Friday, August 29, 2008

Some "Lighter" Moments of Summer Camp in Ukraine

I have to take a few moments to a post a new entry that I should be naming "things you need to choose to laugh at or else you may get frustrated"- but that didn't have the same ring to it as the phrase "lighter moments." Following is a photographic glimpse of some of the more humorous (and sometimes not so pretty) moments experienced at our camps this summer. Enjoy!

This was where Mary Lynn, Amanda and I slept for a week...this picture makes it look more luxurious then it was.

Why squat alone when you can do it with a friend near by? Shall we say moral support? Welcome to our toilets at our Kherson Camp.

That degree in theatre has really paid off. Now I get to entertain groups of kids in a giant blue suit.

Pick your currency in the form of a cookie. US dollars, Euros and Ukrainian grivnas! With the falling rate of the dollar I think I'll go with the Euro please!

My friends assured me that a little protein with your morning cream of wheat does not do any harm! Ahh well...they eat them in Africa right?

You never know when you will stumble across a cow in the country...this one was getting a little too friendly.

Sala...a Ukrainian delicasy. Sala = pure lard. This is the one thing this girl chooses to pass on-- can't quite stomach this tasty Ukrainian treat--even if they call me crazy!

Now that was fun wasn't it?! Any volunteers for next summer? :)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


This is Natasha. I met Natasha at the 2nd camp we had in Nikolaev at the end of July. We were only there for 6 full days, and so I didn't anticipate developing too deep of relationships with the kids and in some ways I think I had set my expectations rather low for what we could accomplish in such a short amount of time. Well it turned out I was in for a surprise! With my friend Zhenya and two American friends, Mary Lynn and Amanda, I had the privilege of teaching life skills lessons each day to youth about 14-16 years old. We mostly had girls in our groups and to say that they were thrilled to come to the lessons each day would be an understatement. Especially Natasha.
Each day Natasha would arrive to our "gazebo" where the lessons took place and she would sit there wide eyed, half staring at her 3 new American friends- so eager to soak up all of the information. We gave out workbooks on the first day which contained the weeks lessons and worksheets, and on the second day of class Natasha came back and said, "this is all so interesting, I read the whole book already!" With her angelic and sweet nature I could tell that we would be friends soon. During our lesson on friendship each of the kids had to interview someone else and work on their listening and question asking skills. Natasha decided she would be my partner and her eyes lit up when I agreed. I enjoyed my conversation with Natasha, and asked her questions about her dreams, her hobbies, her family and the things she'd like to learn (like English!) Natasha is almost 14 years old and wants to be a teacher someday, she has a dysfunctional family situation, and spends most of the year in the orphanage, except for the times when her grandparents come and get her. I think what amazes me most about Natasha, and many other youth like her, is the dreams she has for herself, dreams to live a different life than that of her parents- and believing she an. After the day of friendship we had a time of crafts with the kids in which they could make greeting cards for a special friend. After the craft was over Natasha handed me the card she had made, "It's for you, she said." Inside she had written, "After today's conversation, you have become my best friend. You are a miracle, miracle, miracle. With love, Natasha"

Now don't worry, I know I am far from a miracle (God's got a lot of work to do on me yet)- and I know Natasha didn't have a full understanding of what she was saying-- but these words that she wrote gave me a deeper understanding of how much these kids need relationship, how much they need true friendship, people who care...just a listening ear! Part of me was sad that after a 10 minute conversation, Natasha could say I was her best friend--because I know I am far from that. Sometimes it breaks my heart to realize how much these kids have to learn--even what it means to be a real friend. But for this 14 year-old little girl, a listening ear, and a loving hug brought friendship- a friendship that surprised and blessed me as well...and I hope our friendship will continue on.
When we left the camp in Nikolaev I wasn't prepared for the streaming tears of a dozen 14-16 year-old girls that flowed as we said our goodbyes. I've gotten used to saying goodbye to kids over the years with all the camps and visits we do-- but this time seemed different for some reason. In those six short days the Lord used our team to build some amazing relationships and lay the foundation of trust and friendship with young people who have such deep emotional scars that I cannot even begin to grasp. I was blessed just to be a small part of that. More than anything, through those 6 short days I was reminded of the importance of listening and loving...not always speaking, but just being present. Natasha helped me to do that. Thank you my sweet sweet friend.

Lord Jesus, continue to send your workers into the fields of the Fatherless....may more and more Ukrainian believers be challenged to enter the walls of the orphanages and begin relationships with these youth who so desperately need a healthy adult in their life, a listening ear, and love. Amen

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Glimpses of Jesus

Have you ever had one of those rare moments where you have seen the love of Jesus embodied here on earth? I mean really see it. In a world with so much sin and brokenness I think sometimes those moments can seem rare. But then you experience one and you never want to forget it, because in that moment you saw a glimpse of Jesus, a snapshot of Christ's love.
I had one of those moments this summer. We have a driver at our mission who is named Nikolai- "Uncle Kolya," as we loving call him for short. Uncle Kolya begged us all spring to take him as our driver to camp- as he wanted to help out and be with the kids. For 2 1/2 weeks Kolya not only served as our driver, but ended up being a leader to the 10-12 year old boys, as we were short on male leaders. Kolya became a father figure to these boys at camp, and I watched amazed as I saw these boys open up to him and look to him as the father they never had. I also stood and watched as tears flowed from this grown man's eyes as he said goodbye to these same little boys at the end of camp. Though seeing his tears moved me, it was a different moment on the beach a few days later that is forever pressed into my memory. The moment when I saw a glimpse of Jesus.

It was about 8:00 on a Tuesday morning, and our team of leaders was meeting on the beach of the Black Sea for morning prayer and devotions. We were sipping our tea and getting ready to begin when a man stumbled over to our group. His name was Sasha. Upon first glance it was apparent that Sasha was an alcoholic-- emaciated and disheveled in appearance from a homeless, alcohol dependent life. His face and hair were caked with sand, showing us where he had spent the previous night. "Give me some Vodka or money"- his crackily voice whispered as fell to his knees beside our group. I felt uncomfortable. What were we supposed to do? We told him no, we couldn't give him money or alcohol. But Sasha wouldn't leave, he just knelt there, unable to move--crying out in pain for the relief he so desperately needed. Our team told Sasha we could give him water, tea, or the cookies we had, and that we could also pray for him. He agreed. So there on the beach our team prayed for Sasha, prayed he could find healing and freedom and cried out to Jesus on his behalf. After the prayer and giving him some water our team began to start our morning devotions, though Sasha still lay near by.

That was when I noticed Kolya.

Without a word, Uncle Kolya got up and walked to Sasha. He knelt down beside him and started to share with him how his life could change, how Jesus could free him of his addiction, how his life didn't have to be like this. I then watched as he grabbed a bottle of fresh water and began to wash Sasha's face with his own hands, pulling out the layers of sand from his bushy beard. Tears streamed down my face as I watched how he then walked Sasha down to the water, and with the help of another leader, he proceeded to bathe Sasha right there in the Black Sea. Kolya then disappeared for a moment and then returned with a clean change of his clothes and donned them on Sasha. There he was, a grown man, helping dress another man--one most likely of the same age. Not much was said throughout this 20 minute interaction, but in my heart I knew I was seeing the face of Christ as I stood silently and watched. I was thoroughly humbled there on the beach that morning. Humbled at the glimpse of Jesus I saw through the loving touch of our Uncle Kolya. Humbled at the grace of God -- how this drunk, homeless man stumbled across a little group of believers on the beach that morning and as a result encountered the love of Christ through the humble service of one brother.

I wish I could say the story ended there, or had a different ending--but sadly, the next day, Sasha died there on the beach. Just several yards away from where we had met him. He died with one of our leaders right next to him, who had been giving him water and had prayed with him in his final moments of life. I have no idea where this man was in regards to his relationship with Jesus when he died--I can only pray and hope. But I have this sense in my heart that it wasn't a coincidence that out of all the people on the beach that morning, Sasha found our little group, that Sasha met Kolya and was ministered to, or that when he died, he died in the presence of one of our leaders.

In a strange way I think it was God's mercy. Another glimpse of Jesus.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Faith of One Young Man

From the moment I first saw Vitalik, I knew he was different. It was the third night of our 1st camp in the Kherson region, and Vitalik was celebrating his 15th birthday. To honor him at our evening program, we brought him up in front of all the other kids, presented him with a gift and then sang the traditional "Happy Birthday" song (yes, they all sing it in English, even in Ukraine!) After we were done singing to him, we asked Vitalik if there was anything special he would like to do or say, and to that he responded, "I would like it if I could pray right now, for everyone." Sure, okay, I'm thinking! Not your typical answer from a 15-year-old boy, but this should be interesting! Vitalik went on to say a prayer, boldly and clearly before all of his peers, asking the Lord to bless him in this next year of life, as well as those around him, and praying that the other kids would know the Lord as he did. Through out the next week, I made it a point to seek Vitalik out, and learn a bit more of his story, as it is not everyday that you meet an orphan who is a professing Christian and who seems to be walking out his faith. Through talking to him, I came to find he had spent the last 7 or so years in the orphanage, and that while in the hospital several years ago, he met a believer who shared with him about Jesus. From that day on, he had been given a new perspective, a new hope, and a new way of living life.

Without going into too much detail, the 12 day camp we did in Kherson was difficult in ways I had never experienced. Working with 65 kids, mostly boys between the ages of 14-18 was a challenge I had never before faced, and reaching these kids in a way that could break down their walls of hurt and self-defense proved at times impossible to our human efforts. Vitalik was my encouragement. Vitalik was a reminder of why we spend the time and the money and the energy to put on camps like these. Because even when it seems like we aren't getting through--God is. In reality, we just don't know how God is going to speak, or who God is going to use, and with our limited human eyes, we can never see the full picture.
Even on the last night of the camp I saw Jesus chipping away at hearts that all week had seemed so hard...and yet in the same moment of seeing hearts melt amidst the flame, in the campfire light I could see other kids who still couldn't let the fire in. Perhaps afraid of getting burned. Unaware of the fact that the consuming fire was what their lives so desperately needed- what they were created for... and that through those flames could come healing.
On that last night as we sat around the fire, and took digital pictures by the thousands with the new friends that had become so dear to us, I found Vitalik. I started asking him about the weeks events, and what had been the most special or meaningful to him. "The fellowship of believers," he said without pausing. "Living in the orphanage I never get to meet other Christians and learn and grow in my faith like I have this week. I'm really going to miss you guys and being surrounded by other believers. This has been one of the best weeks ever." Wow! I don't think I anticipated his response. I don't think I anticipated meeting a young man like Vitalik who already knew Jesus, and just needed encouragement. Encouragement to keep going. Encouragement to keep running the race even when it seems so hard. In that moment, looking into the eyes and the heart of this 15-year-old young man, who lives in an orphanage in southern Ukraine, it was I who was encouraged. It was a gift I wasn't expecting.
Thank you Vitalik for your faith. May it bring others encouragement as well.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Camp Reflections

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Well our two summer camps have come to a close and I am left with so many memories, thoughts, reflections, hundreds of faces in my mind and challening ways to pray. It is hard to know where to begin to "sumerize" this past month- so I will not try to do so in one post (for your sake and mine!). Instead keep checking back and over the next few weeks I will be taking time to write about specific moments and children that touched my life this past month.