Fourteen Octobers ago Bob and I flew to Ukraine with nine large storage crates of kids’ sports equipment on behalf of our local church–a couple basketball rims with nets, Frisbees, miscellaneous outdoor Nerf-type games, two or three American footballs, several basketballs, and many many many soccer balls. We also took air pumps because all the balls were deflated for transport. We’re smart that way.
Expecting trouble at every turn–check-in, security, and customs–knowing we’d most likely have missing items due to dishonest workers or mistakes in transfers from one flight to another, we braced ourselves for disappointment and disaster. My plan, as per usual, was to hide behind Bob when it all went down. So we breathed a prayer, loaded up the truck and set off for the airport before dawn.
From Idaho Falls to Minneapolis to London to Kyiv not one thing went wrong and we grabbed every single one of our treasures off the conveyor belt, stacked them on dollies and walked out into the Ukrainian sun feeling a little sheepish for our paranoia. Even our missionary friend who picked us up at the airport was a bit surprised at the smooth-as-butter travel experience our little family of crates had enjoyed. To this day I’m not completely convinced that those nine giant items didn’t somehow skip over an important step in Ukrainian customs just by the sheer speed at which they appeared. I helpfully suggested to Bob and to our friend that maybe we should ask the nice armed security guards about whether the airport maybe hadn’t vetted us quite thoroughly enough. Bob said no. Friend said no. We left. Quickly.
Ukraine is like a whole ‘nother country. I’m not kidding. It really is. This was Bob’s second time to encounter this beautiful eastern European culture but it was my first. We’ve traveled internationally both together and separately so maybe we could be called “fairly seasoned” travelers, but we’re not nearly in that upper echelon of folks (like our missionary friends) who know the ins and outs of cultures across the globe. Nope. There was much to learn. Here’s an informal list of a few things about which we became more educated, or at least humbled by:
**Kyiv city people walk fast and wear black leather coats.**
Okay, so that’s a ridiculous generalization, but when you’re being swept along in a speedy sea of black leather and have to step aside to catch your breath once in a while, you can understand how it might seem that way. Fourteen years ago I was in better shape than today but still nothing stellar. And there was indeed a serious lot of black leather. Happily, I brought my hip-length black leather jacket with me. Sadly, (and you’ll soon know why) I brought my hip-length black leather jacket with me.
**Children are the same everywhere.**
A very kind gentleman named Sergey drove us all over rural areas outside Kyiv so that we could make the promised deliveries of sports equipment to several orphanages and a couple of schools. My words are too small to give an adequate voice to that experience. Ukraine is a massive, amazing country with reverberations of past wars and regimes running through its veins as though they occurred yesterday. The culture is one of war remembrance. And even in this century hundreds of thousands of children pay the debt of communism’s collapse and the ensuing spiral of millions of adults into alcoholism and drug addiction. The ramifications of yesteryear are often played out in the lives of the youngest and most vulnerable.
And we came with soccer balls.
The administrators and workers at the state-run schools and orphanages were most kind, gracious, and expressed thanks. Giving gifts to us was important to them and we humbly accepted what they gave, including the occasional ornately decorated bottle of vodka. (Do you really have to ask if we poured it out? Come on. The empties are displayed in my china cabinet if you’d like to pop over and visit them.) Oftentimes groups of children would be brought in to see us. Oftentimes I didn’t want to leave.
One orphanage we visited in Vapnyarka was affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene. Bob had been to this one on his previous visit and it was important to him to return. Do you know Bob? Then you know his heart for babies and little ones. It was at this particular place a year before that he’d wrenched himself from a set of siblings that he’d deeply somehow, some way wanted to bring home to Idaho if it would’ve been in their best interest. We’d even talked and schemed and dreamed and prayed about it but to no avail. They were still there, a year older, and no less dear when I got to meet them. My oh my. We have continued to pray into their lives over the years, still wondering at the “what ifs” and “if onlys” but it wasn’t to be. That door was firmly closed.
And we came with soccer balls.
**Babushkas are short.**
I know. Another silly generalization. Not all Babushkas (grandmas) are short. Seemed like it though. Driving down country roads past country houses with country porches that need sweeping by country Babushkas make it appear that way. And their brooms are short too. Like two feet tall. I never once saw (and given, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time looking for) a full-size broom. And then I got to wondering, “Are the brooms short because the Babushkas are short or are the Babushkas short because the brooms are short?”
**Not all toilets are equal.**
Not going into detail here. To each his own. Ukrainian folk most likely look upon us as the weirdees in this situation. But sister, just between you and me, you’d better have some well developed thigh muscles.
**Kind hearted people are everywhere.**
From our dear missionary friends whom we’ve known forever to our driver to the leaders of the rural alcohol rehab centers to our hosts at the ministry center to our infinitely patient interpreter to the wonderful mother of our Kyiv Nazarene pastor’s wife who crocheted for me the most intricate doily I’ve ever seen–our people experiences were humbling and life changing. We encountered just the tiniest most minute portion of Ukranian hospitality, but we took away profound lessons and learned that a kind nod of the head and a hug or two counted for terrible language deficits on our part. We are thankful. And different for it.
**Your heat is not your own.**
That black leather jacket I brought? Late October in Kyiv? Not enough.
And guess what, friends? A tidbit you might want to tuck in your pocket before your next international trip is to do some research before you go–in Ukraine, at least when we were there, the government decides when the heat gets turned on; you don’t. Ever see the movie “Groundhog Day” when Bill Murray, after an ice cold shower, asks the nice Bed ‘n’ Breakfast lady why there isn’t any hot water and she looks at him like he just fell off the turnip truck and says with a sweet giggle, “Oh, there wouldn’t be today.” Mm hmm. That’s the scene that popped into my frozen little head.
Our wonderful cozy bedroom on the third floor of the Nazarene ministry center had an equally wonderful bed which we soon covered with a tower of all the blankets/coats/whatever we could find. I had an appalling paperback book I’d purchased at the Minneapolis airport which I read with a flashlight under the mountains of blankets and the terror it brought to my heart raised the temp at least a couple degrees. Finished it by the return trip and threw it in a trash can back at Minneapolis. If all the books around me in Kyiv hadn’t been in a different language/alphabet, I’d have moved on. But back to the silent radiator . . .
At long last, right up there with the first cries of my infant children as the most blessed sounds that have ever crossed my ears, was the cacophony of bangs and hisses from the third floor steam pipes as the heat finally rose up to us on our next-to-last day in country. Blessed most holy warmth. Thank you, random government people. Let there be life.
Then soon we went home. Minus soccer balls. And minus children.
There’s a funny/not funny story about our return trip when I misplaced my passport in London but we won’t go there because it makes Bob lose even more hair.
The gratefulness I’ve felt ever since that trip 14 years ago is not for the country I was fortunate enough to be born into. Don’t get me wrong; I’m deeply thankful to be an American. I’m proud and true and red, white and blue. However, the sweep of emotion that comes when these words about Ukraine flow is not from that pride of my own country. I’m thankful to have seen what’s elsewhere. To recognize that my way isn’t the only way, that the same sun I see each day in Oregon, USA rises and sets over a country of people who speak words foreign to my ears but dearly familiar to theirs and to God’s. People like you. People like me. Their children run and laugh and play and cry. That’s a language I can most certainly understand. That’s a universal language. They celebrate and suffer openly. And they trust until they learn not to.
My education is not sufficient to begin a diatribe on the condition of the world and how to solve global complexities. I’m sure you’re thankful I’m not even going to give it a go. Ha! All I can do is what I am equipped to do. Keep noticing, going, listening and learning. Refrain from acting like I know it all. Scooping up my grandchildren and whispering love to them, hoping and praying over their little lives that in the time they are given on planet earth, in the tiny corner in which they find themselves, that they will have open eyes and hearts of compassion for the people of the world around them, seeking to follow Christ as best they can, and will endeavor to represent that Light in all of life’s scenarios. Everywhere.
Peace, friends. And much love,
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
Romans 15: 5-7 NIV