Feels like home

Since July 2014 I have traveled to the far Eastern Ukraine region a number of times. I remember that first drive from Kharkov to Slavyansk. There was a feeling of apprehension of the unknown.

As we arrived in the Donetsk region, I noticed a sound coming from the road. It grew so loud that I wondered if there was a problem with one of my tires, even though the car was handling ok. Finally I stopped and checked all the tires.

No problem with the tires, but eventually it was noticed that the asphalt highway showed the signs of heavy tanks that had driven down the road. Ever since then, I recognize that sound immediately whenever I hear it. And I always hear it. I heard it again recently.

This past week, I spent four days in an area where I had never really worked. Even though I had lived in Donetsk for almost 4 years before the conflict started, I never spent any time in this particular area. And on many of the roads in the area that weren’t covered with snow, that familiar sound was ever present.

What a joy it was to meet and spend time with believers living along the conflict zone. One church has experienced tremendous growth since 2014. Attendance has grown from 10-15 people to 60-70. They have baptized 22 people in the last 3 years.

One of the places we visited has a salt mine. The pastor gave me a ceramic boot with a cube of salt as a souvenir. He mentioned to me that the boot represents bringing the “Good News” to the people of Eastern Ukraine and the salt, of course, reminds me to always be the salt of the earth.

I always leave Eastern Ukraine encouraged more than I feel I have helped. It still feels a little like home, even with tank tracks covering the roads.

Update: Eastern Ukraine

I spent numerous weeks along the conflict line in Eastern Ukraine during the last 6 months. Five teams of medical professionals from the US, along with numerous Ukrainian volunteers served more than 5,000 people through various ministries. Food, backpacks, school supplies, after school programs and medicine were distributed, along with several camps for children were held.

As 2019 comes to an end, maybe you are looking for a place to plug in and make a meaningful difference in someone’s life? Join us in 2020 to bring hope to lives throughout Eastern Ukraine!

Who is worthy?

This morning I took some personal time after finishing my devotional to worship. I have some songs on my youtube channel that I like to listen to from time to time.

While listening to “Is He Worthy” by Andrew Peterson, tears welled up in my eyes and began streaming down my face. I was struck by these words… “But do you know that all the dark
Won’t stop the light from getting through?”

I have had a really busy, but exciting summer. I have seen some darkness in my travels. Yet, these words pierced my heart as I listened and then sung this song.

Often I tell people that when I gave my life to Christ, I gave it all to Him. After my trial with cancer, it is even more true. Every day I live is a blessing from God.

So, who is worthy? There is only one answer…

Donetsk… 9 years ago

As a missionary I am used to living in different cities, countries.  In early 2010 I found myself in an uncomfortable place. A broken engagement in 2009 left me broken. I wasn’t even sure that the mission organization I was attached to would even invite me back. 

I was in Fort Worth in those early months of 2010, wondering what would happen. After some healing and time away, my current supervisor talked with me about 3 cities. 

One was in a European Union country and the other two in Ukraine. I began researching the places. Right away I leaned toward the EU country…why not? I had spent all my years in former Soviet states and I wanted some place where life might be a little easier 😉

Well, it didn’t take long for the Lord to close that door!  

So, then I was left with two cities in Ukraine. More research and prayer.  I eventually settled on Donetsk. I returned to the field in May 2010 and spent almost 2 months in Kyiv before I could move into the Donetsk apartment.  

Early on this date in 2010, I loaded up the Chevrolet Niva (which by all accounts had to be the worse car I have ever driven!) and had also hired a van to move the rest. 

After getting lost in Dniprodzerzhink and Dnipropetrovsk, we arrived in Donetsk late in the afternoon.  As we entered the city, I asked the driver if we could stop and take a picture.  We did and Facebook reminded me today of that event. See the photo above…

MUCH has happened in my life since that day.  Forced relocation due to a war that continues today, and cancer were interspersed during that time.

My ministry takes me to within 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) of that sign and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a strong tug calling me back.  

 Maybe it has something to do with the abruptness in how I left Donetsk.   I loved living in the center of the city. Maybe it’s because I didn’t get to say goodbye to lots of people… some which I still wonder how they are doing (like the women who worked on Pushkina Boulevard keeping it so clean and beautiful year round!). 

Yet, being reminded by FB of this event causes me to reflect and wonder why I still have deep feelings about my life in Donetsk and why I don’t “miss” Kyiv, Karaganda or Tbilisi the same way.  

I typed much of this on my iPad while on the train heading back to Dnipro. After trying to sleep, standing, walking, etc I prepared for the last hour of the ride. The guy sitting next to me finally woke up and so I chatted with him.

Ruslan is a police officer, living in Dnipro, but working in Kyiv. He works 10 days on and then 10 days off. He was returning to Dnipro after having worked 10 days.

He shared with me that he also lived in Donetsk until the war started, so we traded stories about the war and the events that led up to his moving to Dnipro. The Lord used him to say one thing to me as I finish this story…

Five years have passed since the beginning of the war, moved, life continues and he has made new friends and has a different life in Dnipro. “Even if the war ended, I doubt I would return to Donetsk.” It’s not the first time I have heard this, but I happened to hear it again on the 9th anniversary of moving to Donetsk.

Something for me to think about as I will begin my sixth year in Dnipro in a month!

Stories

All of us have stories to tell… about our lives, circumstances we may find ourselves in, or even simply what was done that day.

As a journalism student I was taught to listen, but in our busy lives today, I think too often when we talk with others, we spend too much time thinking about how we are going to respond rather than listening to what is being said.

Yesterday, for me, was a day I will not soon forget. The organization I work with partners with another organization in community development (CD) projects. With the war in Eastern Ukraine continuing after 5 years, it is sometimes hard to find “good news” to write about. However, I am partnering with a group of people in an area that have started 5 churches since the war started! And they are looking at several other places to begin work.

A year ago, the leader of the group wrote several CD projects for his area. We explored the viability of them and through these projects, we have been able to see numerous people become employed in their own small businesses.

On a stretch of road lies 3 small villages. None of these villages have even a small grocery store. The villagers are accustomed to having a van come a couple of times a week to sell food products from the back of the vehicle.

It was the dream of several to see a small food store open in the middle village so that people would have a place to purchase fresh food. That dream came to light yesterday when they opened the store.

What I didn’t know until we arrived is that they named the small store after me! The leader told me that when they discussed the name, they both agreed it should be named Joe (Джо)! Even 24 hours later, it still causes me to smile… and I am quite honored that they would do this!

So, yesterday we drove to the small village in order to be there before it opened its first day, to pray with them and to be the “first” customers. They had over 70 villagers come the first day!

Then, at the end of the day, we drove back to the village to celebrate. Proceeds from the store will go to help their rehab center located in one of the villages. A large group of us went to the center, and while some of them prepared the food, I got to hear their stories.

One brother in Christ who was broken and restored, now sharing the Good News in a small town in the area.

Another brother in Christ who had a promising football (soccer to Americans) career with the local big league team and lost it all due to addiction. Through restoration, he now has his own training center in two small towns.

A Ukrainian family with Jewish roots, who moved to Jerusalem for a while, but have returned to eastern Ukraine to help a new church plant.

Another brother in Christ who almost lost his family due to addiction was restored through the rehab center and now has his own ministry in the area.

As the sun set around 9 p.m., my heart was encouraged by all the stories I had heard. As I drove back to Mirnograd, I was so thankful to have heard them. Even though we could hear artillery gunfire in the distance, (that reminded me there is a war in Ukraine), I would not allow it to distract me from the moments I was enjoying.

I will return to the area next week with a group of doctors from Birmingham, AL. I’m already looking forward to them getting to hear the stories as well.

PostScript: Displaced

Whenever one reflects back on life lived, there are significant events that have transpired that impact or change that life. That has happened for me numerous times.

When I left Donetsk in April 2014, I really thought I would return in a couple of weeks. I have spoken with hundreds of displaced people since then who thought the same thing.

When I arrived in Dnipropetrovsk on April 14, 2014 and spent a few days with colleagues, it was suggested that I read “The Red Sea Rules.” It turned out to be a helpful book, and I have read it several times since.

As I reflect on this idea of displacement, I have come to realize that as a believer, I will be “displaced” until I get to my final destination. So, really, wherever I call “home” on this earth, I know that it is just temporary.

Now, I can live my life, hopefully, being content in this idea and learning to trust Him even more for the coming days.


Displaced

Early on April 14, 2014, I went to the garage and got my car. I had packed several suitcases with clothes to take with me for my “two week” journey. I loaded up the car, went back upstairs, turned off all the water and gas in the apartment and walked back down.

It was relatively quiet as I drove down University street in Donetsk. As I passed the back side of the regional administration building, I noticed the protestors had built fires in several places to keep warm.

There wasn’t much traffic at that hour, and still less than usual. The people around my building had already stopped parking their vehicles in our courtyard.

Admittedly, I was anxious. After what I had witnessed in my neighborhood the last 10 days, I needed a break.

As I got to the road leading from Donetsk to Dnipropetrovsk (as it was called in 2014), I began thinking about stopping to take a picture of the Donetsk city sign. Many countries in Eastern Europe have a city marker sign as you enter the city, and as you leave the city boundaries, there is another sign with the city name on it, but with a line through it, showing that you are leaving.

In July 2010, when I moved to Donetsk, I had stopped and had my picture taken.

My heart was telling me to stop, but my mind just wanted to get out of town. Sometime we should listen to our hearts! I didn’t stop, and I haven’t seen that sign since!

I was on edge throughout the journey in the Donetsk region. I don’t think I breathed easy until I got to the border between Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions.

Leaving was a difficult decision. My life, my friends, my church… all in Donetsk. The one “hope” was that I would be gone for two weeks and it would all be over and I could return. Those two weeks are now five years.

Recently, I have been preaching through Ephesians. Today, the text was from 3:7-13. I am amazed that through the most difficult situation, Paul found the right words to share. Even though he was chained to a Roman guard in a Roman prison, he was able to see that God was using him.

There is song, written by Babbie Mason that express these words:

So when you don’t understand
When don’t see His plan
When you can’t trace His hand
Trust His Heart


I have learned much about myself and about God’s love for me during the last 5 years. And while there have been times when I would like for life to go back to what it was like before the war, I wouldn’t want to change my circumstances. I trust the Lord is using it for His good.


April 12, 2014

Five years ago today, a Saturday, I got up early so that I could travel to a city then called Dzerzhinsk (it is now called Toretsk). The pastor of the local church had invited me to attend a puppet show for special needs children in the city.

Even with all that was going on at the regional administration building, I had a full day of ministry planned. So, before I left town, I helped get sound equipment, water and supplies to a spot where our young church plant was hosting a soccer tournament. After the delivery, I continued on to Dzerzhink.

It was a fine morning and meeting some wonderful children. After the puppet show and presentation of awards, I got back in my car and traveled to the place where the soccer tourney was being held. There was absolutely no warning that anything was brewing just north of where I was located at the time.

It was a cool Saturday. Overcast, windy. The soccer tourney was in elimination rounds by the time I arrived. Still, there were lots of people around and I took a lot of pictures.

Later in the afternoon, I first heard and then saw a plane flying above us. From the noise, I could tell it was going super fast and it wasn’t a commercial jet. Eventually, it was below the clouds and I was able to take a pic.

Right away I knew this was not a good sign. However, the plane disappeared and my mind went back to the tasks at hand. There was discussion as to whether it was “ours” or Russia’s.

After the tourney, I spent a couple of hours with a young brother from our group. After he left, I turned on the news to find out armed conflict had broken out in Slavyansk, a city about one hour north of Donetsk. My heart was broken.

I called my supervisors to let them know what was going on. We discussed ideas and after several phone calls, the decision was made that I should leave. The thought was I could leave for a couple of weeks and see what happened.

We decided that I should probably pack up some of my things. And my immediate supervisor asked me when I could leave… I decided I could leave on Monday.

As the old adage says, “If I only knew then, what I know know”… But that is for another day…

The Roar

I spent the last two days in the Donetsk region. On my drive from Kharkov to Bakhmut, I passed an area that was heavily bombed in the early days of the war. Then, I drove on down to Bakhmut (formerly Artyomovsk) for a couple of meetings. It is a nice town with a small downtown area.

I met one friend from Donetsk for lunch at New York Street Pizza. When I lived in Donetsk , there was one not far from my apartment. My second meeting was with a fellow Christian I had not met before. We wound up having coffee in a Mexican cafe, which I will have to eat at next time I’m in town!

Later I drove to Mirnograd, where I had two more meetings with possible interpreters and a church planter.

Then, Tuesday morning I drove to a Christian camp to meet with some great brothers from Donetsk. Only today did I learn that the Ukrainian army have a base near the camp, which explains the tank ruts!

As I left the camp to return to Dnipro, I heard the now-familiar sound. The first time I heard it was in July 2014. A colleague and I had driven to Slavyansk a few days after the city had been freed and the bombings had stopped. At that time, I thought I had a tire problem, pulled over to make sure all the tires were okay.

The sound was made from my tires rolling over the tank tracks that were made when the tanks rolled into the area in 2014. It starts out as a dull hum, but the faster I go, it becomes a roar at times. It is almost impossible to find a place on the road where I don’t hear the roar.

As I travel down the roads where the sound is evident, it reminds me of a terrible time not too far in the distant past. It also helps me remember why I so desire to help the people in that area. My life has been changed dramatically by the events of 2014, yet, for those who live along the front, their lives continue to be impacted.

Changed

I woke up early on Monday, April 7, 2014. I got dressed and decided to see what had happened during the previous evening. I had heard the noise coming from the regional administration building during the night, so I knew something had changed.

As I arrived on Pushkina Boulevard, one of the most beautiful walking streets, I saw the park workers already cleaning up, planting new flowers, etc. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, their office was in the basement of our building, so most of them knew me.

I walked over to one of them and asked what had happened. She relayed to me that the previous evening, the protestors had stormed the admin building and the local police decided to not fight the people.

There was a flurry of activity going on, but with all the anger, etc, I didn’t want to make it too obvious that a “foreigner” was in their midst. I walked as close as I felt comfortable and was a little surprised at what I found.

Being as this was my first experience with a local government being “overthrown”, I wasn’t sure at the moment what was going on. On this day, I had no idea what was about to take place. I knew I needed to stay low since I lived right next door to where the protestors were.

As you can see, they had been busy during the night, building a barricade around the building, which would grow throughout the week.

My life and ministry continued on. At the time, I didn’t feel threatened, although I knew that there was now an element which I didn’t need to encounter. I tried as best as I could to do the things I had planned.

I was experiencing change. Unfortunately I didn’t know what all that would entail, and for sure didn’t know what that would look like for me in 5 short days.