I’m sure this is a common thought in the mind of people who work with orphans and troubled kids.It’s that wish that you could just buck the whole orphanage system, take the kid home and give him a decent family yourself.Not that the idea is always practical or possible.Well ha, I’m actually going to do it this time.
Long time supporters have heard my stories about a gypsy kid named Sasha.In my “fresh off the airplane” days, I went to an orphanage in the middle of nowhere in western Ukraine.All around me were children speaking some combination of Ukrainian and Hungarian.And then there’s this kid who’s spent his entire life in the orphanage, except he’s speaking English.Nobody around him, teacher or student, had his grasp of the language.Clearly, this kid has a gift.
We ran a camp for them that summer, and at age 14, Sasha asked if I would be his “Tato,” the Ukrainian word for daddy.I spent several days reasoning with him.A guy who visits once in while is not a real father.There’s a heavenly Father who really loves you that you can speak to at any time.I live 16 hours away and I’m just not able to give you the physical and emotional support you need.He said, “Yes, I understand all that.But will you be my Tato?”
That was the beginning of our friendship, formed mainly by cell phone and tri-annual visits.He often was my translator for my work there at his orphanage or talking to the staff there. But six months ago, I found out the Sasha was graduating from the orphanage this summer.His dream is to make translation his career, but his opportunities are too few, with no family, no job, and living in a village.
My original intention was to just take him in myself.But I prayed about it, and asked for wisdom from my leaders, and people who watch over my life.As a result, I felt like God spoke to me several times, “I haven’t called you to be a single parent.”
I took this as a “no” from heaven.But as I let it go and went on with my life, Sasha kept coming back up in my prayer time.Did I hear God clearly?I didn’t have a release to “adopt” him, but I didn’t have the release to close the door either.Somehow I was missing a piece/peace.
I ended up taking it to my team, Key of Hope. As a ministry, we’d already taken two kids from another orphanage.We are like a family.So I shared my heart with them and asked, “I can’t do this by myself.Would you be willing to take Sasha as a team?Pray about this.Understand that it will affect how we do things, especially me as a leader, and as his mentor.”
I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this if the answer wasn’t “yes.”
I called Sasha to let him know he had a home to come to and you should have heard him celebrate.Every single day he calls me to thank me and to pray with him and dream about the future.Sometimes he cries because he’s so grateful.What a cool kid.
So now I’m in the process of creating a kind of objectives list for the next three years.In addition to teaching him lifeskills and discipleship, we’re going to help continue his education.Did you know he can get a university education in Kyiv, Ukraine for less than $400 a year?
I’ll have more to share about all of this as I come home February 24th.This is leading to the next big chapter of our ministry hear.We’ve got super big plans, not just for Sasha, but for kids like him.But that’s for another update.
Last week I was with Key of Hope in Uzhgorod, a city in western Ukraine. It’s so beautiful in the Ural mountains. From Kyiv, it’s a sixteen hour trip by train which to me is very relaxing and enjoyable. I even sleep well on the train. But then, as they say, I have the gift of sleep.
We weren’t there for sightseeing. We have a long standing relationship with an orphanage in Uzhgorod. There are 78 children there, many of them “special needs” kids, and most of them gypsies. We put together goodie bags for all of them. Each child got a sweater and a winter hat, as well as toys, some school supplies, candy, and a toothbrush. All the gifts came from donations, either directly, or things we bought with financial contributions. Thanks to all of you who gave for the kids.
Between our different programs and skits, I played Santa Claus, one of King Herod’s court, and a sheep. Such is the world of small teams and improvisational theatre. Weirdly enough, the lamb was the only part I didn’t need a costume for. Would’ve been a perfect set up for a joke about a Wolf in sheep’s clothing.
This trip we visited a gypsy village called Holmok. One of the girls from our team has permanently settled there to work in the gypsy village. She’s teaching the children to read and write in Russian. The needs in this village are immense. Most of us had never seen this kind of poverty.
Some feel that, as a whole, the children in the orphanage are better off then the kids in their families in the village. In the orphanage, children are having physical needs met and get a better education. In the village, some of the kids are suffering abuse and neglect. Obviously I haven’t seen this for myself, but I could see the condition of their housing and lack of clothing. I know for a fact that in the past, gypsy families have dropped their kids off at the orphanage.
Christmas in Kyiv is tough on a certain level, because I’d rather be home with my family. No family is perfect, but it’s hard to imagine that a family can be so hard up and dysfunctional that you’re better off living in an orphanage. Emotional needs aren’t being met.
Every family tree has a few nuts. Perhaps you have extended family that you really don’t want to face this holiday season. Say a prayer of thanks. At least you have a family to deal with, and a home to come back to. No exaggeration. In my world, that’s a valuable commodity.
When I was a kid, I had the idea in my head that I didn’t like Butterfinger candy bars. I think I misunderstood the wrapper’s meaning. Between the name and the yellow packaging, I equated the product to a chocolate covered stick of butter. Mmm yum. At some point, of course, I ate one and realized the truth. While I don’t go out of my way shopping for them, I like Butterfingers just fine. In fact, if I came across one here in Kyiv, I’d buy it if only to show off to my American friends.
I work with kids who have been given a sort of misleading label. We’ve recently been working with a new orphanage. In a village just outside of Kyiv, there’s a boarding school meant for orphans with special needs. In the old days, it was a Pioneer camp, a center for training the next generation of communists. Weird to think about that, especially when I’m using their stage. Clearly, there are children here with severe learning disabilities. But many more seem as normal as any kids you’d see in public school or a neighborhood playground. In some ways, these kids are exceptional; extremely open and loving. It’s my favorite ministry location in Kyiv so far. I’ve noticed the kids to be unusually kind to each other. There is one girl who is mentally retarded and didn’t understand that she needed to wait in line for her snack. One of the big boys close to the front of the line pulled her gently in place in front of him. Nobody pushed her away or yelled at her. They understood she needed help and they gave her first class treatment. A few weeks ago we were teaching the kids that God had plans for them. I encouraged them to “dream big dreams,” because God has great things for them. One of the workers told Vicki, from our team, “This is a good teaching, but not for these kids. They shouldn’t dream. They’re invalids.”
Vicki said, “Not all of them. They act like “normal” kids.” “No,” the worker said, “all of them are invalids.”
Now I’m not saying that every kid who dreams of becoming an astronaut or football star will become that if they only follow Jesus. I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid, and my work is… um… significantly different. But the ability and desire to dream is even more important than having them come true. With my dream, I had the motivation to explore that dream and the next one, and the next one. Somewhere I learned that I liked orphans more than killer whales, and here I am. And I’m convinced God’s direction was moving me through different dreams.
Orphans need to know that they have a hope and a future. They may target the moon, and only get to parliament (still not finding intelligent life) but it’s better than aiming for street sweeper because that’s all you think you can do. Most people live far below their created purpose because of what they believe about themselves and ultimately what they think about God.
My big emphasis with these children is, “Don’t believe what people say about you. What does God say about you? He’s your Designer.” Here’s what the Bible says. You’re not a tail-less monkey, but you’re made in His image. You’re valuable not because of your grade point average, or adopt-ability, or computer hacking skills. You’re valuable because you’re designed by the King of the Universe, in His likeness and adored and understood by Him.
I just needed one person to show me that a Butterfinger wasn’t Oleo coated in chocolate. One person to break one open it and convince me to “taste and see that” the candy bar was good. That’s why I believe that over time, we’ll change the course of many lives just by taking off the label.
So far as I understand, as a visa holder, I must either register with the government or cross the border every six months. Since registration is $250, and crossing the border is about $50, I have always chosen the latter. Besides, who wants to give the government a bunch of info about yourself? In border crossings, however, sometimes things don’t go as you expect. Here’s what happened recently as I attempted cross the Ukraine/Moldova border with my roommate Lance.
“Documents,” the border guard said. I handed him my passport with the visa and immigration card inside. He examined them slowly. “I’m sorry, you cannot cross the border,” he told me. “Why not?” “You don’t have the documents.” “What documents? “Documents. More documents.” (I wished my Russian was better.) “ I’ve lived in Kyiv two years and this is all I’ve ever needed.” I told him. “No, I need documents.” “Here is my driver’s license? Does that help?” He examined it closely and looked at me. “No. You need to get off the train.” He even did the “slit the neck” gesture. The conductor behind him looked at me sympathetically. We were sort of friends because I had made her laugh earlier.
I knew I’d be stuck if I got off the train. There would be some sort of fine, and I had no idea what my next move would be. So without a better explanation, I wasn’t leaving. I just sat and waited, as they checked the other passengers. One guard stayed with me.
I’ve been told that Ukraine is the only place where you tell the border guards what the laws are. Regulations are always changing. Enforcement is often arbitrary. It’s not the Soviet Union anymore, thank God. But residue of the system; corruption, bribes, just the whole draconian mentality, still remains. They could just give me trouble because they don’t like me, or because they’re in a bad mood, or they want a little vodka money.
I opened up my passport to my Ukrainian visa.
“Look,” I explained to my guard, extending my 4 year old speaking vocabulary to the limit. “Here is my visa. Your government says I can be here 5 years. I don’t understand the problem.”
He looked at the passport in my hand. He looked at it closer. Then his eyes got wider and walked away to talk to another guard. But I followed him, passport in hand. I was getting somewhere.
Finally the guards came back to me and re-examined my visa. As it turned out, they didn’t realize I had one. They either didn’t see it, or didn’t look for it, or expected it in another form. I was never clear on that. But I was free to cross the border at that point.
I wish he’d asked me for it specifically beforehand. The Russian word for “visa” is pronounced, “visa.” How can I miss that?
Meanwhile, I met nearly every passenger on the train. A group of Moldovans asked why I was here and explained my work as a missionary. For the rest of the journey, they kept smiling at me, asking me questions. Not deep spiritual ones, just if I was okay. Did I like Ukraine? Did I know Angelina Jolie? Those sort of questions.
So thank you for your prayers. The trip was very successful. While Moldova’s not the exciting place you always dreamed it would be, the trip was intense for just a little bit there anyway.
Monday (October 8th) marked my two year anniversary in Ukraine. Things that were once weird are now normal. Okay, maybe not normal, but perhaps “life as usual.” Not long ago, somebody asked if living in Ukraine had changed me, in the way I think and live. For your reading pleasure, I decided to write a new dictionary. This is how the meaning of such words and phrases have changed.
crowded - In the early days, when the marshutka (bus) was full of people, I’d wait for the next one. Now I just squish in like the locals. Crowded is truly a relative term. My most memorable Marshutka ride was also one of the longest. I was literally smashed against a wall, not even really standing. I only had one foot on the floor. The other foot was wedged between two other passengers during the canning process. Every possible space, and some impossible spaces were filled, like the world’s biggest and least funny clown car. Yet the driver kept picking up more people, and they kept coming in. In my heart I believe he was trying for the company record.
clean bathroom – When I show new people around the city, I always help map out where the bathrooms are. A restroom is harder to come by here. So you’re more likely to accept some scary bathrooms. Nothing beats one particular outhouse in Moldova though. For mercy’s sake, I offer no details.
long walk – I walk everywhere, all the time. And love it. Last time I stepped on a scale, I found I was lighter than my college days. One day, playing with Google Earth, we discovered I was walking 2.6 miles just going to the boat and back every day. Blew my mind. Often I do it twice. It doesn’t feel like much, it’s a lovely walk. But Winter is coming.
grocery shopping – I’ll take the outdoor market to the store any day (except for buying meat). The check-out girls at Furschetts (the nearby grocery store) are absurdly grouchy here. What’s the deal? Is “grumpy disposition” a required trait on the job application? The babushkas on the street are more civil and offer free samples sometimes. Their produce is better. Plus, when I buy from them, I’m helping supplement their pensions.
Christmas – How I miss you, Christmas… (heavy sigh) Words cannot express the desire to go back to America during this season. We talk of “culture shock” when you go to other countries. It finds its ultimate manifestation here for me, because the holiday is simply glossed over. Some westerner friends refuse to be here during this time because it’s too depressing. We should warn new staff of this at orientation.
home – This is the word that has taken on the most nebulous meaning. Home is with family in Michigan, for sure. But when I come back from an outreach, or an extended time in a village somewhere, it feels comforting to see Mama Ukraine and that bridge that takes us into the familiar old neighborhood.
Good and bad, I know this is where I belong. If it’s just a season, I think it’ll be a long season. My roots are down. It’s my country, more than ever. Sure, there’s much to be desired in the areas of Christmas and customer service. But I’m here for the long haul.
Sometimes, I’m not needed at the hospital (with the babies). If it happens to be a Friday, instead I may go with a group to feed the homeless. It’s usually a small group, that splits into teams of two and three. We go downtown with sandwiches, fruit and tea.
On my last such outing, I was surprised to have Zholt in my group. Zholt is a gypsy who grew up in the Uzhgorod orphanage (western border) where we run our camp each year. He was ‘adopted’ by German missionaries when he was too old to live at the orphanage anymore. Zholt was taking a break in Kyiv and decided to join us.
Talking to Zholt is fun because we don’t share a common language, but several uncommon ones. His mother tongue is Transcarpathian and mine is English. But we both can speak various amounts of German, Russian, and Ukrainian. (I can count all my Ukrainian words on my digits without removing my shoes and socks) So a simple sentence with Zholt may be a blending of two languages, sometimes three. The grammar would best be expressed as “Tarzan-like.” But we can still talk about ministry, music, family, social customs. When the words aren’t clear, we switch to another language, and switch again until we’re pretty sure the other person understood. And if you think that’s a weird dynamic, you should’ve seen us lead worship together.
Our team that days was Zholt, another American named Bill, and myself. Normally we just feed people. But on the way, Zholt stopped at the pharmacy to get some medical stuff. He replenished a supply of rubber gloves, gauze wrap, the mysterious green stuff (it’s a Ukrainian version of iodine? Hydrogen peroxide? Miracle Whip?) Bill carried the food, and tea supplies. I carried the dispenser of hot tea.
It’s important to have a good Russian speaker when feeding the hungry of Kyiv. That was Zholt this time. My normal interactions are “Hochesh chi?” (Do you want tea?) “Chorni? Zeloni? ili Frukti?” (black, green, or fruit?) “Saxar, skolko?” (sugar? How many?) I know food vocabulary, for survival purposes. But I’m a “supporter” in this ministry, not a leader. I do try to understand the conversation I can.
Along with food, Zholt began tending the wounds of the homeless. After he changed the one man’s dressing, a crowd of street people began to develop. They were more interested in treatment than food. Without getting graphic, I’ll just say that some of these guys (they were all men) were heading well into infections. They’re bodies and wounds were filthy. But Zholt was happily cleaning their arms, inside and outside, while sharing in Russian, the message of God’s love.
In the background, I quietly turned to Bill, “Man, I can see how God put different gifts in different people. I’m getting sick just watching what Zholt is doing. I’d take the orphanage on the worst day rathen than that.” It was too much for me, on a gross out level, so I busied myself handing out tea and sammiches. The hospital is troubling sometimes. But at least there’s really no blood and gore in my work.
At the end of the day, Zholt smiled good-naturedly and said, “Oh, this. This almost make me sick. (he pantomimed a little hurl to explain what he meant) It was very difficult to me.” Then I realized that Zholt and I were of the same mind. The only difference between us was that he actually put on the gloves and did the work. It wasn’t a case of “I enjoy this,” or “I’m gifted in this.” It was because these guys needed care, and he did it.
Nobody told Zholt to “fix up” the homeless guys. “Normal” is just bringing food. But Zholt, he’s pretty special. Me, I’ve still got a long way to go.
Laura made this yummy pirate cake. Notice the little YWAM symbol in the front. This proves that it's the good guys' ship. The photographer apparently didn't notice that the captain has fallen over. Probably overwhelmed by the chocolatey goodness.
September 19th is “International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” I thought I’d remind you because it doesn’t get the publicity of Valentine’s Day and Halloween but it’s equally or more important. We did our part to spread the joy of piracy here because I was asked to lead a Back to School party for the missionary kids here in YWAM Kyiv. I decided immediately on a Pirate Night. Here’s why.
Our base is actually a boat on the river. (Before we took possession it was kind of a restaurant/hotel of ill repute.) It’s pretty cool, ‘cuz when the big boats go by, we can feel the Venetsia move with the waves. So I had this idea. What if during the Back to School Party, our boat was actually invaded by pirates? The kids would never forget that.
The night was based on the verse, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) We had a treasure chest full of school supplies and chocolate coins for the kids who came. I announced that Pirate Night was a dress up event, so we were asking that the adults come dressed like pirates.
We went all out for the evening. We made a bunch of paper mache props, a cannon, ship’s helm, octopus, an anchor. But what made the evening really great, was nearly everyone dressed up for the occasion. There may have been fifty adults and children in pirate attire. Even the people not normally involved in kids ministry got into the fun.
Then at some point, a rowboat full of pirates came with the intention of taking our treasure away. We explained (Tonya the interpreter and I) that we should keep our treasure in heaven, where thieves can’t steal it and rust can’t destroy it. I offered to let them have a share if they learned the memory verse.
The pirates hated to read or study (it was a Back to School party after all) and decided they wouldn’t learn the verse, but take the treasure, just the same. So the kids bravely fought them off with their balloon swords and we threw the bad ole pirates overboard. I wasn’t sure who had more fun, the kids or the adults.
At the end, we ate piratey food. Hot dog octopi and baked potato boats. Laura even made a pirate cake (ship-shape).
One of the mom’s came to me afterwards in appreciation. In mostly Russian she told me that her son Nikita kept talking about what a fun, exciting night it was. Another mom told me that her daughter said it was the best family night ever because the kids and adults were all having fun together. The kids on the boat were playing pirates for several days afterwards. This kind of feedback that makes all the work worth it.
Many of the missionaries here go to churches without a Sunday School or children’s program. So kids ministry for the missionaries is really important to our base. It’s important that we don’t just bring the gospel to the world, but that our own kids have a strong foundation in the Word of God. It bears repeating. Where our treasure is, our heart will be also. So we need to invest our greatest treasure into our children.