Thoughts to Ponder are my musings regarding community, things of the Spirit, and living as a Christ-follower. I don't offer the words of a professional or an expert; just a fellow traveler and explorer. Please don't take my musings more serious than I do. I've discovered a long time ago that I do not hold the keys of knowledge or wisdom. If I did, I misplaced them somewhere...typical.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Back from Ukraine

It has been almost two weeks since I have returned from my three week stay in Ukraine. I have been hesitant to describe my experience because it is impossible to describe adequately. No number of pictures or video clips or stories can do justice to the experience. But those of you who know me know very well I am not gifted in the discipline of silence!

My wife wondered why out of all my pictures there were very few pictures of places and locations. They are mostly pictures of people. There are a couple of reasons. One reason is I find people much more fascinating and lovely than inanimate objects. Secondly these are people who touched my life in some way.
Why did I go? Last December (2008) I was asked to consider writing curriculum for teams of Americans to use to teach values in the Pioneer Youth Camps of Ukraine. These are secular camps--at one time the communist youth camps. There are over 800 camps throughout the country and I believe 2 million children participate in them every summer. Eastern European Missions are allowed to send teams of Americans to some of these camps to teach. The camp directors ask the teams to teach values, conservation/ecology, patriotism, and American culture.

The 2009 curriculum was finished in February. In June I received a call to go to Ukraine and experience the camps first hand. Eastern European Missions (EEM) wanted me to write the 2010 curriculum and they felt it was important enough for me to see the work "on the ground".

I will be forever in the debt of EEM for sending me. The experience was life changing. The team I joined was well led by a couple of college guys from Lubbock Christian University named Gabe and Brian. They are talented leaders who acted like old pros at the game. I was awed by their discipline and work.

We worked with two camps. One, Camp Baby Eagle, was composed of children from a variety of backgrounds. They were kids who had families and friends. These children were as sophisticated as any kid in America. The other camp was across the road and it was filled with "orphans." The orphans in Ukraine are similar to the orphans in America. They are not necessarily without parents. Their parents may have abandoned them or are in prison or are drug addicts and alcoholics. These children are desperate for love. One little girl named Valyah attached herself to me and asked, "Can I be in your family?"

Children are children the world over. They were excited for us to be there. They were willing to get to know us, to seek us out, and to befriend us. We in turn taught two hours a day and spent the rest of the time hanging out with the kids, watching their programs, playing sports with them, and attempting to communicate. After our two week camp stay, there were not many dry eyes among campers or Americans!

For me, the closest relationships developed were with our wonderful team of translators. These young men and women worked tirelessly and did everything they could to make us feel welcome. They took their jobs very seriously and conducted themselves as members of the same team, willing not only to translate but to discuss ideas for improvement and communication with the kids. They shared their very lives with the children and with us as we talked with each other about our own home towns, families, and friends.

I felt as if I had found some long lost children. I hope they think of me as fondly as I think of them! Pictured here are the translation team. They are (front row l-to-r) Nastya, Polina, Vika, (second row) Vika, Marina, Sveta, Katerina (Kate), and Katyana (yellow shirt) and (last row) Dema, Anton, and Valya. Every one of them added their own beautiful personality and gift to the mixture. Each one was a gift to us. I hope to return next year, and I pray we will all meet again.

I just don't believe you'll find a more gifted and dedicated group of young people anywhere.

My translator, Marina (on the left), reminded me so much of my own daughter. She and her friend, Sveta (holding the flag) became my dear friends. We were dinner partners, teaching partners, even lemon-eating partners! (You'll have to ask me about that some time). They taught me so much about their own Orthodox faith and Ukrainian customs. I call them my "Ukrainian daughters" and they have graciously condescended to refer to me as their American "Papa". It is an honor I cherish. When I told my wife we had some new children her response was, "Ok. Am I supposed to be surprised?" (Too bad I don't have any sons, I would have seriously considered doing some match-making!)

The Bible was our source material for teaching character traits. Bible stories were the core of each lesson. We also gave away Children's Bibles, "Teen Bibles", and hard bound Bibles (for adults) all in the Russian language. (Any adult or teenager who wanted also received Mike Armour's book and workbook A Beginner's Guide to the Bible). The children loved their Bibles and were eager to start reading them as soon as they received them. We made certain the counselors, staff, and director of the camp received a copy of all of these materials, too.
Our ultimate hope and mission is the word of God will have its effect. So often we get tied up in trying to argue with people and convince them of our "rightness." The truth is, we could be wrong. Our opinions and interpretations may miss God's ultimate point. But the Bible, without commentary, is powerful and effective. Those who seriously search for God will find him through these pages. He will make himself available to be found. And what better gift is there to give, than the gift of a Bible?
Not all of our time was spent at the camp. The first week of the three weeks was spent in the city of Donetsk where we acclimated ourselves to the culture, engaged in "team building" with our translators, and donated ten hospital beds and bed stands to the local Pediatric Cardiac Hospital. That is a story in and of itself I would like to share sometime. But for now I am done.
My prayer is for the Ukraine and the people of Ukraine. My prayer is not a prayer of condescension as if I somehow have more knowledge or a better perspective. My prayer is for God's blessing on these beautiful people. My prayer is that God will change our hearts to recognize how we live in a world, not just a nation, of God's precious people. We are brothers and sisters. We are God's creation. There are no superiors or inferiors. We are together God's poema--his handiwork, his masterpiece.
The world is our family.

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