Participating in mission trips has been a core family value for us since early in our marriage. Our family has been on five mission trips together, four involving our two boys and one before they came along. We made trips to North Carolina, South Texas, skid row in Los Angeles, La Ceiba Honduras and Guadalajara, Mexico.
In all those mission trips, I can honestly say that “love for our neighbor” was not the primary motivation. Not that we didn’t love our neighbor, but we were more motivated by an opportunity to disciple our children, be exposed cross-culturally and socio-economically, to minister to others and to regain our stewardship moorings in a materialistic and consumeristic culture. Love for our neighbor was part of the fabric, but not the central theme of our trips. All of that changed with Ukraine.
All of the trips have been special, but the Mennonite Brethren church in Ukraine and the people of Ukraine have captured our hearts! My wife, Ellynne, and I participated in a mission trip to Ukraine July 18 to August 1, 2019, to partner with MB churches in delivering a summer Bible camp for children ages 7–13 and in building playground equipment. Just six months later, I returned January 3–11, 2020, to assist in delivery of Gifts of Hope (boxes for children containing school supplies, toys, candy, household items and a Bible), partnering with seven MB churches. Both trips were sponsored and led by Mission Eurasia.
The idea of going to Ukraine and this special love for the people of Ukraine had been building over two decades. My role at MB Foundation has given me many opportunities to interact with immigrants from the former Soviet Union. As we’ve grown older, we’ve had a growing desire to return to southern Russia (Ukraine), the home of our ancestors. But recent friendships with Sergey Rakhuba and Michael Cherenkov and their families, both from Ukraine, along with our partnership with the ministry they serve (Mission Eurasia) developed in us a much stronger sense of love for the people of Ukraine. Add to this the growing emergence of 11 MB churches in Ukraine, and all the pieces had fallen in place.
In July, Ellynne served mostly in a summer Bible camp for campers ages 8 to 14. Volunteers from Mission Eurasia and our MB church in Berdyansk, Ukraine, ran the camp. They illustrated the very essence of “loving our neighbors” as they told us that they were allowing no more than 20 percent of the campers to be from Christian homes. Very different from the way we do camp in America. The focus was on reaching the lost!
Even though language was a huge barrier, it is not one that can’t be overcome with a smile, a hug (pre-pandemic!) and a laugh. Our time at the camp was deeply moving, especially when passing out Bibles and Christian literature to all of the campers and seeing the joy on their faces when receiving these gifts. That night, out of 180 campers, over 100 accepted Jesus as their Savior.
I spent most of the mission trip helping to build a playground for the village of Balkavo, at the MB church in the village. This village is about 1 kilometer from the first MB church building built in Ukraine—Ruckenau MB Church, built in 1883. I was working in the heart of the Molotschna Colony, the birthplace of the Mennonite Brethren. While I was relishing in the work and the location and doing my best to befriend the five young men from the village that worked with me, at times I wasn’t sure how I was adding value. These young men worked hard and were much more suited to the manual labor. Communication was even more of a struggle than at the kid’s camp, as no translator was present.
I worked hard and tried to build relationships, and it seemed to be working. The young men urged me to play volleyball with them the first evening. After working till 7 p.m. and eating dinner, it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. But love for my neighbors compelled me. The second evening, we watched a movie in the sanctuary, projected onto a wall, completely in Russian. I had seen the movie before, so I could offer a laugh at the right times.
Our project leader, 65-year-old Sasha, told me later through an interpreter that he was amazed how the young men took to me and respected me. He said he had much to learn from me. Praise the Lord for using me as an encouragement to my new neighbors.
On Friday evening, the whole community was invited out for a ribbon cutting ceremony and dedication of the new playground. Even the village mayor showed up and gave a speech. Nearly 200 were in attendance from a village of about 400. It was my privilege to cut the ribbon. It was at this ceremony that I learned the reason some of the young men stayed in the background at the celebration was because they are known as local “criminals” and are not well-received by the community. So, unbeknownst to me, I was working alongside, encouraging and playing with “criminals.” I trust God used me to love these neighbors.
When I returned to Ukraine in January 2020, I had the amazing privilege of loving on so many as we distributed Gifts of Hope to hundreds of children through the local MB churches. The children were starved for affection, so grateful for the small gifts and Scripture and amazed that people from America would come to visit them to tell them about Jesus’ love.
Brief highlights from this trip include:
- Returning to the MB church in Balkavo, and on Orthodox Christmas Eve, 1 kilometer from the first MB church building in Ukraine, within 10 kilometers of the birthplace of the Mennonite Brethren movement, I was asked to share the gospel. Over 25 adults and children made a profession of faith that evening. I love these neighbors!
- Meeting a family of 10 in Ruckenau village. The mother was 33 years old and one of the children was severely handicapped. When asked, the father couldn’t remember names of his children. Their milk cow had just died. We gave them Gifts of Hope and prayed with them. Later we raised $600 among our mission team to buy them a new cow plus feed for the winter. I venture to say that not one of us truly missed that money. I’m praying that our love for this neighbor helps them understand God’s love and makes a lasting difference.
- Being inspired by an evangelical church in Tokmak who for five days put on a Christmas show three times each day to tell the city about God’s love. Ninety volunteers were involved in the production. We distributed Gifts of Hope after one of the productions, where about 125 people were packed into the small sanctuary. An amazing example of loving your neighbor on display.
- At the gift distribution in our MB church in Novomoskovsk on Christmas Day, we were able to spend significant time with the mayor of this city of 70,000. A former senior communist official, we prayed for him and showed him love and respect, again hoping that God’s love would be more real to him as a result.
- We also visited our MB church in Adveevka, a city of 30,000. The church is located about 1.5 km from the Russian/Ukraine war front. Across the street from the apartment complex lay a field of land mines. Portions of the building were blown out from shellings. Yet, here sits a new MB church, ministering to the war-torn region of Ukraine, sharing God’s love with all who will receive it. We participated in a service and gift distribution for about 100 children. Children with little hope, were given spiritual hope that day.
- From there, we drove alongside land mine fields and into the bombed out village of Opytnoe on the front lines. As we approached, the village seemed completely abandoned. After parking next to an apartment building, elderly people began to gather around our vans. About 40 people are still living in this village; they have had no running water or electricity for over five years. We shared a word of encouragement, hugged them, prayed with them, gave them canned turkey from MCC and Scripture. In our hour or so together, we attempted to show them God’s love.
In all of these varied circumstances, we encountered “our neighbor.” Sometimes, I was able to show them God’s love. Many times, I saw God’s love in them and in the dedicated people that make up the Association of MB Churches in Ukraine. Today, Ellynne and I pray for and regularly support the MB churches in Ukraine. We love these neighbors!
Since the pandemic started, I’ve met with these church leaders on three separate occasions to provide education on stewardship. We look forward to our next trip to Ukraine. With joy we have experienced what it says in James 2:8: “Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”