August 22, 2007

Ten Days

As of today, we have been back in the states for ten days. These have been some of the fastest days of my life as I have worked to readjust to Central time, re-enter my daily life here in the states, finish final projects for Nadezhda Ukraine, complete post-internship reports for my fellowships, and prepare for the fast approaching semester. It has been wonderful and exhilerating to become reacquainted with life here. Though I was only gone for 11.5 weeks, my life in Ukraine was vastly different from my life here. Life here is much easier - clean water is readily accessible, electricity is reliable, transportation is safer and more comfortable, and I can communicate with ease. But life is also much busier. Already, my calendar has filled and my 'to-do' list of significant, time consuming tasks has stretched into the double digits. Already I feel that I'm falling behind... that there are not enough hours in the day and that I'll fall back into the chronic keep-up with life game so familiar to me before I left for Ukraine. When will I finish the reports? When will I have time for the profiles I've promised? When will I complete the PhD applications?


In the midst of all these questions, there are times when I wonder how I can so easily forget what I learned across this summer. Part of what this summer taught me was of the importance of setting and acknowledging true priorities. It is not that reports, profiles, and applications are unimportant - it's just that true priorities in my life are overlooked when the daily to-do lists run my life. Finishing the reports tomorrow versus today will not break any deadlines - nor will taking one more day have any lasting impact. But running life at breakneak speed will because I'll continue then to overlook what matters, and I'll continue to push to the side what I've learned and experienced this summer for finishing that report, profile, or application one day sooner. This is just one of the small lessons I'm taking with me...


A bigger question that has led Trav's and my conversations these past ten days is "what now"? We've been asked that question more times than I can count - in debriefing interviews and meetings, from our parents, from our family, from our friends... from one another. I've said this so many times across this blog, but it remains true: this summer has transformed us, both individually and as a couple. Though it's easy to get caught up in the daily routine of our lives (already even!), we are fundamentally changed. Our perspectives, our priorities, and our goals have changed - undoubtedly, this changes our future. So many doors have been flung open before us, from Africa to Central America to here in the Twin Cities. And all seem to be equally amazing opportunities to pursue. We know that this next year (at least) will be spent in the Twin Cities as I finish my master's program and Travis continues building his position at work and his ministry among men, but what the next five and ten years and beyond will bring is something we cannot yet see. Will we enter a PhD program? Will we move overseas? We know that our work will remain the same in nature and now more than ever, we have a heart and passion for global ministries that focus on sustainable poverty alleviation - in both temporal and eternal forms. And now more than ever, we have a desire to fight for human rights - those that are temporal and those that are eternal. What form that will take for us, and where it will occur are questions that remain before us. It is an exciting and challenging place to be. Exciting because we can see glimpses of amazing things before us. Challenging because it takes a lot of faith to walk forward toward the unknown. But for now, we are enjoying where we are at and making the most of the opportunities we have.

August 12, 2007

The Journey Home

The journey from Zaporozhye, Ukraine to Minneapolis, Minnesota is not the easiest one. Nor is it the shortest. But it is beautiful and exhilerating. When I made the journey to Ukraine in May, I was full of excitement, anticipation, and questions about what the summer would bring. When I made the opposite journey home, I was full of excitement, anticipation, and questions about what this incredible summer would mean for the rest of our lives. I know that our lives have changed and that we as individuals and a couple have changed. Our perspective, our hopes, our dreams, our faith - every part of us has changed in ways we never would have or could have expected. What exactly that means for our future, we do not know at this point, but we are excited and eager to see...


We started the journey home with a fourteen hour train ride. It was the first time on a train for both of us, so on top of the excitement to be home together again was the excitement of seeing the beautiful Ukrainian countryside from a traditional Soviet train. Train robbers are extremely common - something we had be warned of all summer long, so we ended up getting a private cabin on the overnight train. The cabin was small and hot, but still comfortable. The ride, unlike the bus, was smooth and so while longer, we were grateful for the change in transportation. I think we will forever now prefer trains to busses in Ukraine! It was a wonderful ride - for hours we cherished the last glimpses of a country that's now embedded in our hearts and lives and we talked about the summer and the future. Like all travel in Ukraine, it was a challenge to have limited language skills, and we relied as always on broken Russian and non-verbal communication to get us through the necessary stops, ticketing, and boarding/departure procedures. Thankfully, John had taken the time to walk us through the basics so we weren't completely lost!


We arrived in Kyiv on Friday with a flight scheduled out on Saturday. Travel logistics were a bit frustrating between plane ticket issues and language barriers, but we managed to finalize my ticket home and were able to secure seats together on the plane. Left with one final day in Kyiv, we set out to enjoy our last day in Ukraine. Across the day, we ran several times into an issue I faced throughout the summer. Often, Americans are seen as fitting a single mold: wealthy, greedy, and yet a bit naieve when it comes to money. As such, we're often targeted for being robbed, being cheated, or being charged over twice the actual cost for something. The first taste of the day was at a coffee shop. We ordered coffee and about fell over when we received the bill - we had been charged nearly ten times what a normal cup of coffee costs in a similar coffee house. We knew we were being cheated, but with limited language and really no other option, what could be done? I told the man that he was cheating us and that we knew it. His response? A smirk and a shrug. Later at a market, we started purchasing a Ukrainian soccer shirt for Travis, one of less than a handful of personal purchases I made this summer (my goal was to live as cheaply as possible, in the same lifestyle as those I was living and serving among). When given the price, I knew that we were being charged double the actual cost, and a price that was too much for us. We declined to purchase the shirt and the kiosk owner grew angry, shouting, "You're wealthy Americans... what difference does it make to you?" It wouldn't have mattered if I had explained to him that I was a student, that we had been living on one income all summer (and me overseas!), that being there would have been impossible without the support of two fellowships... what he was was an American, and what he held in his mind as American followed one standard: someone who was wealthy and with money to burn. Stereotypes are not a one sided phenomenon.


Saturday morning we woke up, exhausted from the train ride the day before but excited and anticipating to step foot in our home yet that day. Our three hour flight from Kyiv to Amsterdam was fairly uneventful, but we arrived in Amsterdam to learn that we would be delayed for an entire day. My heart fell a little when I realized it would be one more day before I saw home, but what could be done? We spent the night in Amsterdam trying to enjoy the layover and rest, preparing for the final leg of the journey home. On Sunday, we woke for an early flight. The eight and a half hour flight was a bit nerve racking. Three hundred disgruntled passengers faced a long flight with malfunctioning screens and seat equipment. The man sitting in front of us yelled at a stewardess for ten minutes almost every hour. By the end of the flight, everyone was cramming against the doors, impatient to get off the plane. I felt like I was in a dream. Half awake and half asleep from the long flight that crossed into sleeping hours of at least one time zone we were trying to function in, I was mystified to see English print on the signs outside the plane and the familiar landmarks as we descended into the Twin Cities.


As we drove home that afternoon, I fluctuated between confusion that I was actually home, exhileration that I was HOME!, and heartbreak as it finally hit me that I had left Ukraine for who knows how long. As I opened the door to my home though for the first time in almost three months, all I felt was joy that I had finally come home and gratitude for all that the past three months had taught me.

August 9, 2007

Saying Goodbye to Zaporozhye

Our final week in Zaporozhye was a blur. Our trip from Knyajzicki to Zaporozhye was the most painful journey I've ever been on in my life. I had been feeling somewhat sick in the village but had no idea just how sick I was until the trip back. For the longest eight and a half hours of my life to date, we traveled by bus across bumpy, rutty roads. With only three scheduled stops and no alternative options of crossing half the country that night, I was trapped on a bus feeling more pain and sickness than I had for as long as I can remember. We arrived in Zaporozhye on Sunday morning to learn that the I35 bridge had collapsed in Minneapolis (in the village, we had heard vague reports of a bridge collapse in California - something was lost there between the news's journey overseas and between languages), that our ministry country directors had to leave the country immediately and unexpectedly, and that my brother in law had been in a severe accident where his vehicle had flipped and ignited with him still in it. All the news at once combined with being sick was a little overwhelming, but we had commitments to fulfill and only a week to fulfill them in.


After just a few hours of sleep between the early morning arrival and Sunday morning, we got up to go to Calvary Chapel, the church I'd been attending in Zaporozhye all summer. It was a good morning - a chance for Travis to meet people I'd been working, serving, and ministering alongside throughout the summer (through there's no official partnership, many of Nadezhda Ukraine's staff attend Calvary Chapel, and many who attend Calvary Chapel participate in Nadezhda's ministries). Sunday afternoon we spent with my girls from the July children's camp. Aside from being sick, it was the perfect day. Travis finally met some of the girls whom I had become so close to across the summer and who had changed my life. It was amazing to him building relationships with these girls and having fun with them. One of the greatest blessings was the fact that he was able to meet Olga, my best friend and a stronghold of sorts for me across the summer. Each moment was one I was grateful for, knowing that at the end of our time together that day, I would be saying goodbye to these amazing girls and women for an indefinite period of time. Each goodbye was bittersweet - it was hard to let them go, but I was grateful for the opportunity of a lifetime to meet them, know them, live alongside them, and love them. They are amazing girls.


They day also brought what turned out to be an unexpected goodbye. We had planned to see Olga the next day (Monday) for lunch, after which she was leaving for a missions trip in Central Asia. But an extended visit to the clinic the next morning ended up covering the last time we had planned together. We said goodbye to Olga that night on the marshutka with short "Patka's" and kisses to the cheek. I'll never forget watching her wave goodbye as the marshutka pulled away thinking, "I'm glad this isn't the last time I'll see her this summer," and for an instant, wondering if I would really see her again. Somehow, I don't regret our goodbye. I miss her incredibly, but goodbyes are hard enough. We had a wonderful day together and a friendly goodbye with every expectation to see one another again. I know I'll see her again.


Monday brought an experience I will never forget! Without access to clinics and translators across the weekend, I dealt with being sick and in pain the best I could. Monday morning, we headed into one of the clinics in Zaporozhye. Using outdated equipment and a blend of Western medicine, Eastern holistic healing, and wives tales, the doctor diagnosed me with an internal infection. I was told I became sick by coming into contact with something cold (in Ukraine, cold objects, beverages, and breezes are thought by many to cause every disease and disorder from colds to sore throats, so contact is avoided with all of the above). I was given Russian antibiotics and pain killers to last me through the week until I returned to the states. Additionally, I was told to stay away from cold objects, tomatoes, and hot foods. At that point, I was willing to try anything and everything! I paid literally with a box of chocolates and was on my way. My brother, a doctor in the making, emailed me promptly with other home remedies and a mixture of accessible medications that would help to alleviate the symptoms until I got back in the states.


The rest of the week was filled with fast introductions as Travis met the staff of Nadezhda Ukraine and the many friends I'd made across the summer, followed almost immediately by heartfelt goodbyes on Thursday. For four short days, we enjoyed the city I'd spent the summer in and cherished the people who have changed our lives together. Though I was homesick and ready to see home and family again, our time together in Ukraine seemed to go by too quickly. We spent Wednesday night with John and Karen, the pastor of Calvary Chapel and his wife, and their children John and Esther. It was an incredible night. We spent hours talking about the summer, about our lives and marriages, and about what God may bring us in the future. Like us, John and Karen have a heart for global ministry in poverty, and like us, their future stands before them wide open. So many options seem to present themselves - so many directions are available that seem equally good. So we are all relying on glimpses of His plan and are praying for responsive hearts. It's an exciting place to be in life, but one that carries much uncertainty and challenges as well. After hours of talking and praying together, a storm came in that forced us back to our flat. It was an awesome summer storm that carried much needed rain for the drought filled region. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful summer in Zaporozhye.

August 4, 2007

The Villages

Each week of this journey has brought into my life a person, an experience, a task that has transformed me. The week that Travis and I spent in the villages of Knyajzicki, Toulin, and Bouzivka were no exception. We had the privilege to work with over one hundred children, and though there were many, their faces, names, personalities, and lives are distinct and memorable to us. Some, like Sasha (crippled and nearly blind, without access to adequate healthcare to treat his physical challenges), have overcome incredible battles - ones we could never imagine - and yet retain a hope and heart of courage that are beyond the grasp and understanding of most adults. These children of rural Ukraine are a world apart from us, but have taught us about endurance, hope, and faith in a way I am confident we could never have known otherwise.


Nadia, our translator for the week, met us in Kyiv on Sunday afternoon and traveled with us to the village of Knyajzicki. She is an absolute beauty - full of joy, peace, and an unending patience with our ongoing struggle with the Russian and Ukrainian languages and culture. We loved her instantly. Throughout the week, she was a constant help to us, not only as a translator, but also as a fellow leader in the camp. She was tremendous with the children, who flocked to her and adored her instantly. We miss her tremendously!


Our time in the camp and village was a wonderful whirlwind. The week was filled with games, crafts, evening community activities, and endless meetings with families of the villages. Though fast and filled with much to do, the week was also one of the most restful and refreshing I have experienced in a long time. The lives of these people appear 'simple' to 'outsiders', but they are not. They are complex, busy, and filled with struggles that are hard to put words to. But their priorities are different as well. Money does not take a place of utmost priority in their lives: faith, family, stewardship, and provision do. They are incredible stewards of the land and what they have. Though poor, the village was beautiful and the surrounding farmlands were home to some of the richest and best cared for soil I have ever seen. The people of Knyajzicki have so little, but they are grateful for what they have, and they are proud in every good sense of the word - living with hope and dignity despite their poverty.


It would be impossible to communicate all that happened and all that we learned across the week, but there are some incredible people we met who are unforgettable. Early in the week, we met Igor. Igor is a twenty-eight year old whose limbs stopped growing when he was still a youth. Eventually, his legs had to be amputated. Without any means to purchase a wheelchair, or any local systems to accomodate it (from the rudimentary roads to the simplistic structures of all buildings - elevators, lifts, and ramps are unheard of in villages), Igor has been largely confined to his home. But he has such a heart of joy and a strong desire to minister however he can from wherever he is. He has no sense of regret for the circumstances of his life - he is a man of faith, grateful for the love he knows and a God who has been good to him. He has endured endless taunting and the frustrations of knowing his opportunities and options are limited. Yet he takes joy in the fact that he has a home, has access to food, has a family who loves him, and has opportunity to share his faith with anyone who will listen.


Bobushka Mary and Bobushka Vera were two women who insisted that we spend time in their homes. Bobushka Mary is the epitome of Ukrainian bobushkas. She is hardworking, stern, but with a heart of hospitality and love that cannot be put to words. For nearly fifty years, she has been married to her husband. Several years ago, she became a believer and has become firm in her faith. He has remained an athiest - yet they live and love in a marriage that is patient and supportive. She continues to pray for him and for her entire family, he supports her faith and encourages her in it, but has chosen for himself to not be a believer. I was amazed by their story and how candidly they spoke together with us about their differences in faith. In the US, discussions on faith are so often taboo, and regretabbly, people with different beliefs and in different places in faith seldom are able to have a civil discussion. That these two could live with such transparency and an ongoing desire to engage in discussions on faith with one another and with others is truly a testimony. I wish that we could also be so open and eager to talk about our beliefs with one another.


Bobushka Vera welcomed us into her home on our second to last day in the village. I was tired and feeling very sick (it turned out later that I was much sicker than I thought!). I wasn't sure I had the energy for afternoon tea between our daily activities and meetings. I thought at one point about going home and letting the others go on without me, but I will forever be grateful that I pulled together all my resolve and went on with the rest. The story of her life is unlike anything I've ever heard before. As a teenager, Bobushka Vera was forcefully taken from Knyajzicki, Ukraine to Germany to work in the labor camps of World War II. In fact, nearly all the youth of Knyajzicki, men and women alike, were forcefully taken from the village to work in the labor camps (as an aside, Ukraine was a country incredibly impacted by WWII - the country was occupied by Nazi forces for a large portion of the war, Ukrainian youth were taken to Germany in forced labor, and nearly all Ukrainian Jews were swiftly destroyed in the Holocaust). While in the labor camp, Bobushka Vera met a young German woman (I wish I had blogged this earlier! I've forgotten her name!) who was a believer. The Ukranian women, forced away from their home, were comforted every night by this woman who shared with them stories from the Bible, the gospel, and her faith. Each day, the women would take turns sneaking into German villages near their camp to beg for food and water. Whatever they received from the day they would share with each other - in this way, they formed a sort of sisterhood. One night, their camp came under fire and bombs began to fall. The German woman called out to others, "Sisters, we're being bombed! We must run!" The women began running, but the explosion of one bomb took the leg of the German woman. The rest went back to help her, not wanting to abandon the woman who had been such a source of hope and comfort for them. Bobushka Vera said that at that point, a man appeared from seemingly no where (likely a village nearby) and, upon seeing their friend's injuries, said they must leave her - that she would not live five minutes. The women left her and ran for their lives. At the end of the war, Bobushka Vera returned to Ukraine and to the village of Knyazjicki. She assumed that the German woman was dead. She tried to put together some sort of a life after the destitution of the war. She married and started a family, but threw herself into a life of addictions, and especially alcohol. Years after the war, she received a letter. The German woman had survived, was living in Germany, and wanted to visit her in Ukraine. Bobushka Vera was stunned, utterly at a loss for how this woman, whom she'd abandoned amdist falling bombs, could have any desire to come and see her. Bobushka Vera wrote back and the woman came. Not wanting to offend, the woman would step outside to pray. Bobushka Vera went out to her one night and said that she didn't need to worry about offending them - she was welcome to pray in their home. The woman came in to join them at dinner. They asked her to pray before the meal and when she did, she prayed for their home, for their family, and for their children. At this point in telling us the story, the intermittent tears Bobushka Vera had been crying became full sobs that broke up her words. She told us how at that moment, her heart became soft and she realized that there was something deep and real about faith in Christ. That someone could love her and wish the best for her, even after she had left her to die - that she could want to be her friend and that she sought her out for years after the war - was a testimony to Bobushka Vera about the depth of grace and forgiveness that runs through the hearts of believers who strive to take on the character and attitude of Christ. It was then that she gave her life to Christ. The women stayed in touch and remained friends until the German woman passed away. Bobushka Vera's husband, a staunch member of the communist party, remained an atheist through his life, but supported his wife's faith. A picture of him hangs in Bobushka Vera's home, and she talks of him with tears. The struggles of this woman's life - the incredible things she has been through, the pain she's endured, and the struggle she's had since then to make a life with so little cannot but touch the core of you. When she finished, everyone was in tears. At different points in the translation, Nadia was in tears and had to pause to regain her composure. She is such a woman of strength and faith - she is amazing.


There were so many more stories, so many more people. There was Viscili, who pastored three churches without pay and ran a struggling general store to try and support his family. He was an amazing man who seemed to run on endless energy between four full time jobs, happy to do each and grateful for what he had. He absolutely lit up around the children and loved to lead them in teaching, in songs, and of course in sports. He and Travis seemed cut from the same cloth. Quiet at first glance, but hardworking, dedicated to family, and absolutely the life of the party when put into their element. There was Rousslan, who was always the first to arrive and the last to leave at any community event. He was one of the few men his age who remained in the village, and he has such a heart of service and giving. In Ukraine, there is a huge exodus of the men of our generation. Without work or opportunity throughout most of the country, the men have left for either Kyiv, Odessa, or (as most have) for other countries altogether to find work. It is a national struggle. The wealth of the nation is quickly being depleted by foreign chain stores and as the nation struggles to adjust to a changing political and economic structure, an entire generation is faced with a crisis of work and even citizenship. Families are being torn apart as individuals go abroad and send money home.


So many things about this experience have changed my life and perspective. Among those changes is a greater gratitude for the things I have available to me that I have done nothing in particular to deserve - and a greater gratitude for the things that went beyond my notice before this summer. I tend to be hard on America. We are a wealthy nation and as Americans, we tend to be spoiled, to take everything for granted, and to be caught in and endless game of greed, wanting more, and comparing ourselves to other Americans (keeping up with the Jones's) rather than being grateful for how much we have compared to the rest of the world. I realized this summer that yes, those things should change, but I am still grateful that I am an American, simply for the blessings that that citizenship comes with. I did nothing to deserve the education I have, the home I have, consistent access to clean drinking water, plenty of food, and reliable access to electricity (heat, cleaning) and city maintenance systems (clean streets, public sanitation systems, etc.). Not to mention the technology available or the advanced stages of health systems here. I did nothing to deserve, but I appreciate it, and I see the responsibility of being born into this with a new perspective now. It is one thing to read, to learn, and to know that we as wealthy Americans have a responsibility to give and to help others who, though no less deserving, have less wealth and opportunity than what we've been giving. And it should not be done with any sort of condensention, hero attitude, or savior complex - no one is any more deserving than the next of wealth. But all are designed to have access to the basic necessities of life - food, water, shelter, education, health care, and economic opportunity. So to those of us who've been given much, not for anything we deserve, much is expected of us - we have that responsibility. And now rather than just knowing this, I've seen it in a new light. These people are not statistics, numbers, or a faceless multitude of those who lack access to the basic necessities... they are friends, brothers, sisters... people I know and understand now. I've seen their struggles, their courage, their dignity, and it's given me every reason to renew my commitment to the struggle for human rights - both temporal and eternal.

July 30, 2007

Kyiv

Kyiv... Kiev... Kiyev. After this summer, I'm completely at a loss as to how to pronounce the name of this incredible city. It's pronounced differently in English, Russian, and Ukrainian. At any rate, it will forever be a city I love because it is the place Travis and I spent our first few days back together and preparing for the weeks of ministry before us. For a wonderful two and a half days, we were free to explore the city and take in the richness of its history. I have far too many pictures to post here, but I must say that it's a city full of some of the most beautiful cathedrals, parks, museums, and architecture that I have ever seen.

On our first day in the city, we walked to Independence Square. I literally had chills standing in this historical place - the site of the Orange Revolution and the demonstrations earlier this year when President Yuschenko dissolved the parliament. It is a site of Ukraine's ongoing struggle for democracy, freedom, and progress. It took me back immediately to my first night in Ukraine, when the bus I was traveling to Zaporozhye from Kyiv on was passed by four busses of orange clad demonstrators led by police escorts. After two months in this country, Ukraine's struggle is one that is close to my heart. I have seen how the country's policies impact people at an individual level, and I have come to love these people. I have learned how fiercely Ukrainians love their country, and how much they yearn for just development and growth. Standing in Independence Square, I was reminded of how far this country has come, and how important the future is to those I lived and served among this summer.

Every international traveler or overseas worker has at some point been warned of or taught about reverse culture shock. We go through culture shock when we first move to and learn to live in a culture and country vastly different from our native one. We go through a sort of reverse shock when we are reintroduced to our native culture. Across my time in Ukraine, I have lived and worked in the poorest areas of the country. While Zaporozhye is fairly modernized, its systems and access to external products and technology are very different from the culture I was raised in. The way of life is different - values are different - priorities are different. I spent much time in some of the poorest villages I have ever seen (compared to impoverished areas of Turkey and countries in Latin America). I expected to go through reverse culture shock when I returned to the states - not in Kyiv. Kyiv is a Westernized city of wealth. It is so different from the Ukraine I have seen and known. I was astounded at how such wealth can be concentrated into one area of the country. And I began to understand why the population of the rest of Ukraine is concentrating into Kyiv or leaving the country entirely. Wealth and opportunities for employment are being depleted in villages and poorer regions of Ukraine. Yet Kyiv offers wealth, opportunity, employment, and all the trappings of a Westernized culture. It is a beautiful and wonderful city, but it was difficult to process that I was in the same country...

On Sunday, we continued our journey through the city, taking in cathedrals and resting in the beauty of this place. Our time was short as we were leaving for the village of Knyajzicki, where we would spend next week in a children's camp with our sister church (Knyajzicki's village church is the sister church to our home church, Grace Fellowship, in Brooklyn Park). I don't think I've ever covered such a distance in such a short period of time, but we were motivated! We left exhausted but exhilerated by two days of rest and exploration - ready for the weeks of ministry ahead.

July 28, 2007

A Long Awaited Arrival

When Travis and I accepted the internship with HOPE International, we knew that it would mean several weeks of separation. At the time, we anticipated around nine weeks, but realized later we had miscalculated the time (my graduate program calls for a ten week internship but HOPE designs internships to be eleven and a half weeks). After some travel and logistical gymnastics, we managed to get the time we would spend apart back down to between nine and ten weeks. I cannot tell you how many times we heard people say, "you must be crazy," or, "are you sure about that?" or, "I can't imagine - I could never do that." To be honest, there were a times when I questioned whether I could endure such a long separation, but a basic truth sustained us both. We knew that while we would be apart, the cause for our separation was something we believed in, were committed to, and felt called to. Since we became engaged, we have prayed for an opportunity to be involved in an international ministry committed to holistic, sustainable poverty alleviation and children. This summer provided that opportunity, and while it meant a long separation, the end of that separation brought a chance to do something we have prepared and waited for for years.

I traveled from Zaporozhye to Kyiv (halfway across the largest country in Eastern Europe) alone by bus. The journey was not particularly a pleasant one - an 8.5 hour trip by bus over poorly built and maintained roads (my dad, a civil engineer, would be fascinated by the Ukrainian transportation system!). Having picked up only basic Russian and Ukrainian, I was a little unsure as to how well I would fare alone on the long trip. However, I arrived at the airport in Kyiv without incident and EXCITED, knowing Trav's flight would arrive at any moment. His plane was delayed, so I waited for nearly two hours among a pushy, irritated, and impatient crowd. But finally, the doors opened to Travis walking through, weighed down by bags filled with supplies for children's camps, clothes and reminders of home for me, gifts for our Ukrainian friends and 'family', and a few clothes to get him through the next two weeks.

Travis arrived to what appeared to be a Ukrainian bride. It is no exaggeration to say that online marriages and 'mail order' brides (and grooms, in fact) are common in Ukraine. There is a shortage of jobs and opportunity for the youth of Ukraine, and many are extremely eager to gain citizenship in other nations with more wealth and opportunity. I personally met at least two women who had met and married men online and then immigrated to another nation, and Ashley and I met several men who asked us to marry them and take them with us to the states. It is heartbreaking - Ukraine is a beautiful nation with much promise, but certainly with problems in policy and economic development. It becomes all to easy at times for youth to focus on their country's challenges rather than the incredible potential and resources lying somewhat dormant but ready to be tapped into. At any rate, clad in the traditional Ukrainian blue and carrying flags (Ukrainian and American) and a poster with "Welcome to Ukraine" written in Russian, I looked every bit the Ukrainian bride. I didn't care...

We gathered his bags and sped off to drop the bags at our hotel. Then it was off to see the sights of Kyiv - our only 'tourism' of our time in Ukraine. It was a priceless and long awaited arrival!

July 24, 2007

Cascade

Life and work with an international Christian NGO are fundamentally different than my life in the states. Flexibility and responsiveness to opportunities that arise are major lessons I have learned from working with Nadezhda Ukraine/HOPE International this summer - lessons I am incredibly grateful for. When Travis and I first met with Paul and Cindy Marty this past Spring, they emphasized the importance of flexibility. I knew from graduate coursework in NGO management and leadership that work with NGO's and non-profits is often fluid and requires flexibility. Having an awareness of this and living it out in practice are vastly different however - the gap between theory and practice is ever present! It has been an especially valuable lesson for me, as I tend to be highly structured and at times, rigidly fixed on whatever original plan I oriented myself toward.

Last week, I learned that two of the three surveys I had been working on were cancelled. We learned that trying to complete the three surveys within the time I was here was creating a burden not only for staff, but for clients as well. We want, as both an organization and a ministry, to be intentional about meeting the needs of clients. While the surveys were valuable, in the end, it was clear that plans for implementing them needed to flex. At first, I was a little discouraged, but my thoughts kept returning to the emphasis that has so often been placed on flexibility and responsiveness. So I quickly reorganized my efforts and began work on a project that I'm even more thrilled about: a year long plan for implementing the Spiritual Integration Project. Across the course of a year, this project will help brach offices to be even more intentional about integrating temporal and eternal efforts at alleviating by physical and spiritual poverty. It's an exciting project - one that allows me to use what I have learned through the past year of graduate school to be effective in a global faith-based NGO. It's a project that truly encorporates my passions and skills!

The ebbs and flows of work across the summer have been met this week by a full on cascade! I've learned across the summer as well that part of flexibility and responsiveness means being ready to work at whatever pace projects are running at. With only two working weeks left (and one in between for another children's camp in Kyiv), projects are in full bloom! There is much work to do this week, and much to be a part of. In addition to finishing out the Spiritual Integration Project plan, I have begun completing the Social Performance Indicators Surveys. This involves travel to several brach offices in the Zaporozhye region. Alongside of this plan and the surveys, I have Kiva profiles to complete and the Zaporozhye Moybutna Club English Camp to attend in the evenings. Ashley and Emily (who just arrived in Zaporozhye yesterday!) will be leading this camp across the evenings. They're holding lessons, bible studies, games, crafts, and just about everything else that can be packed into two hours! I'm excited for them - it promises to be a wonderful week with the girls of Zaporozhye!!

I am grateful for the abundance of work at the moment. At times, it does feel a little overwhelming! I tend to pace myself, so to feel the pressure of multiple projects mounting is unsettling at some points in the day. But, with three days remaining until Travis arrives in Ukraine, the business provides occupation and a healthy distraction. I have to admit that at nine weeks apart, I'm starting to feel the toll of the time we have spent apart. This summer has in so many ways been a blessing and a renewal for us - mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually - but we are beyond ready to see one another again!

This will likely be the last post I make before traveling to Kyiv early Friday morning. We will spend the week following in a children's camp held in a small village south of Kyiv. While details of our time there are still coming into place, we are thrilled about what the time holds for us! Each camp that I have served in this summer has been unique and rewarding in its own - and it has provided so many opportunities to get into the lives of those we are serving here, to live alongside of them, to serve them, and to learn from them. I know that next week holds so many opportunities to learn and to serve. I'm looking forward to sharing each!

It seems that as soon as we return from the camp, we will be in a fast whirlwind of completing projects before leaving for the states on August 10th. My eagerness for returning 'home' is growing. I am excited to see my family, friends, and communities, and to share this life-changing summer with them. I am still torn - ready to return home and share this but not ready to leave the relationships and work established here - but am becoming more at peace with the fact that the end of this internship is nearing. I know that two weeks will not bring the end of our work and partnership with HOPE - this is only the beginning for us. We hope that we are able to return here again in the future and work alongside these dear friends and family again. Until then, we are excited to employ the lessons we have learned in our lives and work - and share the overflow of this summer with those we know and love.

July 17, 2007

Ten Days

A little over two months ago, I began my blog with a post entitled "Ten Days." It was ten days until my internship began. I was excited and eager to see what the summer held in store, and beyond ready to begin my internship with HOPE International/Nadezhda Ukraine. In many ways, the summer has come full circle!

In just ten days, Travis will be arriving in Ukraine to serve with me across the final two weeks of this internship. It is a landmark for us - something we have prayed for, worked toward, and looked forward to for the four years of our marriage. To finally have the opportunity to work and serve together in a global ministry focused on human rights, poverty, and children is something we are incredibly grateful for. We're grateful to HOPE for including him in this internship and to preparing work for us to do together, and to our family, who has made his time here possible. While he has long been a part of global ministry in a supportive role, this will be his first time in the field. He has been incredibly supportive and has made my work abroad possible not only this summer but in the past as well. I'm so excited that his time and his opportunity has come now, too.

Trav will be arriving in Ukraine on Friday, July 27th. We will spend the weekend in Kyiv before heading out to serve together in a village children's camp 2.5 hours outside of Kyiv. We will be working with the camp for a full week before returning to Zaporozhye to work with the microfinance ministry for the last week of the internship. It's hard to believe that in just 3.5 short weeks, our time in Ukraine will be complete and we will be returning to the states. I am excited beyond words to see my family and friends again, but I know that it will be difficult to leave the relationships I have established here and the work I have been a part of for the past two months. Until then, I am excited to see what the next few weeks will bring...

July 11, 2007

More than a Name or Number

Part of my work across the summer has been to create client profiles. It is an incredible part of my job - I love doing it. I create these profiles both for HOPE International and for Nadezhda's partnership with Kiva that began last December. Essentially, I take information about the client's business, experiences, goals, ambitions, and needs - as well as the personal and professional changes they have experienced from working with Nadezhda - to write a paragraph or two: their 'story'. These profiles are shared with other clients, with staff, and with supporters of Nadezhda. They are a source of inspiration and encouragement and more importantly, create true human connections across a couple of kilometers (between clients, staff, and other clients) or across thousands of miles (between clients and supporters).

I've heard client profiles criticized and critiqued by many in the development field. Some critics are fully convinced that they rob clients of their dignity, or that they take advantage of their 'client status' to advance certain organizational goals. I have to say that after the past eight weeks, and especially after today, I could not disagree more - nor could I be more frustrated with critiques that are generalized to all organizations that create and use profiles. What I have experienced in my work is quite the opposite. These profiles empower clients. They move them beyond a name or a number to a PERSON who can communicate their hopes, their dreams, their ambitions - and how their hard work has been rewarded through personal successes. These women are eager to share their stories and to answer questions - they love having their picture taken and knowing that their story will be shared with others.

I do not disagree that some organizations misuse profiles. Corrupt NGO's are everywhere, and there is truly reason to be suspicious of the non-profit field that has more than doubled in the past five years. But I know from personal experience, work, and witness that HOPE is not one of those organizations. The truth of the matter is that for most people, caring enough about those in poverty half a world away requires more than statistics on poverty or even a name. It requires a human connection - a face to put with the name and images of true conditions these people live under. HOPE uses profiles solely to empower clients and to create that human connection. With stewardship of resources as one of the organization's four major pillars, their financial transparency reveals that these efforts are truly for the benefit of clients. For that reason, I feel privilege to daily be a part of this work.

Beyond the time I spent in the market with the women today, I continued with my work on surveys and with learning the more in depth processes of Nadezhda's microfinance program. I feel like I have asked a million questions already this summer - and yet I've only scratched the surface. Nadezhda is so incredibly unique in how they have merged traditional group based microfinance with individualized components to meet the needs of the local communities. No amount of reading or study could have ever taught me the things I am learning here - this is the benefit of experience based learning. At times, separation from my husband and family has been incredibly challenging. But days like today remind me that had Travis and I not responded to this opportunity as we did, we could never have learned the things we now know.

July 9, 2007

Productivity, Provision, and Providence

These three words have never sounded so good to me as they have today. Each has given me so much to be grateful for and a renewed sense of excitement about the five weeks I have remaining here. As I mentioned in my last blog, my return from the children's camp brought on a cascade of projects that will keep my remaining time filled and productive. Today has brought more insight about the design and schedule of these projects. I am, as ever, thrilled to be encorporated into the work of Nadezhda - and all the more so as I see the projects develop and take effect. Across the next week, I will be developing and refining an updated Social Performance Indicators Survey. This survey will be used to guage the impact of Nadezhda's work on various aspects of clients' lives - from professional to personal to spiritual. Maxym has truly entrusted me with the development of the survey and has taken to heart my suggestions about the procedures of the survey and the use of the information. Next week, I will be working with an interpreter to pilot the survey with clients throughout Zaporozhye and potentially another city in the region. For you public policy students - that survey methodology class has truly come in useful!

The following week, I will turn to a second survey project as I work with the families of children who attended the camp I worked with last week. The intent is to guage the impact of the camp on children's and families' lives, to learn of their personal responses, and to determine ways to improve/enhance this connection between the programs and ministries in the future. I feel fortunate to be working on this second survey as well - it truly connects all of the work I have been doing here.

For the final two weeks of my time, Travis and I will be working with children's camps in Zaporozhye and Kyiv as well as conducting client interviews throughout Zaporozhye. I feel like Nadezhda/HOPE has truly considered my hopes and 'goals' throughout the entirety of this internship. They have given me the opportunity to conduct work that is cohesive but that still crosses the partnership between Nadezhda (HOPE Ukraine/International) and Moybutna (Tomorrow Clubs). And they have maintained a cross between the two for the time Travis is here as well. This truly gives us the opportunity to work in both areas we have long had an interest in - poverty and children.

Speaking of Travis's arrival! I have to admit that while we knew our time apart would be difficult this summer (9.5 weeks!), it has been altogether different to actually be in the center of it. I've mentioned before that as my time here as passed, I have felt more and more torn between my eagerness for his arrival and my hesitation for the time to arrive when I leave to return to the states. I've LOVED being here but wanted him to arrive sooner and have the chance to be here longer. This morning, that was provided for! We found a flight that brings him to Ukraine a day sooner. It will not require him to miss any additional work, nor does it cost a single frequent flyer mile or dime to get him here on the flight! Even the addition of one more day sends me soaring!! And as if that were not enough! We found out this morning (for me)/yesterday (for Travis since I am 8 hours ahead) that two members from our church in Brooklyn Park will be in Ukraine across the two weeks Travis will be here. We're unsure as to all the details, but this may very well provide an opportunity to do additional work while we are here - and with friends from home!! It has been amazing to me to learn of all the connections with friends from home and my work here this summer - it is almost to a point where I am no longer surprised when I get an email that someone is connected/connecting with HOPE International, that someone is connected with someone/somewhere I know here, or that someone is headed HERE yet this summer! But that certainly does not detract from how excited I get each time!

July 6, 2007

New Projects and Mixed Emotions

After a day to rest from the camp, things are back into full swing for me at the Nadezdha Ukraine headquarters in Zaporozhye. With five weeks left to my internship, there remains much to be done! Yesterday, Maxym (my supervisor next to Paul) walked me through several projects that I will be working on throughout the rest of my time here. And today, he led me through a few more that will certainly fill my remaining time! I am excited about each - each is different and contributes to the work of this organization in unique ways. I think the variety will help to keep things fresh and expand upon what I am learning here.

Throughout my time here, I have felt increasingly satisfied with and blessed by this internship. Maxym has been tremendous at allowing me the time that I need to fulfill my tasks as an intern and Upper Midwest Human Rights fellow and at incorporating my personal goals for learning and development into the projects I am working on. One of my goals for the summer was to learn about the MIS systems that connect the various Nadezdha Ukraine offices throughout the country, and how the microfinance loans are processed. Yesterday, two Nadezdha Ukraine staff members led me through the entire process. I was impressed by the sophistication of the organization's systems - it truly spoke to HOPE's desire to be as effective and efficient as possible. As an organization, they are truly outstanding stewards of the resources they are given.

I was surprised through the day to realize the degree to which microfinance is still group based in this country. For the most part, microfinance in Ukraine is individual based rather than the traditional group based methods used in other areas of poverty and hardship. I knew that Nadezdha retained an element of the group based method, but seeing the processes used with loans and clients revealed how deeply that relational and group based method still ran. In that way, Ukraine has been unique and possibly the most informative place I could have served this summer. Ukraine is a unique mix of individual and group based methods. Furthermore, the country's finance systems are in transition - currently combining elements of traditional Asian relationship based systems with Western credit based systems. At times it seems incredibly complex, but (at least to me!) it is always intriguing.

A second surprise to me was how similar the basic MIS systems were to programs I used in the mortgage industry. Perhaps what is most impressive about that is that Nadezdha's own IT staff member, Yuri, designed the entire program from start to finish. They are currently using Yuri's second edition of the program - this guy amazes me.

Aside from learning more about the organization and finance systems, I have continued work on the Kiva/HOPE International partnership in Ukraine. I love, love, LOVE this part of my work. For now, I'm given the basic facts and information about our clients, which I use to develop client profiles for Kiva. In a few weeks, when Travis arrives, we will be going out to conduct interviews with clients throughout Zaporozhye, creating profiles from start to finish. It is exciting to see this partnership continuing to develop and to be a part of those efforts.

Across the end of this week, I've been given two new projects that I am absolutely estatic about. The first I will begin next week. I will be working with Maxym on Nadezdha's Social Performance Indicator Surveys. These surveys are used with clients to conduct a holistic assessment of the organization's effectiveness with individual clients. Beyond looking at quantitative factors such as increases in clients' income or business capital, these surveys look to the individual lives of clients to see how Nadezdha's/HOPE's programs have impacted the clients in areas such as confidence, skills, future goals, hope, faith, and other areas. I'll be working with Maxym to assess the current surveys and possibly revise the survey and assessment process.

My second new project truly ties together my work with children last week and my work in microfinance. A big reason I was invited to be a part of the children's camp was to work with the children of microfinance clients. In this second project, I will be working with these families to evaluate the children's experiences in the camp and how that has impacted the family as a whole. It truly helps me to feel that my work is gaining cohesion and clarity. And it gives me another opportunity to interact with these incredible children!!!

As I look on toward the next few weeks, I truly have mixed emotions. I am incredibly eager for the next three weeks to pass quickly so that Travis can join me here. Yet his arrival leaves only two weeks for me in this place. In the same way, I am eager to see my family and friends, to return home, and to share as much as I can about this experience. But doing so occurs only at the expense of leaving behind the deep friendships I have made here, a country and people that I have come to love, incredible leaders that have taught me so much about what I am eager to learn, and work that I love. I know that Travis and I will continue to partner with HOPE well past this summer, but I will truly miss the daily connection with my friends and colleagues here. It leaves me with incredibly mixed emotions. So with five weeks remaining in total, I plan to make the most of what time I have remaining, to continue to develop the relationships and work that I have here, and to be thankful that each day brings me closer to my family and friends.

July 5, 2007

One Week at the Midway Point

It's hard to believe but I'm over halfway through my time in Ukraine. It's been quite some time since I blogged last. It was not for lack of eventfulness, but rather that I spent the last week on the Ukrainian sea with a children's camp through HOPE International/Nadezhda Ukraine. It would be impossible to recount all that I experienced, learned, and saw through the week, so I'll focus on the highlights!

Across the week, I led a group of eight girls through the camp with two women, both named Olga. The first Olga has been my dear friend across my time here and has served as my interpreter as well. The second Olga I met my first week here at the business camp. She is an interpreter in training and is absolutely incredible - I was glad for the opportunity to serve with them across the week. They were constantly by my side, interpreting the endless questions children asked me about America and my work - not to mention every word spoken or written across the week! I truly wish I had a stronger aptitude for languages. I have picked up enough to get by and to function without an interpreter in most places, but conversations without an interpreter remain at surface civilities. In that way, language continues to be a challenge here. There are so many people that I love so dearly (see the last post), that I wish I could talk with on end and without any language barrier. Since I know that is impossible, I am ever more grateful for Nadia and Olga.

The eight girls I had in my group were absolutely amazing. They were between ten and fourteen - full of energy and lots of spirit! And absolutely the sweetest things... Trav and I are hoping to have a picnic with all of them to see them one last time before we leave the country. It is amazing how close you can grow to people in one week, and how deeply you can cherish them after so little time. They had what seemed to be endless questions about the US, about my work here, about my home and family. Many were questions I hadn't been asked before - these girls taught me much about the deeper differences between Ukraine and the United States and the differences between the lives we lead, the opportunities we have, and the conditions we live under. Some differences were heartbreaking - others were eye opening. I walked away from the camp feeling a deeper sense of gratitude for the blessing of living in the United States - something I neither earned nor deserved - I live there only by the conditions of my birth.

While the schedule of each day of the camp was the same, the lessons and activities were very different. I was given the opportunity to teach three lessons, which I've mentioned a little in previous posts. It was incredible to teach these girls. Of course they were restless at times and distracted, as any girls that age are, but there were moments of such sincere enlightenment that I saw on their faces as they grappled with issues like pride, integrity, and prejudice (the focus points of my three lessons). The final lesson - on prejudices - was revealing for all of us. As in any country, stereotypes and discrimination are alive and well in Ukraine. The groups most discriminated against are Gypsies and Armenians. As we talked through some of the widely held stereotypes and prejudices against these groups, I saw that the nature of divides between people groups is no different here than anywhere else. It is something I knew before, but to see it and hear it in practice has been something that is difficult to put into words. But to see their hearts opening and changing, and to see grace and compassion in bloom was an incredible thing.

For all the amazing parts of the camp, there were challenges as well! I have to admit that I'm not the best camper. In fact, I'm a terrible camper - most of my friends and family had a good laugh when they heard I would be spending the week in the camp. I NEVER camp for pleasure and the few times my family has been able to drag me along have been disasterous. I am all about it though when it means camping with purpose! There remained, however, the normal challenges of camping plus a few more due to the nature of being in a foreign country and one of poverty as well. It made me appreciate so much more how much we take for granted in the US.

It is no secret that access to clean drinking water is a privilege, and that millions across the world do not have access to such water. This camp was a good example of it. The sea is polluted and very dirty, and the water is the same. The first couple of days at the camp, we tried to make due with the water, but it was difficult to drink. Several (including myself) ended up dehydrated, so we brought in purified water. While it was expensive and a luxury, it was also necessary. I have never been so grateful for water as when the first few bottles arrived. We were able to bring in water, but for many who live there, that water is all that they have. As polluted and dirty as it is, that is what they live on. It is the first time I have spent an extended period of time in an area where access to clean and safe drinking water is so difficult (and for many, impossible). I kept thinking - "In the US, I can drink the water from my tap if I want, and I know that it is safe and will consistently be available here. Those that live here don't have that... I can bring it in... they cannot. This is real - this is their life. This is poverty."

Another thing that struck me especially this week was sanitation. The children had so many questions about the US, and one of them was about sanitation and public services. Were our streets clean? Did people sweep and wash our streets? Did really people take our trash away for us? Did we really have green grass in our lawns? These are all luxeries of the US. I've never realized how much I take our public services and utilities for granted. We have consistent and quality sanitation services, clean public restrooms (I didn't think so until I spent time in Turkey and Ukraine), extremely clean streets, green grass in public spaces/medians/parks... so many things that keep our cities clean and sanitary. There are certainly impoverished and neglected areas in the US - I've spent a lot of time studying these areas as well. But those conditions are not abnormal here or restricted to the very poor - they are everywhere here - a normal way of life. This is not to say that there are not beautiful areas or well kept areas of Ukraine. But it is these that are a rarity - these are unique to the few areas of affluence. Bobushkas clean the streets each day, but with their hands and rudimentary brooms made of branches and leaves... it is in no way like the public sanitation system we know in the US.

The final thing that struck me was the one to do so most deeply. Spending a week living among and alongside these children and people, I saw the poverty of the country in even deeper ways. I have seen and written much about the poverty of these people and of this nation in previous posts. And I've seen glimpses of what it means in individual lives. But living alongside these children and other leaders for a week has taught me more about the poverty than the previous five weeks combined. It is hard to convey what experiencing this poverty so deeply has meant and what it has done to me. Years of study in a classroom do not teach you the taste, smells, and pains of poverty. It can teach you the facts and the conditions... but it does not reveal the depths of it. There are so many ways years of poverty have impacted the culture and have shaped the way people live. One way it is most clearly manifested is in the way people eat. Sitting down to eat with these girls, I could tell how deeply the hunger and poverty is entrenched. They eat quickly, and devour whatever they possibly can as quickly as they can - grabbing bread greedily and stooping low over plates and bowls. It is utterly heartwrenching. There was always more than enough food, but they often ate as if they hadn't eaten for days. Manners were thrown by the wayside and all that mattered was to eat. Many children came from homes that had enough to eat to satisfy hunger each day, but some came from more impoverished homes. There were two girls in my group that clearly came from such homes. These signs of poverty in the way that they ate were especially clear in them. Those that came from homes with enough still exhibited some signs - but more as a matter of how it has been entrenched in the culture than by consistent hunger. It reminded me that such widespread hunger and desperate poverty is not far removed - the children of my generation remember the long lines for food and basic necessities like bread, oil, and sugar. And certainly their parents knew such conditions well. Before I left for this internship, there were many I spoke with that didn't understand why I was traveling to Ukraine - was it really that poor after all? When you hear poverty, you think of Africa, places in Asia, and areas of Central and South America. But a country in Europe? Really? I can say after six weeks here I have seen poverty in a new light, and yes, Ukraine is an impoverished country. And the conditions of poverty that children and families face here are very real. It is again a reminder of how much I take for granted, how grateful I am for what I have, and how blessed I am to be here, trying to help alleviate the poverty people of this country face.

June 25, 2007

My Ukrainian Family

I'm amazed at how many things there are to do on any given day. And weekends even more so. Saturday morning, I returned with a team to the Children's Sanitorium of Zaporozhye. Because it is only a short term placement for these children, I knew that it would be my last weekend with them. I am leaving in two days for a seven week children's camp - which, by the way, is out in the middle of no where. True camping style. For those who know me well, you will be shocked, but yes, I am going 'camping' for an entire week, and yes - I am excited about it.

Spending time with these children across the past two weekends has been incredible. My heart breaks for them, and for the struggles they have in their daily lives. In a place of such hardship and poverty, they face even greater barriers to survival and enjoyment of basic necessities and rights. They are, by many, cast aside. They have health disorders, physical and mental disabilities, and behavioral disorders. But they are brilliant - wise beyond their years and beautiful. Some have become hardened - untrusting of the world around them because of the repeated rejection and cruelty they have faced. But in so many I saw hope, resiliance, and determination. And such joy over the smallest gestures of love and kindness. So often it seems that we feel helpless and hopeless in the face of so much global poverty and problems. But I've seen how stepping in and doing SOMETHING - how loving, how caring, and how genuinely investing into individuals and groups can truly bring about change and transformation. It is not hopeless, and it should not be something that we dispair over to the point of inaction - it should motivate us and encourage us by knowing that by taking action and by becoming involved, lives truly change.

In the evening, we held a sending out party for Sveta and Vlodia. Sveta works in the Tomorrow's Clubs of HOPE International. She and her husband Vlodia are moving from Zaporozhye to a small village to start a children's ministry there. They are such a sweet couple - they've been like family to me here and have been a constant source of friendship and humor. Their move to the village is a choice that I am encouraged by and in awe of. They are embracing a life of little comfort and much poverty, but are doing so because they feel such a love for the people there. They want to serve them and to make a difference in their lives, and are willing to forego the comforts they have here to do so.

Across the evening, we played badmitten. Zaporozhye has faced a severe drought this year, but for some reason, winds picked up and the rain came right over the game. We were left trying to find creative ways to retrieve the birdie from the neighbors' yards. We resorted to a shovel and broom through the fence. Given that the neighbors keep a menacing dog (a rotweiler), this task was most often left to Paul.

The best part of the evening was being in the company of so many wonderful friends. More than friends, they are quickly becoming like family to me. Since I haven't before, I thought I would introduce them to you so you could understand a bit about them - I refer to and speak of them often! Paul and Cindy (HOPE's Eastern European Regional Directors) together with Yura and Galena have taken us in almost as daughters. Their warmth and goodness is a breath of fresh air each morning when I arrive at the office. Yura is a pastor at a local church and Galena is the accountant of the HOPE Children's Ministries. They are an amazing couple - absolutely filled with love and graciousness. And forces to be reckoned with on the badmitten and volleyball courts.

Jzenya and Larissa are another couple that have fast become good friends. Larissa is due with their son any day now. Jzenya has all the energy and enthusiasm of ten teenagers. He has an inclusive leadership style - he strives to ensure that everyone is involved and at east. In that way, he reminds me very much of my brother Beau. Larissa is sweet and shy - always kind and gentle. She does not speak volumes, but when she does, her words are soft and full of wisdom. They are perfect compliments of one another. I am SO excited for them to be parents! It will be sometime this week and next - they will be wonderful parents together.

Lenna and Vadeem are another couple I've gotten to know here. Vadeem took on the perilous task of driving us to HOPE's regional conference in Crimea several weeks ago. Lenna leads the children's ministries of the Zaporozhye region with Jzenya. Lenna is a very strong, organized, and capable leader - and a wonderful mother! Their daughter Yyeva (life) is an absolute jewel! She is talkative, sociable, and very much the explorer. Her expressions are absolutely priceless! I absolutely adore her - she is a constant reminder of my nieces in the states.

Nadia and Olga have been our interpreters and constant companions. They are both amazing women and wonderful friends. We spend nearly every day together - I've learned so much from them about this country, the culture, the people, the language, and life here. We are the same age and it has been incredible to share the vast differences of our lives and backgrounds. They grew up under the Soviet Bloc and remember well what life and the economy were like when the country was communist. They remember the fall of communism and have experienced a country in transition from communism to market democracy - a transition that continues today. They have shared how that has impacted their perspectives, their faith, their ambitions, and their hopes. They have opened my eyes in so many ways to how extensively the structure and modes of economy and politics impact individual lives. I have studied in depth the connections between politics, laws, economies, human rights, and individual freedoms. But no amount of classroom experience or book knowledge can compare to what is learned from those who have lived it. The conversations that we have as friends have taught me what years of study cannot. They have taught me again what it means to understand these impacts from a personal perspective, and why this work remains so important. These are friends that I will cherish for life.

Travis arrives in a little under five weeks. I am excited and anxious for him to arrive! We have waited for years for the opportunity to work together for an organization like HOPE. I am excited to share this work with him and for him to meet the amazing family that I have here now. We did not need this summer to motivate us toward this work. We did not need it to inspire us to care about the lives of those who are living out the daily struggles of poverty and hardship. We did not need it to realize that holistic microfinance ministries are one of the most effective and sustainable methods of poverty alleviation. Our hearts and hopes were in this work already. But this summer has given us the opportunity to be a part of it at last! And I am excited for him to share in it and to share in the friendships that I have here. It already seems hard to think of leaving them in August (seven weeks is far away yet, so I try not to think of it!), but I am confident that we will see them again and that we will continue to partner with them in this work far after this internship ends.

June 22, 2007

Discoveries, Making Friends with Bobushkas, and Glimpses of a Masterpiece

I do not think I will cease to discover new things each day that I am here. Yesterday was a day absolutely filled with them - it was one of the best days I think I have ever had. In need of some things for the quickly approaching children's camps, Nadia and I made a quick trip to the market near our office. I've written about the market before - it is a place I absolutely love. Many of Nadezhda Ukraine's clients operate kiosks throughout the market, so shopping there is a way not only to support the work of those accessing sustainable methods of poverty alleviation, but it is supporting the grassroots of the Ukrainian economy. Roaming the kiosks, I came across some berries that were entirely new to me... currents and gooseberries. For those who've never had the pleasure, these berries are AMAZING. And a bonus discovery: in Ukraine, cherries are not simply cherries. There are several different names that clearly distinguish the varieties of cherries - Ukrainians take their cherries seriously.

Better than discovering the tastes and names of the fruit of Ukraine was meeting the kind bobushkas that sold them. The bobushka selling me gooseberries reminded me so much of my grandmother - hardworking and humorous. When I asked about the price (squelka stoid?), her response was "Duva!" It took me a minute to translate the cost into English in my head (I'm still learning the basics, you see...), so to help me along, she said: "Duva! (two in Russian) Von! Tue!" The expression on her face and the humorous forcefulness in her voice made me want to throw my arms around her right there - she could be Grandma's sister. The kind lady that sold me currents was inviting and enthusiastic. It remains evident that I am not from Ukraine (as soon as I open my mouth!), and she was eager to welcome me and ask me to return to her kiosk in the future. And a third bobushka kindly chose among the best of her cucumbers, simply to welcome a 'visitor' to the market.

In the evening, Nadia, Ashley, and I headed home together, intent on making amends with the bobushka I shared a less than pleasant encounter with on Saturday. The reconciliation was swift and sweet - within minutes, we were all smiling and talking easily, and she was telling us about her young grandson who would be visiting this weekend - and who she hoped we would meet. Knowing that we will be neighbors for another month to month and a half, I am glad that we've established a friendship in place of the tension that existed before.

These bobushkas are truly deserving of our respect. In fact, learning about their role in this country has reminded me of how quickly we in America (in general) have thrown respect of elders by the wayside. I started reading Waldon last weekend at the beach, and in the opening chapter, Thoreau describes how he felt his elders were no wiser than he was, and that he had nothing to learn from them. I have to disagree entirely. Yes, generations are different. We face different conditions, different struggles, different pressures, different modes of living... but that doesn't mean we have nothing to learn from them or that they are not deserving of our respect. Each morning as I walk to work, I see these women sweeping the streets, opening kiosks in the market, and carrying heavy bags. They have had difficult lives, have carried a country through two world wars, and continue to work in their latest years. How can it be said that there is nothing to learn from them? Or that they are undeserving of respect?

So why was this one of the best days? The best part remains! I've written often about how blessed I feel to be here, how fulfilling this journey has been, and how it has already been beyond what Travis and I had hoped for or imagined. As we've learned more about HOPE and Christian INGO's at work in microfinance ministries, we've become increasingly excited about sharing our experiences with our communities. Before returning to graduate school, I served for a year with a college ministry in Ames called The Salt Company (TSC). TSC is a part of Cornerstone - one of the most authentic, sincere, loving, and passionate communities I have been a part of. The equipping and encouragement Travis and I received there - the friendships and the relationships, and the ways we were challenged to grow are beyond words. It was difficult to leave to return to school, but poverty, policy, human rights, and international ministry were passions we felt called to pursue further. In the recent weeks, we've been in frequent contact with them, and yesterday, we learned that throughout the year, they have been exploring ministries in microfinance as well. They have started work in Zambia and have been searching out organizations that excel in microfinance ministries. Not knowing that I was in Ukraine with HOPE, the contacted HOPE and have begun to look for ways to learn from and partner with them. We do not know what the future will bring, but what we do know is this:

For years Travis and I have prayed and prepared for international ministry in poverty alleviation. It is something we feel called to - something we are passionate about, and something for us that is a part of both the compassion of our faith and the basic human rights of every being. And our family at Cornerstone have had a prominant hand in encouraging, equipping, and preparing us for such work. We know that this is not simply chance. What it will bring we cannot tell, but we are excited to search it out together. To think of what it may bring, no matter how big or how small, feels like a defining moment in our lives. We know that there is a grand masterpiece that is playing out, and we are eager to find our place in it.

June 20, 2007

Lesson 10

Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free... therefore, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Colossians 3:11-17

Strangely enough, the halfway mark of my internship is quickly approaching - just nine days from now. In so many ways, this journey continues to be new each day. Each day is filled with new insights and new challenges - and I am continually convinced that there was no other place for me to be this summer. The things that I am learning and the ways that I am growing far exceed what I had hoped for or imagined.

Next week, I will be helping to lead a six day camp. The girls in my group are between the ages of eight and twelve. The camp is part of the Tomorrow's Clubs, a ministry that Nadia Ukraine partners with and helps to support. I am thrilled and excited... my involvement is much more than I had expected! I have the opportunity not just to observe, but to help lead and teach lessons across the week.

The lessons that I am leading all have incredible messages. As I began to prepare for each, I found myself learning some basic truths again and becoming even more excited about sharing these with the girls across the week. My favorite by far is lesson ten. It encompasses my passions and the work that I feel called to do - and the source of why I fell in love with the work in the first place. The lesson focuses on Acts 10, where Peter's prejudice and stereotypes are exposed, and where he is taught that Christ's love and hope are not for one group or the other - they are for all. The lesson goes on to talk about how when Christ came, He didn't spend His time with the pious or the "good believers." Instead, He spent His time with the 'outcasts' of society - with the poor, with addicts, with the criminals.

Prejudices and stereotypes are rampant and increasingly destructive. As time progresses, they take on ever more complicated modes of expression and their consequences even more extensive and difficult to access. The causes and consequences of prejudices and stereotypes - and they ways that they are expressed structurally in global poverty - are why entered graduate studies. But what lies beyond that? The fact that over and over and over, Christ teaches that the love and hope He offers are for all - not just for the 'good people', the beautiful, the wealthy, the Americans... it's for everyone.

So many times, there are hard lines drawn between those that believe in Christ and those that do not. We alienate one another and hostilities fly from both directions. And for what? Where does such treatment get us? The stereotypes and prejudices exist there as well.

What excites me the most about this entire experience is that it fully encompasses every aspect of who I am, what I am passionate about, the work I love, and why I love it. It is an integration of poverty alleviation, my faith, and my commitment to human rights advocacy. And now, I have the incredible opportunity to teach how evident it is in the word that there is no room for prejudice or stereotypes in who God desires to extend his love and hope to.