Ella Myer has seen the beauty of God’s hand at work in ways many Americans will never experience.
The 26-year-old, who has served as an ELCA missionary in Lithuania since 2013, works at LCC International University (formerly Lithuania Christian College), a Christian liberal arts university founded immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Myer is a member of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Wheaton, Ill.
As the Intercultural Education Coordinator and director of the Community Multicultural Awareness Program, it is Myer’s mission to “build bridges between people from different cultures, especially those with difficult histories,” she said.
One of her favorite success stories demonstrates just that.
Two years ago, an LCC student from Russia flew her country’s flag in the window of her dorm room. A Lithuanian man walking by campus saw the flag and became “really distressed and upset, which you can understand,” Myer said, as the two countries have a war-torn history.
The man contacted a newspaper that wrote an inflammatory article questioning the intentions of LCC and its students, with words like “spies” floating throughout the story.
“The students reacted better than I [could have] hoped,” Myer said. “A lot of students responded by putting their own [native country’s flag] in their window [to say], ‘Our Russian friends have just as much a right to be proud and support their culture that we have.’”
In an ironic twist, the Russian student’s roommate was Ukrainian, Myer said. But instead of spreading animosity, the Ukrainian student displayed her country’s flag in her window, right next to the Russian flag, and the two students drew a heart connecting their country’s flags.
“It was so beautiful to watch it unfold,” Myer said. “My office didn’t make that happen, but we’re working toward building a community that would react that way.”
“Especially in our world today, which is so depressing with the terrorism and the hatred, I keep doing this work because I think ultimately that global climate of hatred is not the ultimate story and not where God is going to lead us,” she added. “I’ve seen students change for the better as they’ve grown up and learned to care for other people.”
From U.S. to Lithuania
It might seem strange to some that a young woman from central Pennsylvania would choose to become a missionary in Lithuania, a country many Americans falsely believe is in Africa, due to its yellow, green and red-striped flag–common African colors.
But those that know Myer best have not been surprised by her call.
From a young age, Myer had a strong faith coupled with an interest in Eastern Europe. She studied Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College in Illinois, earning a master’s degree in Intercultural Studies and Missions there as well.
“I knew that whatever I wanted to do with my life, it would be with God,” she said. “If God truly exists, then a meaningful life would be in service to God.”
When the ELCA Global Mission posted the job opening for someone to run the intercultural programs at LCC, all the pieces seemed to fall together–for Myer and the university.
“At LCC, we believe that it was God’s plan to start this type of institution right after the collapse of the Soviet Union where faith was forbidden,” said Margarita Pavlovič, vice president of student life at LCC. “There have been many miracles along the way that have accompanied our existence, and one of them is recruitment of our staff and faculty. We always pray for the right people who can not only push the institution forward but also impact out students in a positive way, share the way of living a Christian [life] with others, and share the good news to those who might not even be aware of [it].”
Myer has been key to the campus’s successes, not only as an educator providing cross-cultural programming, but also as a mentor who listens, supports, advises and challenges students, said Pavlovič.
“She is highly respected by our faculty and staff and her expertise is used widely where our multicultural context needs to be understood deeper,” she said. “… Ella is absolutely the right person to do the job she was sent by God to do.”
Pushing through the difficulties
Success stories don’t negate the hard times.
Language barriers top the list of difficulties Myer has encountered, particularly as there are no English-operating churches in LCC’s home city of Klaipėda.
“It’s just hard to worship and learn always in a foreign language, especially for someone who grew up so engaged in church and has ideas about these things, and not be able to express that and participate,” she said. “It’s humbling.”
Sometimes it’s not a language barrier, but the topic of conversation that has proven difficult.
The war in Ukraine began when Myer first began at LCC, and Ukrainian students wanted to talk about what was happening in their country.
With Russian students at the same university, the larger question was, “How can we still be a community even though we have students who are from countries at war with each other?” Myer said.
Myer has tackled those issues by mentoring a team of intercultural student leaders and creating cultural nights–or Independence Day celebrations–to celebrate and recognize the cultures of the 28 different countries represented at LCC.
“We … say, ‘Hey, we know it’s your country’s special holiday … would you come share with us about where you’re from? Cook us some of your food, share your [customs],’” Myer said.
Cultural nights have become some of the most popular and well-attended events at the university, Myer said, bringing together professors and students of all backgrounds.
Finally, simply broaching the subject of faith has been a difficult task.
Most LCC students are not Christian, coming from post-Communist countries, Myer said. For some, she will be one of the first Christians they meet.
But she can’t just talk about God.
“Eastern Europeans are slower to build relationships with,” she said. “You might call it closed, but I call it slower. And that is so crucial when you are sharing faith with them. [I can’t say], ‘Hi, my name is Ella, do you know about Jesus?’ They wouldn’t trust you. They wouldn’t respect you. You need to be friends first, because … faith is not only private, it is the most private part of a Lithuanian’s life … . In order to have those types of conversations with people, you must be in a relationship with them.
Myer’s personality and training, however, have molded her to become a person many students have learned to trust, Pavlovič said.
“Ella is a deep thinker, empathetic and loving person,” she said. “I have always been impressed with her genuine interest in other people[‘s] lives, cultures, and history. There is so much ‘under the water’ when you try to understand where another person is coming from, why he believes what he believes, acts a certain way, and say[s] certain things. Only these long-term, strong relationships that you take time to build allow you to have conversations about the meaning of [life] and Jesus.”
Embracing diversity and faith
When others hear her story–and they do hear it, because Myer has to raise her own salary by visiting churches and relaying her mission, hoping others will support her–she has one wish.
“My hope is … they’ll think more broadly about the church and who their brothers and sisters are and what their needs are – that they would care more deeply, allow others to shape them and see that God is bringing people together,” she said. “This idea that God is not only reconciling people to God, but also reconciling people to each other … we can be really enriched by other cultures.”
“In Revelation, it talks about people from every tribe and every tongue and every nation coming before the throne and worshiping God together,” she added. “That is so beautiful to me. They bring with them their diversity.”
Fast facts about Lithuania and LCC International University
- The Republic of Lithuania lies along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea in northern Europe, bordered by Poland, Belarus, Latvia and Kaliningrad Oblast (a Russian exclave).
- The population of Lithuania was approximately 2.9 million in 2015.
- From 1940 to 1990, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and again by the Soviet Union.
- In 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare itself independent.
- Student enrollment at LCC is approximately 600, with 40 percent from Lithuania and 60 percent international.
- Staff and faculty at LCC are Christians from Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox backgrounds. Many expats work at LCC and are missionaries through different churches. There also are many Lithuanian and European staff and faculty.