This past July 4th I left the land of the free and the home of the brave and traveled to a much different place. Ukraine has only been free from the Soviet Union for twenty-four years, but the deep history of that place, and the even deeper pride of its people is a stark contrast to the infantile patriotism of America. It’s a place not lacking in stories of hardship and struggle.
And despite these stories of hardship, they refuse to give up hope that there is always something more beautiful on the horizon. My purpose in traveling to Ukraine was to visit with a ministry called Last Bell. They work specifically with young people who have aged out of the orphanage system. Andre and Oksana Pankyeyeva had visited the ministry I work with, Outreach Inc. (working with homeless teens and young adults) earlier this year. Andre is the director of Last Bell and during their visit, we realized that even across these very different cultures the ministries have many similarities.
Visiting Last Bell was an invaluable experience. While we were there my team, consisting of Ellen Jackson (Last Bell board member), Robert Pallikan (former Outreach Inc. employee) and Max Oglesby (son of Ellen) were able to work closely with the staff of the ministry. A three day staff retreat was our main focus, but we also were able to visit the shelter, walk the city with some of the youth, experience the moms’ group and enjoy a party with Last Bell youth that had been some of the first in the shelter. Through these experiences, my lens for how our God cares for orphans has transitioned to a global view. It’s an exciting and encouraging thing to know His hand is at work in Indiana as well as Ukraine. He is active in His care for orphans in all parts of the world.
Spending three days with the staff in a beautiful wooded setting in the Ukrainian countryside allowed me to get to see them, not just as workers in a ministry, but as people who are deeply committed to the kingdom of God. We spent the three days writing out what we called our ‘personal narratives’ with the idea that seeing God working in our own lives gives us clarity to know that He can and will work in the lives of the youth we serve. Our team encountered the expected cultural differences; Americans are much more emotionally expressive. However, after our second day and prayer for the Spirit to work, we saw such beautiful things happen within the team. As each team member took the time to share a part of their story, we saw how God has woven this team together in an amazing way. They were respectful and responsive to each other. From the youngest female staff, to the oldest male they deeply care for each other and continually point each other to God and His love for them. I was sure as I sat in that room, I knew I was on sacred ground. The team became more intimately united as they allowed the Spirit to do this work.
After the retreat we were invited to experience other parts of the ministry. My unique experience was being able to sit in on a moms’ group meeting, as I run a similar program in Indiana. The girls filled the room and every spare inch of seating was taken up. I saw the deep respect the girls had for the female staff, which is evidence of the hard work that has been done to build trust. The youth were completely comfortable sharing their stories with the staff, and the essence of something more than social work was present. There was deep love, deep care and refreshing unity. It was evident that the staff were not there to run a program, but were greatly invested in the hope for these girls and their babies. Smiles, hugs and focused, concerned conversations made this abundantly clear.
After the moms’ group was over, we were able to visit the homes of some of the girls. Outside of one of the government houses, one of the children of a mom’s group participant and I were playing and giggling and chasing the stray kitten around the courtyard. Her bright eyes and shrieks of joy were refreshing that childlike spirits are universal. The inside of the home was in terrible condition, but this little girl still knew what it meant to enjoy a sunny day with a fuzzy kitten. As we spun around and I ran out of breath from laughing, I was keenly aware of how important it is to bring joy into wherever God takes us as His children.
The ministry of Last Bell does that. They know the dark stories and bring hope. They’ve seen fears come to reality and still fight for restoration. In a world where history is filled with uncertainties in government and structure, they bring the certainty that God is real, He is loving and He is advocating for the orphans of Ukraine. It was a particularly special gift to see a glimpse into this world; a world where hope is stubborn, in the best way.