Guys, I love Ukraine.
Sure, there are rough moments and this past month has certainly not gone by without pain and difficulty- I miss my loved ones, the ocean, the English language, the confidence of living in a culture whose rhythms I know how to dance in- but I also love getting to move deeper into life and ministry here in Ukraine.
A couple weeks ago I was in the HfO office with some of the team members. One of them had a micro lens for his phone and was taking up-close shots of random things. Soon everyone started taking pictures of their scalps, eyes, nose hairs, moles, and pimples, laughing at the gross and strange images. I didn't want to join in. Invite people to take a magnified look at my embarrassing blemishes? On purpose? Aren't pimples the kind of thing we cover up or refuse to mention out of politeness? And yet, as I watched the team hunting for moles on their arms and pimples on their necks, I realized I was the only one feeling embarrassed. The rest of the team laughed with each other, not at each other as they experienced the freedom of vulnerability and literally bringing what has been deemed shameful to light. I decided to join in.
I want to live the rest of my life like that, creating a safe space for others to bring the shameful things they carry to light, drawing us closer together as we become more and more authentic.
Out of this desire and recognizing a need for authentic fellowship and processing shameful experiences, we've started a (for lack of a better word) "training" for some of our team members and the young men living at the HfO house. We meet together once a week at our apartment and go through exercises and discuss life skills topics with the purpose of engaging in the boys' lives, inviting them into ours, talking about dreams, shared experiences, and tools to respond to life's struggles in a healthy way. The first week we just played games, talked about our expectations and hopes for the training and what topics we'd like to cover. The boys were very honest with us that they don't want to be treated as orphans, and they're not convinced we would care about spending time with them if not for their orphan status. They told us they don't care about the Bible and don't want to be our Christian project subjects. It was a difficult discussion, but I was encouraged and challenged by their honesty. These boys have had to figure out significant pieces of their lives on their own. We would be crazy to sweep in and think we could save them and tell them how to live their lives. We can't "fix" them or remove the injustice and pain they have experienced. Our best gift to them is to keep showing up, consistently showing them we care, they matter, their stories matter, and we want to see and hear them.
Orthodox Christianity is deeply rooted in Ukrainian culture, and has unfortunately pushed people away from God through hypocrisy, judgement, and hierarchy. To many people, the Bible is a list of rules people in power created to dominate and shame others. If God does exist, He is distant, angry, and uncaring. We face these barriers every day as we try to share and live the Gospel.
In my prayers, God reminds me daily of some of the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35). Please pray that God continues to teach us to love as He loves us and to extend that love to these young men- Jenya, Adik, Seryozha, Igor, and Tolik- and to everyone around us.
If you want to know how you can pray for me day-by-day, here's my basic weekly schedule:
Sunday- Worship service at Open Hearts church in the morning, and Reformat youth group at New Life church in the evening. Some of the boys and the HfO team go to both and I have relationships with both church communities.
Monday- HfO office meetings in the morning and our "training" sessions in the evening. Last week we focused on personal identity, last night we explored personal values, and next week our session will be about personal boundaries.
Tuesday- Ukrainian language lessons with Alex, my new tutor. Alex and his wife, Natahsa, attend Open Hearts and are studying Biblical counseling at Kiev Theological Seminary.
Wednesday- I teach English in partnership with New Life's middle school youth ministry, Flip. We have an English club at a local school and build relationships with the kids there.
Thursday- Masha, Igor, Liliia, and I travel to two orphanages in near-ish villages and build relationships with the kids through English lessons and life skills discussions. It makes for a long day of traveling, but I really enjoy these simple, regular interactions with the kids. I've never taught English before, but Masha is a great teacher and I learn much from her.
Friday- Winter camp preparations! We will do a 5 day camp in Mariupol next week with friends who have started regular visits to the orphanage there. It's incredibly encouraging to know that after camp, our friends will continue to meet regularly with these kids. We will also have several smaller day camps in early January in orphanages around Kyiv with which HfO already has relationships. The theme this year is Final Destination. All our games, activities, and lessons will center around different crossroads we have in life and how to make healthy decisions.
In addition to camps, we have several events coming up to celebrate the holiday season. Ukraine follows the Orthodox calendar, so Christmas is celebrated the eve of January 6th through January 7th. We will celebrate New Year as a team, and also have celebrations at a trade school where we teach lessons, as well as 2 different celebrations for elderly men and women in near by villages who don't have family to celebrate with.
Thank you for your love and support and for making all this possible!
And now, some pictures....