Well our team from Texas has come and gone, I thought I’d give an update today while things are fresh in mind. Overall it was a very fruitful trip, thank you all for praying and supporting those that came. As many of you know, I’m not a big short term missions trip fan on the whole. I believe that if a group is going to raise $1000’s of dollars for only a week or two of on-site activity, it had better be worthy and helping the local indingenous church in a significant way. I can say without a doubt the week of activity here was a major stepping stone in gaining furthur trust and appreciation in our Ukrainian community. The attitude of the group was one of service, they were here to help us serve the community practically with some business training and education, as well as deepening the sister city relationship between Kilgore and RZ. The fact that 6 americans travelled acrosst the Atlantic to learn about their Ukrainian traditions, meet new friends, and share what informational resources they could to a struggling new democracy meant a lot to the Mayor, the leaders in city government and local business owners. Here are a few of the things the group experienced while here as well as some of my thoughts.
Tour of town: The group was led by Nadya Ivanova, the assistant to the Mayor. She holds much power in the town, and takes very seriously the interest of cultural preservation and has been our main point person since arriving (remember the christmas dinner). She took us around to some local schools, where we visited with some directors and caught of glimpse of the educational system here in Ukraine. We also were taken to a new company in town that produces paper goods, and employs roughly 100 people in town. We visited the nursing home, which the Mayor of RZ was formerly the director of.
Little kids sleeping at the government provided nursery school. Around 100 kids attend this particular school, ages 4-5-6. It’s provided year ’round, as most women in town are the providers in the home.
Roundtable: The city gathered each of their department heads to a conference like discussion in their main board room. Our group was fed practical questions of what life is like in the US, our education system, healthcare, tax structure, and eating habits:). I know most of the department leaders now, it’s neat to get to know them more, and in a setting like this with the group from Texas they could see that we have friends supporing us in our efforts to make a positive impact on the community.
Everyone knows that we are Christians, but we are not of the Orthodox faith, which means we are a ‘sect’, and to them, we are of a different religion. It’s amazing to me that we’d be considered a different religion when we theologically believe in the person and deity of Christ, His resurrection, and all the main tenants that make up traditional orthodoxy. Anyway, sitting down and sharing about practical issues with the town leaders is, I believe, a big step in helping them see that we unorthodox ‘Christians’ are normal, we are loving, and we take very seriously the teaching of the same messiah, only without the outward traditions of men demonstrated through their ‘religion’.
Business Seminar: Working together with the city economic development leaders, we rented a resort type facility 15 minutes away that we recently found out about. We setup a conference like room, brought our sound system, and invited around 40 business leaders/city workers to attend. We had around 30 show up to this, it was from 9am – 2pm and our speakers (Jeff Rash, Lisa Denton and Aaron Florzekowski) were given topics prior the trip to prepare for. The topics included “Becoming an Entrepeneur”, “Economic Development Basics” and “Customer Service”. They each did a great job sharing very simple principles that are either unheard of in Ukraine, or concepts that are still relatively new to the developing nation.
The question and answer time was quite lively, often with 10 folks at one time shouting out their thoughts.. if you didn’t know the culture you’d think they were mad, but this was a sign that they were engaged and interested. We will look to host more of these events, bringing in perhaps some folks from Kiev, and maybe more foreign guests as well. My main interest is to develop relationships for the influence of christian ethics, the business community and political climate is very unstable, they have only been a democracy for less than 20yrs, and their constitution continues to evolve creating many loopholes and room for all sorts of corruption which has become the standard in almost every aspect of business as a result. The businesses see (and rightly so I’m afraid) the government (local or federal) as prohibitors, as ‘stoppers’ toward personal and community improvement, there are little ways that the government can ‘help’ business, but a million options to shut you down. Our group was able to share about how business and community work together, and yet so much of what we take for granted (like taxes trickling down to the city, city makes new roads, schools etc) simply can’t work in Ukraine, at least yet. The taxes (which are seldom paid anyway) go directly to the federal level, and may or may not make it back to the community. So there isn’t any incentive for local government to help you, a new business that needs some help or wants to start is simply a burden and whether they come to your town or the next, makes little difference to the local government besides more headache. Simple concepts we benefit from in the west, are not here yet, and there is still a two-class system of rich and poor, with no middle class. The business seminar isn’t going to change these major national issues, but it does provide hope, connects people, and provides a way for God centered issues to be considered (honesty, integrity, helping others) in a new environment. “God” is very much an isolated religious topic here, kept within the four walls of the local church. We need to do more practical sharing about our faith in every other facit of practical life to show them Jesus is alive, His truth applies everywhere.
Dnepr Tour: The Mayor rented two small boats for our group and lead us on an expedition of the river. That was a alot of fun for the group. Their most attractive and natural resource for the region is the river, it’s deep and wide, with beautiful landscape and cliffs on either side. We also went to an old submerged village (after they dammed the river 50yrs ago), the only remains left is the orthodox church, about 170 yrs old, completely surrounded by water. Inside was a priest, he talked about the history of the area, the church, and said if we gave money the big Priest man from the region would pray for us… sounds like some faith preachers in the US.
Webcast: Near the end of our trip we hosted another skype webcast with Kilgore and Mayor Parker. It was neat for the group to see their Texas friends on the other side of the pond. This is the third time we’ve hosted this, and each time the group on both sides becomes more relaxed and is starting to have a lot of fun. We’re finally at the place where it’s ‘unscripted’ and I can simply start the call (this time both sides used projectors and speakers), then pass it over to the Mayors and they chat about anything from fishing to the economy. The Mayor from RZ presented the Kilgore folks with a couple of very nice gifts including a handcrafted violin, and a clay cup with RZ emblem and art chizeled in the side. After the skype call gift bags were presented to our team. I sat and thought to myself during this call how cool God is. Only a year ago the two towns didn’t know that either existed, and now look forward to saying hello in each others language. We have a special connection now and ‘inroad’ that allows us to operate locally as believers, as businessmen, and whatever else we feel God leading us to do in this town. My prayer and what I believe God calls us to do as believers is to become assets in the community. The Ukrainians don’t need to see a group of people meeting by themselves, occassionally coming out to do an ‘event’ or ‘outreach’, but relevant, need meeting and relateable fellow citizens. There are many others in town that love God and are doing practical things to help this cause, it’s exciting and going to produce fruit as we are faithful by God’s grace. Nadya touched my heart when after the Skype call she made a small speach thanking Daniel and myself for the work we are doing. They think it’s great that we aren’t just sitting up in our houses but working with them and trying to make the town a better place to live. She presented us with gifts as well, and to my astonishment kissed us both on the cheek. Ha! This is the same lady that really gave us a hard time pulling off the Christmas dinner, it has been a slow process of building trust, I’m not sure if a kiss means we have total trust, but it can’t be a bad thing:).
Picnic: This was probably the highlight for us, the town provided a very special Ukrainian feast of a picnic, complete with smoked fish, Sala (pig fat raw) on bread, fruit, some other local favorites including their beverages of choice (cough). Together with the Mayor, Nadya and Boyko (not really his name but what I call him, he’s the Economic Development guy), we had a looooong picnic meal which lasted about 2hrs. This was out at the cities little camp ground, overlooking the Dnepr. It was a former aviation / pilot rest camp. It looked about 100yrs old, but the natural beauty of the forest and river made up for it.
We experienced as a group first hand how to toast (everyone was required to toast at least once, the topic was ‘love’), and everyone really had a great time.. even if the food was out of this world. The group wouldn’t understand how special this was, it cost them personally, the city doesn’t have any money, literally, and the local workers including the mayor have taken 50% pay cuts 6 months ago. They really blessed us, and it was neat to talk ‘off the record’ on a number of topics, and feel that we are really getting to know them. It must be very puzzling for them to see Dan and his family, our family, and a number of other foreigners plugging into this community when they know we have left the pleasures and comforts of western life. I don’t know what I would think if I were them, probably that we are up to something and should be watched carefully! Well, we are up to something, we are trying to love our community with the love of Christ, gain trust and influence anyone we can to look to Him for help in this life, and the assurance of salvation for the next. The texas group helped us take more steps in this direction, thank you for coming guys!
Orphanage: the team brought over 3 suitcases full of nice kids shoes and new socks/underwear, we visited two orphanages and blessed them with enough for each kid to have at least one pair of shoes.
Wow, this is long. I have much more to say, or at least in my heart. I do want to thank Cheryl, Priscilla, Cassie, Deb, everyone who helped this past week. Together we served the community and our God. Thanks to Art who led the team, the team who took time off work and sacrificed some funds to do it. Svetlana for all the work setting up the business lunch and your trasnslation help. Tanya for helping Cassie in Kiev. Our church at Crossroads for praying, and sending over all the shoes, socks and underwear. The church here for praying and welcoming our guests. The guys at work who always step up a bit more when I dissapear for a week like this, everyone plays a role in this and I praise God for serving with you all.
Bruce & Deb