It is almost a daily routine by now for the team members of the 2010 College Student Mission Trip to Ukrainian orphanages to get up at about 7AM, get in a cold shower, offer morning prayers and to begin their work with the children of either the Znamianka, Kirohovrad Region or Puhachiv, Zhytomyr Region orphanages in Ukraine – both adopted by our Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.
The orphans are already in the hallways, making joyful noise, playing with each other and yet peeking through the glass windows to see whether our group is ready to come out and to begin their day. It is a great feeling to be unconditionally loved by these children, who want to play with you, try your glasses on and especially pull your beard and hair. How great it is to chant your prayers in the hallway in front of the icon, as the children pull on your cassock and try to peek in your prayer book in order to share in a short morning prayer service. There is one young man, Borys, who is severely handicapped, always in the wheelchair, with twisted arms and legs and a severe speech impediment; but so full of life when you talk to him about God and discuss with him our Lord’s love and mercy. Borys reads his Bible daily and challenges us with questions that touch the very core of our human existence, as children of God.
Five weeks ago, this group of college students and their advisors returned from our annual two-week mission experience in Ukraine. We went to do pretty much what our Lord instructed the seventy to do: to say to those whom we served, "…the kingdom of God has come near to you. God loves you and we love you too!" We said it by playing with handicapped children, painting, shopping for shoes and clothing at the local markets, taking children for a walk through the local towns - all for children who are not able to do these things for themselves in an institution that is unable do these things for the children because of staff shortages and financial concerns. It was a gift – a pure blessing of God bestowed upon us to have this opportunity to help these children. What better way to say, "God loves you and we love you too!" than to offer an act of love, which is what mission is all about…
This year, our College Age Mission Team consisted of eight members: Bohdan Billy of St. Katherine Parish, Arden Hills, MN; Aleksandra Huscha of St. Volodymyr Cathedral, Chicago, IL; Fernando Melnychenko of St. Andrew Cathedral, Silver Spring, MD; Montgomery Swann of St. Michael and St. George Parish, Minneapolis, MN; Seminarians Subdeacons Vasyl Pasakas and Vasyl Dovgan of St. Sophia Seminary, South Bound Brook, NJ; Tatianna Palylyk of Protection of the Birth-Giver of God Ukrainian Catholic Parish, Mount Kisco, NY and Alexandra Holowatij of St. Michael Byzantine Catholic Parish, Mishawaka, IN. These young adults represented our Church, which has sponsored the Orphanage Adoption Program in conjunction with the Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund.
Year after year, trips like this one expose the youth of the Church to the often unknown and unopened pages of human existence. One of the team members, in a reflection following the return from Ukraine, offered: “There are days when I would love to go back to my old reality, to my child-like expectations that everyone in need will be provided for. But I can't. I can no longer plead ignorance. I wish I could pretend that many of the most basic human rights, things like food, education and health, aren't being denied to people around the world, people whose only difference from me is their disability. I have realized my own personal, moral responsibility to make every possible effort to change the things I have seen.”
I often read such reflections and pray to our Lord for the team members as well for the children in the orphanages that with tears in their eyes bid farewell to all of us, as we get in a minivan or on a train and depart until the following year. Sitting on that train or in that car is a torture, because you leave behind something so precious and unconditionally open to love and yet, you understand that you must go on in order to somehow influence and change the future.
I vividly remember the exact moment my reality shifted, when I visited the orphanages for the very first time. There were metal bed frames, some with mattresses and some without. There were children on the concrete floor. The combined smell of urine, human body odor and vomit was nauseatin. In that precise moment, my whole world was turned upside down. I still feel the expressions on their faces burning in my eyes and the emotion of their screams ringing in my ears. It is a moment that will be forever etched in my memory and will forever influence every decision I make. Life became something new. Things are different at the orphanages now. At times, I do not even remember what it used to be like 10 years ago. Physical rehabilitation rooms with appropriate equipment, decent clothing, play grounds, better nutrition – these are fruits of the labor of all the faithful of our Holy Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA who have contributed to our Orphanage Adoption Program over the past 10 years – fruits that changed not only the physical structure of the orphanage, but the way in which the children there are cared for.
"We live in a world that is constantly telling us we need more—more money, more popularity, more stuff. But what do you really need more of? And what do you need less of? After all, Christ Himself asks us to have less "me" things—less fear, less here and now rewards and less ego. Sometimes we even need to do less so that we can have a better relationship with our Lord. When we worry less about "me" and, instead, focus on Christ we get more—more courage, more time to be in a relationship with God and more ability to love others.” - These were the words of our discussions as we ministered to the children of the orphanages and to each other this year. Together we were given the opportunity and the challenge to step out of our comfort zones, we were given opportunities to serve as the hands and feet of Christ for those who fall between the cracks, who tend to be ignored and who struggle on a daily basis.
Another team member mentioned near the end of the trip: “…one thing remains constant—when we take time to serve others, we also are given the opportunity to change our own life and to transform them. Often the intent is to go and help others and to make a difference—but in the end, it is the one serving who is helped and those being served have made a huge difference in the lives of the one serving. I have yet to meet anyone who has gone on a mission trip and not come away changed in some manner. Our lives are changed. Worldviews and perceptions are altered. For some of us, seeds of new and renewed faith are planted. And we grow in faith and love toward all of God's children. And this is a good thing…”
Throughout our journey to the orphanages we took time in both the mornings and in the evenings for prayers, discussions and silent reflection. The experiences from the trip are good lessons for each of us, regardless of whether we are living and serving in distant places or right in our own neighborhoods. There is an unending need in our lives to step back and realign our priorities and values so that they greater reflect the Faith we confess; along with the need to seek and draw closer to our Lord, rather than the way we tend to understand the Holy Faith as something that brings us comfort and peace. We look to Christianity to enrich our own lives, and look to God to bestow on us gifts and graces. The need is for us to be proactive in living our Faith and not passive, expecting it to come to us! Mission trips are exciting, fun and intense to be sure. But those of you who read these reflections need not wait until the next mission trip takes place. Use the gifts you have been given by God to find a way to help others and to tell them the truth: "…the kingdom of God has come near to you. God loves you and we love you too!"
I must say that my Episcopacy and the lives of many 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 the faithful members of our Holy Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA for their commitment to those in need. May our Faith and love be strengthened as we, in the words of Saint John Chrysostom, “purify ourselves by responding to the cries and needs of those with whom we share the great gift of being created in the image and likeness of God”.