those years ago. "Building student movements undercover during the Cold War seemed adventurous," says Rich. His own Polish roots and abilities with languages made him a great candidate for the secretive, below-the-radar operation.

While eager to go where others could not, Chris' mom Ruthie didn't share her husband's immediate love of their new home.

"Poland was like a 25-watt bulb," she says. "It was cold, dingy and gray. I felt like I was going from color TV to black-and-white."

For better or worse, husband and wife began their 16-year commitment. They set up life and eventually raised 2 boys, discovering there was a lot more color in Poland than Ruthie first saw.

Comparing Memories to Reality Brings New Perspective

Walking the streets of Warsaw and Krakow with his father on their recent visit in May, Chris began to see things in a different light.

Together they revisited old neighborhoods and ate Polish crepes with soft white cheese filling (a family favorite), but Chris quickly discovered "inaccuracies" in his memories, many due simply to seeing things now through adult eyes.

"Our old house had this metal gate that was so high, it was to the sky," he says. "When we went back, it was only up to my shoulder. My perspective from when I was a kid exaggerated the whole image."

The same might be said of his image of what his parents did. "As a kid, I had no idea what was going on," he says. "I was going to childcare, coloring some papers. I couldn't say what they accomplished."

Others Describe Parents' Enduring Contributions

Up until his trip back, Chris still would have struggled to understand it. Meeting current Polish staff members and other Christian leaders allowed Chris to hear for the first time what his parents had done for others.

These stories revealed Chris' father to be a jack-of-all-trades. Rich met with students on campus to talk about Jesus, training young leaders in evangelism and discipleship. He reviewed  Christian materials translated from English into Polish. He also sang and played guitar at weekly meetings, teaching others to become song leaders.

The Poles spoke about Chris' mother's contributions, as well. Ruthie led English-speaking Bible studies with women wanting to improve their language skills, including wives of foreign businessmen and diplomats from South Korea, Japan and Nigeria.

Stopping to visit a church, founded in part by his parents in 1985, Chris witnessed even more of their legacy. His mom established a connection that still exists today between the church and an orphanage nearby. One of the pastors today calls Ruthie a "mother of the church."

Kids Shielded from Rigors of Missionary Life

Despite the flurry of ministry activity, Chris' attention had focused more on being a kid. He and his brother attended backyard pool parties, rode a snow sled pulled by their dog, Patch, and enjoyed playtime at home.

The carefree childhood lived by Chris and his brother differed from their parents' early experiences with Communist law. Talking to others about Jesus as part of an organized religious group put Chris' parents at risk of deportation.

"Our phones were bugged. Our mail was opened. Informants showed up at our meetings," Rich says.

"One of the ways they would clamp down was to withhold goods," says Ruthie. "The first month, you could get an orange or a chocolate bar. Then there was just tea and vinegar. And one day, there was no tea."

Communism fell in Poland in 1989, but Chris was still in diapers. He had no idea the threats they had lived with, the challenges they had faced, because he grew up with a new freedom. It had changed everything.

 "Within that year, we officially became registered as an organization," Rich says. They immediately made plans for the first national student conference.

Family Returns Home After Passing the Torch

Rich and Ruthie remained faithful to their commitment to Poland for another 7 years after Communism ended. When the Wiewioras finally decided to move back to the United States in 1996, Chris thought a death in the family was to blame. In reality it was time to move on.

Rich and Ruthie knew from the start that the ministry wasn't about them. "You're training leadership to take over," Ruthie says. "You need to work yourself out of a job."

Their ultimate goal of establishing something lasting had been reached, evident in the 100 Polish staff members leading Cru in Poland today. In the beginning, there was only a handful.

To these Polish staff members, Rich and Ruthie Wiewiora are like heroes -- a word Chris used in an e-mail back to his mom during his visit.

And even when Chris still sees Rich and Ruthie as just mom and dad, he can't deny the value of their 16 years in a foreign land.

"This summer I realized how much they really did over there and the importance of their accomplishments," Chris says. "It was amazing to hear how influential they were."

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