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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.