Catching Up

We found ourselves busier than we anticipated this spring heading into the summer months.  It was a good kind of busyness.  We are thankful for so many opportunities God has graced us with.  Opportunities to share the Gospel with many young people of Eastern Europe.  We are thankful for the opportunities that God has given us to live out our faith in gratitude for the gift of salvation He has given us through the blood of Jesus Christ.  We often dwell on the here and now of our earthly lives and spend little time looking towards our heavenly home.  I hope this year through the work of the Holy Spirit we were able to plant seeds in lives and hearts of many young people that this life is but temporary, as we look towards our glorious future of everlasting life, dwelling with and praising God.  We hope and pray that the words and deeds that were heard and observed by many young people in our English lessons and clubs, Bible Retreats, and other ministries point towards our precious hope that is in Christ alone.

The focus of these latest blogs, although belated, has been upon spring events.  In our next blogs we will give a report on our summer camps which the LORD blessed immensely.  With thankful hearts and humble praises, Soli Deo Gloria.

I never got around to posting a blog I wrote last spring about the beauty of spring in Ukraine.  I thought it was still worth posting.

Spring abounds with hope and renewal.  The changing of the season passes by, giving hope of new life and a renewed creation.  As beautiful as the winter is, what a glorious transformation to watch the snow melt and to see the wonder of life and color return after the dormant sleepy months of winter.  Life in the villages of Ukraine with the spring season come to life in buzzing activity following months of house bound winter captivity. Ukraine will never have spring time fame like the flower fields of Holland, or the cherry trees blossoming in Washington D.C. or Tokyo.  Yet, with an abundance of fruit trees joined by a variety of flowers perfectly suited for life and growth here, Transcarpathia, Ukraine, lacks nothing in beauty during the spring time months.  The snow flowers are the first to appear, often before the snow even melts away, soon followed by the Crocus covering the forest floor in a majestic sea of purple.  These early spring flowers are soon replaced by tulips, fruit tree blossoms, and many other flowers too numerous to name here.  Spring is my favorite season in Ukraine.  All of creation in every season testifies of God and proclaims His name and His handiwork.  The coming to life of creation in the spring time reminds me of God’s promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth.  What a glories day it will be to see God’s perfect creation where there will be no more pain and suffering or death, and every tear will be wiped away.

Roma Outreach

On the outskirts of most towns and cities live the Roma.  Roma are not Hungarian or Ukrainian, but rather originally natives of India who immigrated in the middle ages to Europe.  Living in impoverished camps and mud brick homes, the vast majority of Roma have never or rarely been to school and are illiterate.  The local church has begun a number of kindergartens and afternoon school learning centers for Roma children in an attempt to bring the gospel to these people, as well as to educate them by teaching them to read and write.  Typical kindergarten activities and games are also conducted and it is also an opportunity for the children to eat a hot lunch.  We partner with one of these kindergartens every Tuesday afternoon through winter and spring months by bringing high school students from the Peterfalva Reformed High School to organize an afternoon program of a Bible story and lesson, singing and prayer, crafts, writing exercises, and games.  We believe that this a great opportunity for students from the high school to show the love of Christ to a less fortunate people of their own communities.  We hope and pray that it will also aid in removing the racial barrier that divides and separates the Roma from their Ukrainian and Hungarian neighbors.  It is a valuable opportunity for the young Roma children to learn about God and the Bible as well as to practice and learn necessary life skills such as reading and writing and table manners. 

Our second major program involving Roma this past year was an after school program in the city of Beregszasz.  Local university students partnered with us in this endeavor.  The university students go on a weekly basis to conduct an after school program centered around beginner English lessons and a devotion.  The after school program was well attended and we were proud of the diligence and effort the university students gave on behalf of children who attended showing them the love of Christ. 

Involvement in the Roma community came in different ways this past year.  A local pastor by the name of Elemer helps to run the local Roma kindergarten.  He regularly drives up and down the streets of the village picking up children in the camp and taking them to the kindergarten.  Many of these children probably would not attend if it was not for the ride he offered to take them.  Driving from one camp to another he must also pass by the local state school.  Allowing him to take older children to school as he passes by to collect younger children for the kindergarten.  Many of the older children like their younger siblings would not attend if not for someone making an effort to go and get them.  Pastor Elemer’s van broke down for a couple of week stretch this past spring.  He asked me to cover for him with our old yellow Volkswagen van.  It was an interesting and eye opening experience for me to see his involvement in the Roma community and to transport van loads of children back and forth to school and kindergarten.

 

 

One late spring night Elemer organized a special outreach evening with a guest speaker in the Roma congregation.  Over one hundred people came and packed the small building.  Lasting long into the night, upon nights end I was asked to transport mothers, infant babies and small children back to the camp to save them a two mile walk in the dark. Once again I felt blessed that God has opened these small windows into the life of the Roma.   

 

Ultimate Frisbee And Pizza In The Park

Ultimate Frisbee and Pizza in the park: The majority of our students in Western Ukraine are part of the minority Hungarian population of Ukraine who have been living on these lands for a thousand years, but now call Ukraine home instead of Hungary due to border changes and the twists and turns of history.  Speaking Hungarian as their mother tongue, many of these students end up in universities in the Hungarian capital of Budapest.  Many stay and find jobs and spouses.  Between current and former students, and people who have left for a “better life” in Hungary we have been left with a city full of acquaintances and friends most of them with Western Ukrainian roots.  On one May weekend, we traveled the five-hour trip to Budapest to meet with pastors and organizers that we would be working with later in the summer during our outreach/English camps in Hungary.  We decided to spend Saturday afternoon in a park and invite students from Western Ukraine to join us for a pizza and a game of Ultimate Frisbee.  In case you are not familiar with the game, it is a cross between soccer and football, but using a Frisbee disc. It has been popular on American university campuses for the past couple decades and is growing in popularity in Europe.  Around a dozen students joined us.  It was a fun afternoon to play, talk, and visit with former students from Ukraine and to meet new young people.  We played for a couple of hours with a thunder storm marking half time, and then went out for pizza.  The opportunity also allowed us to introduce these students to a young pastor who works just outside of Budapest (a dear friend of ours who is an avid fan and participant of the sport).  He has been in some contact with a couple of these students since, and we praise God for this and we hope and pray he can be a godly influence on their lives too.

A Beautiful Song

Stacey and I have a love for singing.  I can’t claim to make a beautiful sound, but I do have a deep and sincere love for singing.  My roommates at Dordt College would often give me a hard time for my not so beautiful singing voice, little did they know I would some years later get a Chinese fortune cookie with the little paper inside saying that one day someone would enjoy my singing.   Hopefully this “fortune” has come true.  Stacey on the other hand can make a joyful sound and she leads us every Sunday night in an English Hymn sing at the Peterfalva Reformed High School.  Laci, a guitar playing teacher and dorm parent, faithfully comes to play the guitar for us every week. We have a faithful core of students who come every week to sing with us, to both practice their English and for a love of singing.  Some weeks we have up to 25 students who come for the event.  Our little English choir was invited last year to perform at an evangelizing week being organized by a local Reformed youth group at a local college in nearby Beregszasz.  We were again invited back this year and once again enjoyed going with our English choir to perform three songs during this church event.  May our “joyful noise” be to the glory and praise of God alone!

English Clubs and Classes

Through the winter and spring months this past year we have been thankful to be involved in many different English clubs and classes.  Two of the English clubs and one class are held in the nearby city of Beregszasz.  One afternoon/evening a week we spent in the city teaching a university class at the local Rakoczi Ferenc Hungarian College and holding a children’s English club and an evening English club for teenagers and adults.  The children’s club is focused more on English learning using games, crafts, and activities.  The adult club is focused on a weekly topic that we discuss.  The college class is also centered around a weekly topic of the English language or American culture.  It was a rewarding experience to get to know so many people through these weekly meetings.  The classes gave us an opportunity to invite the students to other events.  Many of the university students would later accept our invitation and join us in the late spring for a Bible retreat weekend in the mountains.

We also enjoyed teaching English in our home village of Peterfalva.  We conducted English classes at the local Hungarian Reformed boarding school on a weekly basis.  Most classes took place at the school learning about English through a variety of ways and methods.  Classes often involved games, songs, and activities.

One particular English class the Stacey and I reflected fondly on was one afternoon, when students came to our house to learn about American style pancakes and maple syrup.  Pancakes are different in Europe.  They are not the thick fluffy pancakes that dot the breakfast tables and cafes across North America.  On the contrary, a European pancake is thin, cooked without a rising agent and is then rolled into a burrito shape with its delicious ingredients inside.  In Hungarian cuisine pancakes are filled with chocolate, jams, or a type of local cheese curds.  However, I have had similar pancakes in the Netherlands that were variety and could be filled with cheese and ham. Most people in Eastern Europe have never seen or tasted North American style pancakes covered in such a delicacy as maple syrup.  We had brought a small bottle of maple syrup with us which we shared with the students and taught them about where the syrup comes from and how it is harvested.  Stacey crushed up chocolate bars and showed the students how to make pancakes.  Chocolate chip pancakes with maple syrup was enjoyed by all. 

This past spring Stacey also began to organize an adult English club out of our home for our neighbors.  Not just young students, but also many middle-aged people are interested in learning English.  On a trip to the pharmacy one day, Stacey was approached by a local pharmacist about starting an English club in the village that could meet on a weekly basis.  A dedicated group of neighbors came throughout the spring for evening English lessons from Stacey and it was a very good way to get in closer contact with our neighbors. 

Dordt College Visit

Corn dominates the landscape of much of Iowa.  This is undeniable.  I have heard many people complain about a drive across Iowa, grumbling about the miles of nothingness but corn and soybean fields, discontent and bored for each of the 306 miles it takes to drive across Iowa on Interstate 80. Lacking oceans and mountains many people view traveling through Iowa as an unfortunate necessity to endure as they pass by on their way to somewhere they think worthier of their time.  I have never understood this. I love the state of Iowa and its surreal beauty of rolling green hills and big skies.  I look forward each and every time to any opportunity to visit Iowa. I have many times in my life championed Iowa to fellow travelers as a place of great beauty and charm filled with interesting Midwestern small towns. Iowa is an agriculture paradise dotted with historical family farms and century old picturesque barns. In some ways, Iowa reminds me also of Ukraine.  Rising and falling hills of crops dominate the skyline of Ukraine much like they do Iowa. Located in Northwestern Iowa in the small hamlet of Sioux Center is my alumna matter Dordt College, a small Christian College of Reformed heritage named after the Cannons of Dort, a statement of Faith signed many years ago in the Dutch city of Dordrecht.

I was excited this past May to get a visit in Ukraine from two professors from Dordt College who were leading a group of students on a research project in Ukraine.  Professor Mark McCarthy and Professor Mark Christians took a group of students to study life, culture and social issues of Ukraine.  The research project was based on interviews done by a separate research group years ago.  The group was made up of three Dordt students plus eight other students from different universities from across the country. I was asked if I could help them organize a trip to Ukraine to see both the country and its people.  I enjoyed working them and getting to know the students taking part in this research program.  It was a pleasure to show them around western Ukraine and for us to have interaction with these students.

 

Bible Retreat Weekend

The weekend of May 5-7 we traveled to the beautiful Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine with 48 young adults and university students for a weekend of Bible study, prayer, singing, fellowship, and hiking. This was the third annual weekend Bible retreat we have conducted through a grant from the Zondervan Foundation.

For much of the world, May 1 is Labor Day.  This was an important socialist holiday across Eastern Europe and the Communist bloc. May 9 is Victory Day, commemorating the end of WWII. The week and weekends that these days fall on are spring holidays from school for students and therefore, an ideal time to attract students to come for a weekend away to the mountains. The heart of spring is a lovely time to spend in God’s creation among the vibrant spring flowers and landscapes of the Carpathian Mountains. We have been encouraged by the number of students who have returned from previous years and it has also been wonderful to see new faces this year. Many of the students are young adults who we regularly see and have spent time with in English camps, English classes, and Bible studies. This weekend is a unique opportunity to reinforce and grow in our relationships with them. However, many are students we do not know, and it is an excellent occasion to meet and form new relationships with them.  We praise God for the hints of change we can see in their lives and we pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to work in their lives and change their hearts.

Possibly the biggest surprise for us in organizing this weekend is the diversity of those attending. Originally, when the retreat weekend was still nothing but an idea, we thought it would be attended only by Hungarian university students who are among the Hungarian minority populations of western Ukraine. God has blessed the Bible retreats the past three years in ways that we could not imagine.  One of them being the great diversity of the students.  The majority remain minority Hungarian students of Transcarpathia, Ukraine.  However, we also welcomed six Nigerian students who are in western Ukraine attending medical school, two German students volunteering in western Ukraine with a German organization, and six Ukrainian students from Kyiv brought by three Navigator missionaries.  The Navigators are a U.S. based mission organization with a ministry in Kyiv and we have been blessed to partner with the Navigators for the past three years. This year three Navigator missionaries brought a group of six young adults and joined us for the Bible retreat and served as small group leaders. This was a small foretaste of what heaven would be like with so many people from so many different cultures and walks of life joining together to praise God and study the Bible. Using English as a common language, it was remarkable to study the Bible and praise and glorify God among such a diverse group of believers.

We broke up into four small groups for the weekend and had morning and evening sessions studying the Trinity.  We studied and discussed God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  We hope and pray that the discussions and Bible studies on the three Persons of the Trinity encouraged the faith and understanding of the attendees and for those who are not Christians that it would show them who God is and why we need Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We pray that the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Gospel were faithfully proclaimed and we hope and pray that the seeds that were planted in open hearts and minds will continue to grow and flourish.

If for some the message of the Gospel and Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross was something they had never heard. We hope that this weekend was an encouragement to all and a calling to all to give their lives to Jesus Christ.

Photo Credit: Maksym Diachenko

Roma Kindergarten Outreach

DSC_1128Working among the Roma, more commonly known around the world by the misnomer, Gyspy, brings both joys and frustrations. Often times we find ourselves frustrated with feelings that are far from Christ-like; judgmental and exasperated, annoyed or even angry. Many times, in a week, sometimes several times a day, Roma come to our door asking for money or food. Some have let themselves into our house uninvited. Then there is also theft. This past February, a bag of chicken that I had placed outside to thaw was taken from our front porch. Apart from feeling frustration towards these people who ask with such a demeanor that can be perceived as entitlement, there is also in us a sense of helplessness at the overwhelming neediness that these people possess.  We are often left feeling lost as to the best way to help them.  It raises many questions: How can we help the Roma without hurting them? How can we minister to their seemingly insurmountable needs, both physical and spiritual? Is true change possible for them? Sometimes in frustration I even wonder, is this possible?  How can you help someone change their habits and their life when it seems the entirety of society and culture is against them? Sometimes Roma come and beg for handouts while seeming totally unwilling to take personal responsibility to alter their predicament.  Can the Roma rise above their current poverty when it often appears that history, prejudices, racism, and stereotypes are stacked against them?  Some Roma do. Why don’t the majority?  Incidences such as begging and theft can leave a disagreeable taste in one’s mouth, and cause a sort of ungraciousness, bitterness, and an attitude of indifference to well up in us.  We need reminding that the Roma are image bearers of their Creator, just as we are, and no less so.  Their most basic need is also ours.  They stand in need of Christ and His redemptive work on the cross on their behalf, just as we do.  No amount of money, aid, or welfare is going to change their situation.  Only Christ can change the Roma, as only Christ can change us.  Both a humbling and infinitely hopeful thought! DSC_1042

Only Christ can change the lives of the Roma giving them hope, not only for today, but for eternity as well, yet how will this happen if they don’t know and believe in Jesus? I am reminded of Paul’s words in Romans 10:14-15.  The local church in the last decade has begun many ministries towards the Roma.  Some have succeeded, others have not.  Many in the local community have a heart for the Roma, while many others look upon the Roma with scorn.  The success of these ministries often seems to wax and wane.  One such ministry near us is a local Reformed Roma kindergarten and Christian after school center.  Young children come in the morning for kindergarten, and older students come after school for help with reading and school work.  Most Roma are illiterate and most do not go to school.  Those who do go to school, go inconsistently.  Percentage wise there is a very small amount of Roma children out of the total population who are coming for the kindergarten and after school program.  DSC_1135

It has been a blessing to us to be able to go to partner with this local outreach in a few different ways. Once a week we go with students from the local Peterfalva Reformed high school to lead a Bible lesson and prayer, singing and a Bible memory verse, activities and crafts. Our team includes Eric and myself, as well as 7-10 high school students. Interest was high among the students in the Reformed High school and we had to divide the 30 or so students into four different teams to take turns going.  About 20-25 Roma children wait eagerly for us to arrive. Students take turns leading the Bible story followed by a couple of questions as to what the story teaches us. The children are eager to recite the Bible memory verse and to answer the questions. To see our students from the high school bending near to these little ones, intently speaking or listening to the Roma children is really beautiful to see, and a sweet reminder of what it can mean to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  DSC_1158DSC_0893

We hope that the time spent together can help to bridge the gap between the different cultures and societies.  We hope the Roma children will hear the Word of God through this program, but we also hope that the Hungarian students who come with us will see the Roma children, who, though often dirty and shouting, are children of God made in His image.  We hope and pray that God will lead these students who go with us into lives of loving their neighbors and that they will see the Roma with new eyes, and a mission field, if you will, right in their own neighborhood. Please visit the photo gallery for more photos.    DSC_0868

Spiritual Retreat Weekend

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Weekends in the mountains are often refreshing and renewing for the soul and the body.  Cool and fresh mornings and brisk mountain air are invigorating.  The Carpathian Mountains are a perfect place abounding in the natural beauty of God’s creation to spend a weekend to slow down and spend time in God’s Word with a group of young adults.  After a busy past month, a weekend away for a spiritual retreat with university students was an absolutely wonderful break from the schedule.  We have been given a grant from the Zondervan Foundation to conduct a couple of Bible Retreat weekends this spring.  We are planning a much larger weekend for May with many students, but this past weekend focused on a smaller more intimate setting with a small group of students who were wanting to spend time in Bible study, discussion, prayer and singing.

Unfortunately, three students had to back out at the last moment due to a death in the family and some issues at school.  In the last moments, I searched for people to take their place.  I found one local student and then contacted two medical students from Nigeria who I had met last year, who live two hours from us and study here in Ukraine.  They were not able to come, but they told me they had two friends who might be interested.  I assumed these two friends were living locally.  To my surprise, I received a call late in the night from one of the two girls.  They were not at all living in the local Transcarpathian area, but instead living in Ternopil, a city 7 hours by train to the east of us.  They were so excited to come that they left five hours later at 3am in the morning in order to travel seven hours in a train to join us for the weekend.  These two young ladies were very strong and committed in their faith and very articulate about their faith in Jesus. They were a blessed addition to our weekend.  It was also good for the local Hungarian and Ukrainian students to mingle and worship with Christians from a different continent.

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On a side note:  Ukraine is full of Nigerian students who have come to Ukraine, learned Russian and study medicine in Ukrainian universities.  One of the girls who joined us will be a doctor in less than two months.  Most of these Nigerian students are also Christians.  They originally studied in eastern Ukraine in Luhansk and Donetsk.  In the last years when war erupted in the far eastern regions of Ukraine these Nigerian students found themselves in the middle of a war zone.  Faith and Deborah, the two girls we met this past weekend, told us stories of having to lie on the floor of their apartment to avoid bullets and shrapnel, of walking in the streets around dead bodies, of friends dying, and stories of other Nigerians who were kidnapped by rebels.  One of the other students asked why they didn’t just leave.  They replied that it was very difficult and dangerous to leave.  If you went to the train station or bus station you risked death or kidnapping from the hands of rebels who patrolled and waited by exit points. Many Nigerians have in the last couple of years now been relocated near us in western Ukraine and they have started vibrant Christian churches among African students and Ukrainians.  How amazing are the mysterious ways of God that he is using African Christians to start churches, proclaim His Word and spread the Gospel across Ukraine, even in the war zones of eastern Ukraine!  Until last year, we were unaware of the vast number of African Christians that have been arriving in western Ukraine.  We have been blessed and encouraged to now call some of them friends and brothers and sisters in Christ.            DSC_0270We spent the weekend at a hotel on the edge of a mountain.  A forest lay behind it with a series of waterfalls and a flowing stream descending down into the hotel complex. The hotel was on the grounds of what appeared to be an old camp.  There was an abandoned pool, old outdoor weight lifting equipment, and a few random Soviet era statues of children eerily looking over the place.  The statues of children appeared to be very similar to statues I have seen elsewhere in Ukraine at an abandoned Pioneer camp.  DSC_0242This led Stacey and I to believe that the hotel was on the complex of an old Soviet Communist Pioneer camp.  The Pioneers were the communist version to American Boy Scouts.

 

The theme of the Spiritual Retreat weekend was twofold. First, to find joy in our lives through Jesus Christ and not through vainly searching for joy through material goods or earthly things that will always leave us unsatisfied.  And secondly, when we have joy in our lives and faith in God, what is expected of us?  How are we to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves?  We took an in depth look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan discussing questions and observations from Tim Keller in his book, “Ministries of Mercy”.  Concluding with a challenge to the students to let their light shine for Christ, as it says in Philippians 2:15, “so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe. “ DSC_0223

We were continually amazed at the richness of God’s grace throughout this weekend.  Although it got off to a shaky start with a number of students having to cancel because of a death in the family and school problems, we can see that God was at work.  We had a wonderful and blessed weekend and we praise God for the Christian fellowship and encouragement, and being in the Word and praying together.  Thanks again to the Zondervan Foundation for their support for such weekends.

If you are interested in reading more about the Pioneers.  Here is an interesting link. http://russiapedia.rt.com/of-russian-origin/pioneers/

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Safe Arrival

Hans

Early January we returned to Ukraine after a longer than usual stay in the U.S. due to the birth of our son, Hans.  What a blessing Hans has been to us!  As his name suggests, he has been a gift from God and an answer to prayer.  Hans is a Dutch/German name and short for Johannes.  Johannes is Dutch/German for John, in Hungarian Janos, and in Ukrainian, Ivan.

It has been an exciting return to Transcarpathia Ukraine with the whole family.  We have been warmly received and have been overwhelmed by the generosity of friends and neighbors here.  It has been a busy month of January settling in and getting organized.  We have enjoyed beginning English lessons and English clubs.  We are already busy planning for summer camps and we are looking forward to more upcoming programs, activities, and Bible studies once the University semester begins in the middle of February.  Currently, college and university students are in the middle of a month-long exam period.

We were thankful that Hans traveled very well coming here.  He slept and watched all the activity on the air plane.  He had difficulty adjusting to the time change and for the first weeks had difficulty sleeping at night.  But now we can report that he has completely adjusted to the time change and life here.  We have not been so active with our blog or website in the past year with the pregnancy and birth of Hans, but we hope this year to be much more active in blogging, so we hope you will continue to follow along with what is happening here.  God Bless.