We spent two wonderful weeks in Odessa, Ukraine. I’ve been there twice before in the summer.  What a joy to reconnect with some of our interpreters from the two previous trips as well as make new friends. My small group consisted of a mother and daughter (Lynn and Lindsey) from Florida with Julia, our interpreter. She was a gem, with a deep love for children and an enthusiasm for ministry. We were also blessed on occasion to have Sidney – a big, big man with an even bigger heart and his interpreter, Oksana  – a beautiful young lady with a sweet, gentle spirit.  Sidney and  Oksana took a group out on the streets of Odessa every night to take food and  God’s love to the street Children.                            .            

My Ukrainian daughter, Natalie was able to spend a few days with us the first week. She is on staff with Ukraine for Christ, working with university students in her hometown of Lviv. Her friend, Ira came for a day. Ira is the first student   Natalie led to Christ. Now, Ira is discipling a young lady  also. So Natalie has  achieved her dream of being a spiritual parent (and grandparent!).

     We arrived in Odessa on a cold Wednesday afternoon and hit the ground running! After a quick orientation we were split into 11 small groups for ministry with Family Life Ukraine. Each group went to a different site. Our group went to a cultural center. Churches would invite families in their community to attend these Family Life Conferences. The program was divided into two parts. The first part had children and adults together for about an hour for games and songs – all related to how a family unit should work. Then we would take the children to a hall outside the conference room where they were shown a video by Max Lucado called “Punchinello” about a boy that others thought was insignificant. His creator, however gave him great significance because he made him and loved him. A young lady from the church then talked to the children about how our Creator loves us and gives us great significance. It was great seeing Ukrainians ministering to Ukrainians.

That’s our goal – to have nationals be able to do the work of ministry without outside help. Then we sang songs with them and shared our testimonies with them. We shared the  gospel using the gospel bracelet – a bracelet with colored beads ( black for our sin, a red heart for God’s love, white for the cleansing of our sin by the blood of Jesus, blue for the Holy Spirit, green for spiritual growth, yellow for heaven, and held together with a butterfly representing the new creation we are in Christ), and made butterflies as a craft.

On the last evening or our Family Life Conferences, we only had two children in our group. Julia went to other parts of the building and invited children to join us. We had five altogether. One of the original two children, a little boy about eight  years old, asked if he did enough good deeds, would he go to heaven. We were able to explain to him that we could not be good enough. It is only through what Jesus did for us that we could go to heaven. Would he have felt comfortable enough in a large group to ask that question? God has plans even to provide asmall intimate environment to call His children unto Himself. How wonderful to be a part of God’s master plan to bring those two children unto salvation!

During the next week we visited children in two boarding schools, a shelter, and a baby home. We also participated in programs at several churches where they would invite needy families to the church to receive food, clothing, and school supplies and also had the opportunity to hear the gospel.

Monday we went to a boarding school. When we got there, we found out that the school was closed because of the bitter cold weather. The children were all sent home except for those who had no home to go to. So twenty five of us crowded into this small classroom with about ten to fifteen children. We had so much fun playing with them! We were able to share the gospel with them and just love them. They were so hungry for the attention!

Tuesday, we traveled about one and one half hours outside of Odessa to visit a boarding school where the children were either from families who for some reason couldn’t take care of them or they were truly orphans with no parents. We went to a room with children about five years old. We gave them bracelets and told them to always remember when they look at the red heart on the bracelet that God loves them and always will. One little guy came up to me and showed me his bare arms, wanting another bracelet. I thought he was trying to pull a fast one and get  more than one bracelet. Julia asked him what he wanted and he said the teacher didn’t get a bracelet. When I  went to give a bracelet to the teacher, she already had one. He had given her his bracelet!        

Wednesday we went to a shelter where children are brought off the streets. They are given a medical exam and stay there for about 90 days before being moved to a more permanent facility. This place not only had children, they had dogs and cats also! The director told us they take in all the homeless, even animals. When we went to our group of children, they took us on a tour of their living quarters. We walked into the bedroom and there  sprawled out in the middle of the bed was a dog sound asleep! I told them that was just what my dog does! These children were very hungry for our love and attention. At the beginning of our time there we were treated to a small program by the children. One little girl came over to sit in front of me. I said hello (one of the few words I know in Russian!) And reached out my hand to her. She grabbed my hand and didn’t want to let go!

One more place I want to tell you about is First Steps – a place where street kids can go to get a hot meal , a shower, and a listening ear. It is located in the basement apartment of an old building. From the outside, it looks like just an old rundown apartment. But it’s what takes place inside that makes it unforgettable to a busload of American missionaries. When the kids arrive here they are given a shower, then stay for lunch, games, and dinner. Before they get dinner they must participate in a bible study. The couple who oversee this place are from Canada. They are missionaries serving with World Hope Canada. They told us these kids are streetwise. They know how to find food. They come here for the unconditional love. And come they did.   Several of the kids tacked songs sheets on the wall and we started singing. As we sang the kids kept coming until the tiny room was packed with kids. As we were singing, I looked at their faces – each one with a story – what was it that sent them to the streets – abusive parents, parents who were alcoholics or drug abusers? What hurts were each one carrying? I felt the tears flow and I know I wasn’t the only one. When I explained the gospel bracelet to them they knew all the answers. How much of what was in their head was also in their heart, only God knows. I talked to Carole, the Canadian missionary, and she shared a couple of their stories. One young girl was raped by her father and brothers when she refused to walk the streets as a prostitute at her father’s insistence. She left home and has been living on the streets ever since.   Lynn ( from my small group) left her coat with one of the girls. She lives in Florida and won’t need it at home.                                               

The next day we went to see Hope House – the next step for the street kids from First Place. This is a home run by a Ukrainian couple that has ten to fourteen kids who call it their home. They learn what it’s like to live in a loving Christian home. We were welcomed at the door by Alla, the mother. The two story house is surrounded on three sides by fields where they grow their own food. There are also chickens and  pigs kept in a yard behind the house. We were given a tour of the house and then spent time with the kids – kids who have been given a second chance – hope.

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We flew to Kiev and then traveled by bus to the city of Rivne, in the western part of Ukraine, not far from the city of Lviv, where my Ukranian daughter, Natalie is from. Ironically, she was here in the States visiting her American “Grannie” and “Grampa”.

We received a warm welcome from our interpreters, a wonderful group of young adults eager to be our voices to the children (and adults) of their city. Several of them are missionaries with Operation Mobilization ministering to youth and reaching out to neighboring villages with Christian literature and humanitarian aid (sounds a lot like what we do with GAIN USA)

On this trip, we added another element to our ministry. In the evenings, we worked alongside Family Life, another ministry of Campus Crusade, helping them with Family Seminars they were holding throughout the region. These seminars lasted about three hours. The first half of the program included singing, skits, and games for the whole family. Then for the second half, we took the children while the parents received more instruction. Some places, we showed the Jesus Film for Children, but most places the children had already seen the film so we let our collective imaginations go wild in order to entertain the children for one and ½ hours. It was exhausting, but worth every ounce of energy it took to hear at the end of the week that more than 70 couples had signed up for a weekend away to be refreshed and renewed in their marriage.

On several of the days, we traveled to towns several hours outside of Rivne to our ministry sites. On one particular day, we went to the town of Mlinev, where we visited an Elderly center in the morning. About 20  Elderly folks live here, just like in our nursing homes. We were able to provide them with clothing, canes, walkers, and crutches, and we collected money for them to build a kitchen attached to the building. Currently, they have to carry the food down an ally to the building where the residents live. After having lunch at the church we were working with there, half of our group headed back to Rivne for the evening program with Family Life while the rest of us were invited to the homes of several church members where we had several hours of much needed rest. As we reconvened outside the community center where the evening seminar would be held, we watched them coming – families with children, lots of children! We wondered, would we have enough gospel bracelets, balloons, energy, for all these children! We prayed, made our plans, and then went into the auditorium for the first half of the seminar. When the children were dismissed for the second half of the program, we were in the middle of  a mob of children, carrying us toward the doors. As we stood there in the middle of a sea of expectant faces, our plans were tossed out as we embraced God’s plan for these little ones. We sang some songs, played some games, and shared God’s love with them using the gospel bead bracelet. What a joy it is to look into the faces of these children (and adults) that God has called us to serve and tell them of God’s great love!

In addition to the Elderly Center, we also visited a prison for boys where we were able to share that God’s love is greater than anything they may have done and it is freely offered to them. We also went to a baby house, a preschool, a shelter for minors, and a boarding school for mentally disabled children.

Let me tell you about the boarding school! The children were severely mentally disabled and very easily excited. We gathered as a group in one room at the school. One of our team had a puppet which she used to break the ice and allow us to get to know them. We then played some games using an inflatable ball. After getting them all excited we calmed them down by holding them and singing quietly to them of Jesus’ love. Then we took them outside to a playground to play. One little girl kept taking our hands to help her walk on a balance beam over and over again. Something tells me that the staff of the school doesn’t have the time to give this kind of personal attention these children crave so much! We then took the children back inside to give them their backpacks with school supplies. What happened next is definitely something only God could orchestrate. Jimmy and Pat are dear friends of mine. Pat was my roommate for several of these trips until she convinced her husband, Jimmy to come along. Now he’s hooked as much as we are! The suggestion was made that we take a backpack and give it to a child that was special to us. I gave mine to the little girl from the balance beam. Jimmy gave one to a little girl that had latched onto him at the very beginning of the day. She even called him “papa”. That’s all it took to steal Jimmy’s heart! As he was showing her the contents of the backpack, he pulled out the letter from a friend in the USA and found that the letter was from their granddaughter!! I’m getting goose bumps just writing about it! God is so good!

Our interpreters taught us a little song that sums it all up. See if you can say this!

Bog do mene dobrey!

Bog do mene dobrey!

tremaye ruku sferihye

Bog do mene dobrey!

What does it mean? God to me is good!

God to me is good!

He’s holding my hand, He’s protecting me

God to me is good!

Amen! Whether we live in a land of plenty, like we do in the USA, or in a land where many don’t know where their next meal is coming from; whether the road ahead is smooth or filled with trials and struggles, God to me is good!

     When I was in 8th grade, my geography class studied the USSR for the entire year. I remember thinking, “Why would I want to learn about the USSR! They are our enemies!” Growing up during the Cold War, when I thought of Russia I thought of a strong military with  missiles aimed at our cities, and a nation where faith in Christ could lead to imprisonment, and possibly death. In the early 1990’s, when glasnost was introduced, the doors to Russia swung wide open to allow  vacationers to enter. I remember seeing brochures announcing cruises that included stops in Leningrad and Moscow. And thinking, “There’s no way I would take a cruise with stops in Russia!” All that changed in 1995 when I took the first of many trips with GAIN USA, formerly Josh McDowell Ministries.

    GAIN USA was founded by Josh McDowell when he saw the deep spiritual vacuum in Russia and the surrounding countries caused by 70 years of communist rule, and the extreme poverty of those same countries struggling to establish democratic governments. With the help of generous people from all over the United States, GAIN USA is able to provide the children in these countries with food, medicine, clothing, school supplies, and teddy bears. The volunteers who deliver these gifts then share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the children through their personal testimonies and with the use of a little bracelet with different colored beads on it, each representing what God has done for us by sending His son, Jesus to pay the price for our sins. We have visited public schools, boarding schools, hospitals, orphanages and shelters. More recently we have visited homes for deaf, blind, and severely disabled, and even homes for the elderly. We’ve also worked alongside churches who invite needy families to the church for a special program and then give them bags containing food, clothing, and school supplies.  I’ve been to Russia, Belarus (a small nation devastated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident), and Ukraine. Why do I keep returning? Read on and you’ll see why.

    One of my favorite parts of these trips is to have the opportunity to stand in front of a group of children and share the gospel. It was a real stretch for me to do this at first and still, when I stand in front of our group of volunteers on orientation day and demonstrate how to share, I get nervous. But when I see the faces of the children and sometimes their parents, I’m filled with such love for them and the words just come – not my words, God’s words. Just to be able to stand there and tell them face to face how much God loves us! He sent His son to die for us to pay the penalty for our sin so that we can be with Him for eternity! I feel so blessed to be able to share this wonderful message!  

    On each trip, it seems that there is at least one child or group of children that each of us really connects with. The leader of our group calls these moments “Ahh” moments. It can happen when you pick a small child up and they snuggle against you, or when you see their reaction to their first teddy bear. I remember a little girl from a baby house (orphanage for children up to age five) in Odessa, Ukraine. When I opened a box full of teddy bears, her face lit up and she came running over with her arms wide open! She took the teddy bear and held it out and looked at it, then gave it a big hug, then held it down toward her feet, then gave it another big hug, then held it up in the air, and hugged it again and again! I can still see the sheer delight on her face! I also see the face of the little girl with Downs Syndrome in a boarding school for severely disabled children in Chernigiv, Ukraine. During a program the children performed for us, she sat in front of me, peering over the seat shyly. She and another little girl did a dance with teddy bears. It wasa very simple dance, but she was so proud! When they were finished, she came back and sat down and peeked over the seat with a big grin on her face! I’ll never forget a little boy about six years old  in a boarding school in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. We had fitted each of the children in the class with new sneakers. His were the only pair that lit up when he walked. He was running around the room and the other children were running after him and hitting the sneakers to make them light up. The teacher turned off the lights and you should have heard the children shriek with delight as this little boy danced all around the room making his sneakers light up.

    We went to a boarding school for deaf children outside of Moscow, Russia. When we go to our ministry sites, we have one interpreter for about six of us, not enough when the children are all clamoring to communicate with us! At an assembly with all the children at the beginning of our day, one of our volunteers shared with the children the sign language for “I love you.” She said that even though we cannot always understand each other, if we make the sign, “I love you,” we will be able to understand that. The rest of the day, little hands signing “I love you” popped up all over the school wherever we went. Even at the end of the day as our bus was pulling away from the school, we were still exchanging “I love you’s” with the children waving goodbye outside the bus.

    We visited a reform school for boys in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. We walked past a high barbed wire fence, through a courtyard, and into a small room, lined on three walls with boys aged six to 16 dressed in uniform with dark brown pants and beige shirts. These boys were taken off the streets, addicted to anything from sniffing paint to alcohol and harder drugs – anything to dull the pain of broken homes and the hard life on the streets. At the reform school they are introduced to Jesus Christ, the One who would remain by their side through their pain. We saw pictures of what their life was like on the streets as they shared their stories with us through tear-filled eyes. Our group went to a class of the oldest boys. At the end of the school year they would graduate and be on their own once again. I felt the strong urge to tell them over and over to not forget how much God loves them – with an everlasting love. He will never leave them or forsake them. As we left the room, the boys crowded around us for hugs. It was so hard to let them go!

    One of most unforgettable experiences of my trips with GAIN USA was our visit with gypsies in Uzgorod, Ukraine. I don’t think I was the only one on our team to approach our visit with some anxiety. These people are professional beggars and often alcoholics. It’s not unusual for one man to have several wives and many children who are sent out to beg for a living.  My only contacts with gypsies up to this point had been encounters with the beggars on the streets who would hang on you with tear-filled eyes with one hand out while another was trying to get in your pockets. Even our Ukrainian interpreters had to overcome their own prejudices in order to minister to the gypsies. These gypsies, or “Romans” do not settle in one place for long and are hated by the nationals in the countries where they make their home. I prayed that God would help me to love these dirty, smelly beggars and thieves as He does. Our day with the gypsies showed me the truth if I take the first step, God will help me with the next. As our bus pulled up to the gypsy camp of Perachin in the mountains outside of Uzgorod, the street was lined with the gypsies. We stepped off the bus and walked toward them and as we reached out our hands to say hello, God did a wonderful miracle! I can’t explain it, but we fell in love with these “Romans.” They led us to the village past broken shacks with very little to keep out the cold in winter and to keep in the stench in summer. We started our program singing praises to God along with the worship band from the gypsy church. I couldn’t help but compare the joy filled faces of the believing gypsies to the pain filled faces of the beggars in the city. I thought how great an example this was of what God does for us. He takes us ugly sinners and changes us into beautiful new people when we believe in Him. I looked into the faces of these beautiful children and my heart swelled more and more with love for them. I shared to gospel with them through tear-filled eyes, telling them that their sin was not any different from my sin. There is no sin that is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness if we just ask Him. They walked us back to the bus, a different group of Americans than had walked in a few short hours ago.

    So you see, these trips not only make a difference in the lives of these broken and needy people of the former Soviet Union, but it makes a difference in the lives of those of us who have been called to minister to them. I’m not the same person who boarded a plane bound for Russia that January day in 1995. It has taken away any desire to accumulate possessions for myself. God has blessed us so that we can in turn bless others. My co-workers have been a wonderful blessing to me as they fill my suitcases again and again with gifts for the Russian, Belarusians, and Ukrainian people. God has given me many wonderful friends from both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union as we minister side by side. He has also blessed me with a beautiful “Ukrainian daughter” – one of my interpreters who has become a very special friend. As God enables me, I’m looking forward to many more trips with GAIN USA. Come on along! I guarantee that you’ll never be the same! 

 

I can’t believe I’m actually writing on a blog site! I’m always looking for new ways to share what God is doing through my missions trips to Ukraine and so I thought I’d try blogging. Hopefully I will have the time to gather reports from previous trips and share highlights here. So join me on this journey. Hope it is as exciting for you as it has been for me for these last 16 years (Wow! Can’t believe it’s been that long!).