Our first experience in Ukraine was to be kindly welcomed into the home of our hosts Andrey and Tanya and their two sons Alosha and Elusha. The first few days were spent near Kyiv, Ukraine, training staff and volunteers who run summer camps for orphans and refugees. I, Josh, was asked to do training sessions on various topics related to youth ministry such as Helping Hurting Kids, Sharing the Gospel, and lots of group games. Bethany also led a training session on leading group initiatives (team building challenges). When I was first asked by Tanya to come lead training sessions with her volunteers, I was skeptical that I had anything of value to offer that they didn’t already know or have access to in Ukraine. However, I have come to understand that while in the United States we have enjoyed 240 years of independence and religious freedom, Ukraine has only had 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed and they gained their independence. Most ministries and churches are 20 years old or less. My camp in Pennsylvania, Black Rock Retreat, has been gaining experience, making connections, pooling resources, and building systems and processes for 62 years. Many other ministries and churches are decades or even centuries old. This is not the reality in Ukraine, and all ministries are “young” in comparison. So, I did have experience and encouragement to offer that might be hard to come by in this “germination” period of ministry development in Ukraine.
We traveled to the Kherson area in southern Ukraine, via an 8-hour car ride. The first day, we spent time at a state operated orphanage for children with disabilities doing crafts, games, and activities. Many have been given wheelchairs and walkers through ServeNow. This was one of our favorite days! I, Bethany, took boxed brownies to make with the older girls. They were thrilled, because they said they had never baked before. They don’t have brownies in Ukraine, and one girl said she would eat them every day if she could! The girls were asking questions while we were eating the brownies, one girl asked; What is your one goal in life? It was a special opportunity to share about my relationship with Jesus, and my desire to share him with others. That girl and her friend later asked the ServeNow staff member to please come back and talk more with them.
We spent the second day in the Kherson area at a boarding school for children doing crafts, games, and activities. While the kids have homes in nearby villages, they live at the school during the week, and it was clear to see that many of them come from very difficult situations.
After returning to Kyiv, we took an overnight train to Uzhgorod, western Ukraine, to visit a girls’ house and bakery. We stayed at a house for girls who have graduated from orphanages, but often do not have the support or skills to live on their own and are at risk of human trafficking. The home is on a mostly self-sustaining farm that the girls help to run. It was inspiring to spend time talking with the “mom” of the house, Maria, and hearing how she and her husband had the vision to start this ministry to give a family environment, life skills, and faith to so many girls in vulnerable situations. They have had 57 girls successfully come through the house and move out on their own. I, Bethany, shared parts of my testimony, the Max Lucado book You Are Special, and various scriptures with the girls following supper. We were also able to take a few gifts for the girls at the house which included chocolates, necklaces, soap, and handmade aprons or handmade drawstring bags.
Our second day in Uzhgorod was spent in the bakery that provides training for some of the girls who live at the house where we stayed. I, Bethany, taught them how to make bagels and the girls taught me many of the different flavored pastries that they make and sell at the church café on Sunday mornings. The job and training the bakery provides is a huge blessing to the girls, and especially those who are of the Romani (or Roma) people, a minority group that is spread across Europe (also known as Gypsies). They are heavily discriminated against in Ukrainian culture and viewed as poor, uneducated, and untrustworthy. Roma girls are also highly at risk of human trafficking. All of this makes it very difficult for Roma to secure jobs, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty and lack of training/education, so ServeNow is really helping to reach these girls and meeting their needs.
We returned to Kyiv by overnight train and spent the remaining time enjoying the hospitality of Tanya and Andrey and sightseeing in the city.
One especially impactful theme emerged during the 10 days we spent with various ServeNow staff and volunteers as we traveled from northern to southern to western Ukraine. All of them were refugees from the Crimea region that Russia had occupied in the spring of 2014. Hearing them describe the stability that they felt prior to Russia’s occupation was jolting. I, Bethany, have described it to some as if I were to tell you that Canada was going to come occupy your US state, most people’s reactions would be that would never happen or that’s insane. That was how these refugees felt before Russia occupied Crimea. Trying to put ourselves in their shoes and sitting with the weight of their losses was humbling. It was in those moments, however, that the truth of God’s word came flooding in and turned our sorrow to awe and joy. What the enemy (Satan) may have meant for evil in trying to hinder the ministry of the ServeNow staff and volunteers, God has meant if for good…to preserve many people alive (Genesis 50:20 NASB). The ServeNow staff and volunteers have been scattered across Ukraine, but God is simply expanding their reach and effectiveness for His Kingdom!
***If you would be interested in serving on a ServeNow Mission Trip check out our Mission Trip page on our website! Or if you have questions or concerns check out this blog article that deals with common questions as well as reasons to go!