In the liturgical prayers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, mention is often made of "those who care for the needy…" In doing so we remind ourselves of our obligation, or better said, our fulfilling of the Commandment of love by reaching out to those in need and securing for them, whom Christ in the Gospel according to the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew, calls the least of His brothers and sisters, quality life. I count it a distinct blessing to travel year after year to Ukraine with the youth of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA in partnership with the Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund to make in so many ways the all-healing presence of Christ, Healer of souls and bodies, known through the works of our humble efforts.
This year again, a group of 11 missionaries of the UOC of the USA traveled to Ukraine, visiting two orphanages that are sponsored by the Church. The children and the administration of both institutions welcomed the missionaries from the moment they arrived to the minute they left. Whether they were playing with them or just bringing food to the table in dining room, they never stopped assuring our missionaries that "Come back! You are welcome again and again."
Praying with children, doing arts and crafts, assisting nannies with their daily responsibilities, and painting – these are a few activities that the 11 Team members were involved this past trip, which lasted from July 30-August 15, 2009. From a healthcare perspective, our team was able to learn and share information with both the healthcare workers and the staff regarding prevention, diet, hygiene, and medication. We all learned how much culture influences healthcare. The staff workers and the administration of both orphanages in Znamianka (Kirovohrad region) and Puhachiv (Zhytomyr region) are doing a remarkable job of being sensitive to the individual needs of children while integrating poorly available modern healthcare skills and medicine into their practices.
This year, again, I was blessed to lead along with Carol Skocypec, a member of St. Ignatius of Antioch Orthodox Church in Mesa, AZ this year’s Mission Team to Ukrainian orphanages. The mission journey was organized by the Consistory of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA - Offices of Youth and Young Adult Ministry - Natalie Kapeluck-Nixon, Director - and Missions and Christian Charity - Protodeacon Dr. Ihor Mahlay, Director. This year's mission team consisted of nine students: Andrea Komichak and Oksana Mahlay of St. Vladimir Cathedral, Parma, OH; Mark Meschishen of Holy Archangel Michael Parish, Woonsocket, RI; Joseph and Andrew Zimmerman of St. Mary Cathedral, Allentown, PA; Lara Haluszczak of St. Vladimir Parish, Pittsburgh, PA; Subdeacon Vasyl Pasakas and Seminarian Vasyl Dovgan of St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary, South Bound Brook, NJ; Olesya Komichak, Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of Parma, OH.
Almost eleven years ago, the UOC of the USA in partnership with the Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund (CCRDF) adopted two (and now three) orphanages in Ukraine. Orphanages in Znamianka, Kirovohrad Province, Zaluchya, Ivano-Frankivsk Province and in Puhachiv, Zhytomyr province were selected because the homes were in particularly deplorable condition, housing children with physical and mental birth defects.
Olesya Komichak, a first time member of the Team described her experience as such: “Love is a very powerful emotion. The word “love” conveys many meanings; the affection for a husband or wife, the ability to give everything for a child, and the care for parishioners. God tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves; however, when we walk down the street or watch the evening news, do we really feel compassion for another’s pain or sorrow? Sometimes we do, but often we remark on his misfortune and then move on with our lives.
The children at Znamyanka run through my mind every day. The younger children were easy to please with simple hugs and games. Their genuine excitement from signs of affection gave us the opportunity to love them as our own children for those five days. Knowing I was able to make their day a little bit brighter makes the memory or the boys girls that much sweeter.
A nine year old boy named Serhiy is extremely bright, and already knows how to read and write in Ukrainian. He has learned with the help of a teacher who comes to the orphanage. When I met him on Sunday evening, Serhiy told me that he was looking forward to class the following morning, all while he figured out how to use our digital cameras. I enjoyed the time I spent with him that night as I sat on the floor of the hallway so I could be the same height as he is in his wheelchair. Serhiy has no use of his legs.
My team members and I often reflected on how different some of these children’s’ lives could be if given the chance to develop outside the orphanage. Serhiy has the intelligence to become something great, but it is limited due to the attitudes held by many Ukrainians against mentally and physically handicapped children. One of the saddest moments of the saddest and heart-wrenching moments for me happened when we took some of the older kids to the town of Znamyanka to experience life outside the walls of their orphanage. Each child smiled warmly and greeted passers-by with a hello and wave. Out of the dozens of people they said hello to, only a handful acknowledged their greetings. I was pushing Serhiy’s wheelchair down the dirt sidewalk as a young couple approached us. Serhiy waved and enthusiastically said hello. The couple turned their heads away and continued down the street. I tried to ignore their rudeness, but I looked down to see Serhiy turn around in his wheelchair, look up at me, then asked, “Why won’t anyone say hello to me?”
How do you tell a child that you love that people do not want anything to do with the handicapped? You do not because there is nothing that can be said. Even in Puhachiv where working with severely mentally disabled girls was an enormous challenge, I still could not help but want to make them smile, to let them feel loved.
My personal mission was to give as many hugs, and love these children as much as possible. Never could I have imagined that they would hold such a special place in my heart, nor did I ever believe I could be loved so unconditionally by children I barely knew. My thoughts and prayers are with all the children of Puhachiv and Znamyanka. My only wish is that everyone has an opportunity to love a child, or children, then way God allowed me to love those two weeks this summer…”
By its service to those in need, the youth of our Holy Church actively reminds us that we are indeed called to be stewards of the world entrusted to our care, our brother's keeper. We are also reminded that we, who have been gifted the gift of speech are obliged by word and deed to speak for that part of God's creation that cannot speak.
In conclusion, I must say that my episcopacy and the lives of many observant Christians of Ukrainian heritage are enhanced because of the service and dedication of the young people of our Church. With them, I offer my simple and humble prayer, asking God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to bless and accept your, the faithful members of the Holy Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, commitment to those in need. May our Faith and love be strengthened as we, following the advice of a father of the Church, Saint John Chrysostom, purify ourselves by responding to the cries and needs of those with whom we share the great gift of being created according to the image and likeness of God.