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.