That was a very difficult spring – including getting head lice while volunteering at the homeless mission – but somehow all of that only reinforced the rightness of going. There have been few things in my life that I have been as certain of as I was about going on that trip. I never doubted for even an instant that this was something I was called to do. You know how when you are making a decision about something major, how you weigh the pros and cons and consider the sacrifices versus the benefits and you contemplate if it is what you really want/need? I am usually big for making a list and thinking things through like that but this decision was nothing like that. As soon as I knew I had been accepted to the team, I knew it was the right thing.
I had always wondered what people meant when they said that God had called them to do this or that. I wondered how they knew. Different people had told me different things...one man I knew said that when he was called to be a pastor, it was as if a voice had spoken to him, like a loud whisper directly into his ear. Another person told me that it was like a warmth in her heart, like a rush. I guess for me, it was just a sense of peace, of right-ness and pure joy. I can’t explain it better than that; just that I knew and I never doubted it was where I should be and what I should be doing.
When at last the time came to go, we flew from San Francisco to Odessa, via New York and Vienna. It was a long trip (if I remember correctly, it was about 50 hours from leaving SF until arriving in Odessa.) We were tired and a little anxious, uncertain about what lay ahead. When we landed in Odessa, our plane stopped in the middle of the runway for no apparent reason. Ray, who was our associational director of missions and had been to the area several times, explained to us that the land amidst the runways and on the airport property was used by airport employees for growing fruits and vegetables and for raising livestock. We were stopped in the middle of the runway because someone was herding sheep from one grassy patch in the middle of the runways to another across the way. It was the first of many odd little things none of us had ever experience in the US.
The Ukraine had become an independent nation in December 1991: from communist state to independent republic literally overnight. All of the sudden, people were free to come and go in ways most of them had never experienced. People were able to worship in new ways and talk openly about politics and religion and whatever else they saw fit. In the summer of 1995, politically, things were still largely unsettled and the people of the Ukraine were still finding their national identity (still are to a degree, today, from what I understand. I can’t even imagine what it is like to wake up one day and be a brand new country.) In the midst of all sorts of uncertainty, the people I met there were some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. If you were to press me for one single reason I want to go back to the Ukraine it would be the people.
At that time the economy was really unstable – for instance, a hand embroidered table runner I bought for my mother in Kherson cost more than 1,000,000 Ukrainian coupons…about $11US – and there was a pretty good chance that if you were exchanging money on the streets, you were probably dealing with the mob. The international airport we flew into had chickens and dogs wandering around loose in the terminals and pay toilets consisting of a large tiled room with a series of holes cut in the floor lined up along the wall. (As you might imagine, your thigh muscles get strong fast when you have to literally squat every time you have to go.) Each place we visited, we stayed in the homes of church members in that particular town. Most of the places we stayed didn’t have any electricity or indoor plumbing but the people were wonderful and kind and generous.
We spend one Sunday afternoon with a church group in a small town where, after worship service, we all walked down to the waterfront and watched some people being baptized in the Black Sea. In another village, we met a man who’d spent 30 years in Siberia because he had been caught conducting a Christian worship service in his living room in the early sixties. When I met him in August of 1995, he had been back in his hometown for about a year and had only just met his grown daughter, who was 3 when he was arrested and had lived her whole life thinking her father was dead. A few days later in a different town, we visited a Russian Orthodox church that had been built by Catherine the Great but during Soviet years had been used as a meeting place for visiting KGB officers.
I met people there who had suffered heartache and persecution and need that I cannot even fathom. People who had never even experienced electricity much less had it in their homes. People who used outhouses and didn’t have refrigeration and grew most of their own food and drank their morning milk just minutes out of the cow. Women who made all of their family’s clothes – and not as a hobby, but as a necessity. People who generously opened their homes to us, because they believed in the work we were doing, even when they were barely able to make ends meet without extra American mouths to feed.
I have been a Christian since I was 8 years old but I have never lost a friend because of my faith. I have never witnessed anyone being persecuted for their faith. I have never had to lie about my faith in God in order to save my life or the life of someone I loved. I have never had to memorize scripture for fear that I would be imprisoned if caught with a bible. I’m not sure that, faced with such situations, I could boldly profession my love for Christ. It was humbling and inspiring and truly life changing.
The purpose of this trip was for us to help with building and improvement projects these churches had going and to share our faith and knowledge of God with the people we encountered there. And we did do those things; but more than that, we were the ones who were blessed. My life was changed by the quiet faith and love I witnessed in these peoples lives. By the sincere joy people took in their families and their churches and the little freedoms and blessings we so often take for granted. I was moved by the people who came to the revival services we participated in and shared their stories. It was humbling to see men who walked miles to work in the morning, worked 10 hour days in a factory and then walked home, happily exhausted, to play with their children and carry water up from the river so the family could cook and bathe.
So the short answer, and maybe the cop-out answer in some people’s minds, is that I believe in my heart that this is work that the Lord is calling me to do. I believe that maybe, just maybe, this kind of work in this place, are the reason I was put on this earth. Never for even one moment in the last 13 years have I doubted that I would go back to the Ukraine. Ask anyone who has known me for more than just a little while and they will tell you that I have always talked about returning. I believe that by going there I am serving the God I love and – I hope – making some small difference in the lives of his people. I don’t know what exactly this trip holds in store for me but I hope that by going, the lives of the orphan children or some of the people in the village or some of the people I meet while I am there will be better for my having been there. I do know that whatever happens, I won’t regret going.
A lot of people have asked me why I am making this trip to the Ukraine. And every time anyone asks, I think the answer has probably been a little different. Not because I don’t know why or that the reasons have changed…just that I have found it nearly impossible to articulate. I hope maybe now I have been able to.
(All of these pictures are from my last visit, with the exception of the Lenin statue. I couldn’t find a picture of my own – though I know I took a million of them – so I found that one on Google Images. Everywhere we went, there were statues of Lenin and on little hillsides and grassy knolls, you would see wooden or metal letters: “Ленин с нами” …. “Lenin is With Us”. Echoes of the Soviet era. That particular statue above is in the main square in Kherson.)