Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Summer 2014

I was able to squeeze in a quick week trip to Ukraine this summer to spend two days in Kyiv with some orphans from Krivvoy Rog and 3 days in a gypsy village in the Carpathian mountains.

Some of the orphans were boys I met back in December, so it was encouraging getting to reestablish those relationships and prove I had not forgotten them. But this time around, I was the only native English speaker, and Denise was not there to translate for me. Talking with the boys was therefore difficult, and I spent many hours silently sitting with them at the HFO house or walking around Kyiv with them. I wrestled with discouragement in that silence, afraid that I wasn't being useful, that I had nothing to contribute, that I was only going to burden the HFO team, and that this trip was a waste of time and resources. At the end of the first day with the boys, I let discouragement get the upper hand. We had spent most of the day touring Kyiv in the hot sunshine.  I was tired and thirsty, my feet were sore and blistered, and all of my Russian vocabulary and arsenal of funny faces were exhausted. Sitting at the dining table with a glass of water in my hand, I started flipping through the photos on my phone of Maidan and scenes around Kyiv. Vova, a 14 yr old with freckles, pulled up a chair next to mine and asked if he could see my phone. I let him, and in moments he had pulled up Youtube and started showing me Ukrainian rap music videos.  This is so pointless, I thought to myself. At the moment I was about to get up and leave, a sudden thought cautioned me, he is trying to share his life with you, and this is the only way he knows how. Don't miss this. We couldn't communicate verbally, but we could connect, in such a small way, by watching these videos because Vova liked them. It's humbling, but it matters. Time with a kid is never wasted.

Later I found a different boy, also named Vova (but 16 and blonde) hiding behind a bedroom door. He was crying. He didn't speak any English, so all I could do was hug him and repeatedly ask, "What? What?" Finally, he managed to explain to me that he had such a "big time" at the HFO house and he didn't want to leave. We hadn't done anything special during those two days -- we ate meals together, went on walks, cleaned together, -- but we acted like a family, something orphans are so starved for that just a taste of it was enough to make a 16 year old Ukrainian boy hardened by orphanage life break down and cry. This is what I love about serving with HFO. It is the most wonderful and beautiful thing to see dead-eyed, hardened, apathetic kids melt and come to life through love and kindness.

The boys returned to Krivvoy Rog the next day, and the HFO team and I went to visit a gypsy village. After driving through the night, we arrived to a clump of cement and wood huts, surrounded by dozens of dirty children. One of the girls, who looked about 13, was pregnant. I later found out this was normal in the gypsy community, and met an 11 year old girl who told us about her upcoming wedding, which would be that weekend. We painted the girls' nails and played soccer with the boys. It felt wrong painting filthy, crusty fingernails.

Since the gypsies spoke Hungarian or Ukrainian, my handful of Russian phrases were of no use. Not having a language, however, gave me the opportunity to intently observe these people as we made cotton candy for the kids, handed out donated clothes, sat and had tea with head families, and made dinner for the community. These gypsies live handout by handout. They don't make plans for the future (partially because that is not a luxury they can often afford). They live outside the authority and protection of the law, so they make their own rules and defenses. The largest, most powerful family is in control, so procreation starts young. They are treated by outsiders as a inferior community, and they act like one.

One our last night, the HFO team let me share my testimony as we sat around a fire, eating rice with some of the adults. I tried to tell them how valuable they are as images of God, how we are all equally valuable, and how I have come to know that meaning and value are found in Christ alone.

It was a joy and privilege to spend even such a short short week in my heart country.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Winter Camp 2014

After sharing about my experiences in Ukraine at my church here in England,someone decided to go with me!  Duncan accompanied me for the first orphan camp, and he is eager to bring a team from the UK to volunteer with HFO in the future.

English Master Class

As the only native English-speaking members of the HFO team, Duncan and I were incredibly blessed to speak with quite a few kids who could communicate rather well in English and were eager to learn more.  We taught an English master class in the afternoons, which helped us bond with the kids and (hopefully) encouraged them in their English studies.  We picked up a few Russian phrases as well!

The boy most eager to practice English, especially slang phrases, was Denise, who was also in my small group.

Denise was 15.  He was brought to the orphanage by his mom when he was 7, and vividly remembers the fear, pain, and rejection he experienced his first night in the orphanage.  He doesn't have siblings, but wishes he did and asked me loads of questions about mine- like if my brothers protected me even though I was the oldest.

I've never met an orphan so eager to engage in conversation.  Usually, it takes a few days for the kids to warm up to us and trust that we really are there because we care about them and want to get to know them.  From day one, Denise asked me loads of questions and constantly checked to make sure his English was correct.  "Tell me a story from your life," he would often ask me, and he was always by my side during Bible lessons and our evening program to translate as much as he could for me.

Talking with Denise gave me deeper, more sobering insight into the hopelessness of daily life in an orphanage, but I am so thankful for the opportunity to stay in contact with him and experience a sliver of God's heart for him.  He believes in God, but carries much anger and bitterness he is not yet willing to release to Jesus.  Please pray God breathes new life into Denise; that Denise would know the immeasurable riches available to him in Christ and the steadfast hope of the Gospel.

After the first camp was over, Duncan returned to England and I spent a few days in Kyiv with the HFO team.  I love these people.  They have taught me so much about faith, service, love, and the heart of God.  I am deeply grateful for each moment I spend with them!

The first camp team

Ice skating! 

About to see the Nutcracker ballet at the opera house

For the second camp, we were joined by a fabulous American team from Northland.  It was such a joy being re-united with old friends, meeting new ones, and simply being around fellow Americans (though the Ukrainian team adopted me as an official member of the Ukrainian team, which was fine by me!)

We went to Gordenya for the second camp, which marked the first time I have ever returned to the same orphanage for camp.  Even though it was two years ago, I reconnected with kids I had met before, and they remembered me!

Kolya in 2012 and 2014!

There was also a girl at camp named Nastia who I had met two years ago. It was amazing to witness how she has grown and changed and her heart has softened.  Two years ago, Nastia was very violent, angry, and hard to communicate with, but by the end of camp, she met Jesus, and she is truly changed.

Nastia's mother was imprisoned 13 years ago after killing someone who was attacking a pregnant woman.  Nastia's prayer for the past three years has been that she would be reunited with her mom, and now, Nastia just found out her mother is being released from prison early, and wants to have Nastya back by the summer. Nastya was thrilled by the news, but also afraid.  She said she would miss being at camp with HFO in the summer, and hugged each team member every time she saw one of us. I'm not sure if life will be better for her with her mom, but I'm encouraged by the girl she has become over the years, and I believe the love of Christ she has been shown by HfO will go with her and be an example to her mom. 

God is truly using HFO to change kids lives, and I am blessed and grateful to participate!  I hope to continue sharing stories like this with you for years to come.  Thank you for making my time in Ukraine this winter possible!