Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Trip Reflection

I just returned from an amazing eleven day missions trip to Ukraine, where we spent 6 days with orphans and poor kids from the neighboring village.  The other days were spent traveling and in Kiev with our Ukrainian friends from Almaz church.  I have so many thoughts running around in my head, I'm going to break it down into categories.
The Players in the story…

God—I have to begin this story with God.  HE is the reason we travel half way around the world.  We go to share God's love with these children, but we also know, that we will be blessed as well. And we may learn a thing or two, too!  I saw God's fingerprint in everything that happened.  This trip's final details were planned in one month, but in that month, so many things got accomplished!  I really felt like God was going before us, making the path straight. Honestly, I have lived too long, to not recognize this and give Him all the glory for it.  It was not us getting things accomplished, but Him.
Northland's team—When Marc asked if I would lead this team, I was in the middle of directing 3 performances and preparing for Kailey's high school graduation.  I knew I couldn't do anything toward putting it together until one month before we left!  (A crazy thought, knowing how many things needed to be done!) But God TOTALLY led the way, and He accomplished amazing things!  The team consisted of:  Jessi, Erika, Matt Snyder, Jill, Kristi, Pauline, Matt VanderMatan, Danny, Suzanne, Anthony, Chris and me.
Music Mission Kiev is our lifeline, our umbilical cord, if you will, while there!  It is a Christian organization started by Marc McMurrin's parents, Roger and Diane McMurrin.  They feed us, house us, and provide a tour guide while in Kiev!  This year, we were there for two nights, and our tour guide was once again was the Fountain-of-Information Helen, and her son, George.  Val was our cook who served up scrumptious meals.

Ukrainians from Almaz church
—Last summer, the Ukrainian Distributed Journey (missions trip) was teaching English to college students, and sharing the gospel along the way.  We were partnered with college age and other Ukrainians from Almaz Church.  Since we had built great relationships with them last summer, we didn't want to miss seeing them this year, so Matt Snyder set up a Facebook invitation to meet them all in Independence Square on a certain date.  (After last summer, most Ukrainians set up an American Facebook account to be able to communicate with us)  So on the designated date, we met with Sergey (Mozart), Natasha, Ina, and Alina!!  It was wonderful to see them again.  When we settled down after a meal one night, I picked their brain about Ukraine.  The next paragraph is what I found out.
The Ukrainian People are as diversified as Hawaii and Maine. But probably more.  Their opinions on politics, religion and views on other countries vary according to their region and generation.  I hadn't realized this until this trip. I began wondering why I couldn't put my finger on how they felt about things, until our visit to the WWII museum and I began to ask questions.  During WWII, the west coast of Ukraine was given to the Germans early on. Some of them welcomed it, thinking this would be their freedom from Russian's communist rule.  But then some quickly found out the German rule wasn't any better either.  During WWII, Ukrainians were fighting for the German side, the Russian side, and independents fighting against both.  It was a country divided.  (My apologies if I get any of this wrong)  Older generations remember this, some younger generations don't feel as strongly against one side or another.  The western region (closer to Europe) feels more strongly against Russian rule, while those closer to Russia (the eastern region) are more used to the way Russia runs things.  Ukraine gained their independence in 1991 from Russia. Some Ukrainians get their view of Americans from movies, but many know that this is not an accurate picture of us. (oh good!!)  My observation of Ukrainians is one of a stoic wall, until you get a little beneath the surface and you discover a rich, warm, friendly and loving individual.  They are a people that I love and in whom I am very intrigued! 
Jenya--Jenya is a thirty-one-year old Eastern European who has lived in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and I think Belarus.  He went to seminary when he was young, spent some time in Syberia as a missionary, and for the last decade or so, spends his summers providing summer camps for Ukranian orphans.  Music Mission Kiev and the McMurrins began working with him and introduced Northland (our church) to him.  
Jenya's team--Every summer, he gathers approximately 20 college students to help him with the summer camp.  This team is made up of so many colors and personalities: Vok, Ira, Ruffa, Olga, Jane, Vlad and more.  Ten of these students are Ukranian in nationality, but their family lives in California.  They are fluent in both Russian and English. They were invaluable to us in breaking down the language barrier!  The two I got to know the best were Tamelia and Nina.  Vitalli and Val also helped us a great deal with the interpretation of skits.  Our last night, Jenya's team took us to the lake where they spread out a night time picnic for us--their special guests.  Guiding us were tiny candles in the shape of arrows. When we got to the picnic area, candles spelled out two intermixed hearts.  Jenya said, "It is hard for us to 'wow' you, because Americans have so much. But this is our appreciation to you for being a part of our family this week."  As we snuggled around the campfire, they waited on us, roasting Ukrainian "hot dogs" with all the fixings.  Jenya was wrong about one thing…they DEFINITELY "wowed" us!!!
The "townies"—100 poor kids from the neighboring village were invited to come stay at the "Sanitorioum" (Russian for resort—trust me, it's not a resort) and participate in the camp. The townies proved to be a little more aloof than the orphans.  I'm thinking it's because they have parents who love them, and they are not as desperate for love.  They were just a little harder to get to know.  Most of them were polite at first, but warm and wonderful once you spent some time with them. Kristi Hale and I volunteered to help out with group eight who were middle and high school age townies.
Orphans—After a day, we could immediately figure out who were townies and who were orphans, based on if they wore the same outfit 3 days in a row, and how starved they were for affection.  When we arrived, we were just in time for a program the kids were putting on.  As I looked over the 180 orphans and townies, I wondered which ones would be tugging at my heart by the end of the week.  It didn't take too long to figure that out.  
Here is a quick description of some of the children I got to know.  I would love for you to pray for all of them by name, or just choose one to pray for, or pray for a different one each day.

Helena—we try not to have favorites, but it's almost unavoidable.  Helena was mine. Erika introduced us on day 2 and every time she saw me after that, we would share in a BIG hug, then she would stick to me like glue.  She has blondish hair with beautiful light brown eyes.  She believes in God and eagerly accepted the Bible I gave her.  I am not sure if she is a believer.  The last words I told/hand signaled her was "I love you and God loves you". She stood there with tears in her eyes, nodding vigorously, holding her Bible to her chest.  My heart aches for her and her future.  
Koya is a good looking 14 year old boy who is in a daily struggle to do what's right.  Koya is someone you can tell who is just made of good stuff.  Every one of his friends (all teenagers at the camp) would go behind the camp and smoke.  Their attitudes were just bad.  Koya is different.  Every night, the camp would put on a "disco" dance club-type of thing, where all the teens would go.  The night I met Koya, he choose to play hopscotch with Helena and me, rather that go dance with his friends.  I gave him a Bible, which he read the night I gave to him.  He doesn't know if he believes in God.  Nina, a member from the Ukranian Christian team would talk to him about not having to follow the crowd (his friends). One night he stood between Nina and his friends and looked back and forth, as Nina would tell him "You don't need to go with your friends." (and smoke)  He said, "You don't understand…" and turned and walked away with his friends.  He knew all his Christian influence would be gone in a few weeks, but his friends would be there longer.  I believe he is searching for God but is in a real struggle.
I met Roxanna the first day.  So sweet, cute and lovable.  The time I spent with her was often, but not for long periods of time.  She also wanted a Bible.  I'm thinking she wanted a gift, more than a Bible, even though she requested it by name.  Please pray that she reads it and the Word "won't return void."
Stanislov was not a camper.  He visited every night from the village. I believe he is 17 years old.  My guess is he heard there were Americans in the camp and wanted to come talk to one.  You could see the anticipation in his face. He didn't know what to say, but would want to say something really bad!  So I asked a lot of questions, sometimes thought an interpreter, sometimes through a lot of hand motions.  When the conversation turned to God, I asked if he wanted a Bible, which he did.  I asked him to wait right there, while I went to get one.  While I was getting a Bible, one of the Californians warned me that teenagers like to take the Bibles, rip out the pages and use them for cigarette paper.  When I found him outside, I asked if he would read it.  He assured me "yes."  I said through an interpreter "no ripping pages for rolling cigarettes."  He said, "No, no…I am very interested in reading this."  He said he would share the Bible with his friend from Moscow, who was always with him. This was our last night there, and his last night, also.  He couldn't return after that.  Please pray for him, and his friend that they will come to know Jesus in a personal way.
Sasha is a townie boy around the age of 10, I guess. He taught himself English simply by reading books!  He could carry on a conversation with us quite well.  It was amazing!  He is now in the process of teaching his father English. When I brought out a map of the United States, I was swarmed by about 20 kids.  I gave the map to Sasha because he is so interested in learning English.  He acted like I had just given him the crown jewels of England!
Peyter stood out to me because he is an orphan who is always smiling.  He loved playing four square and UNO with us, and was very gentle (unlike the other boys) holding the kittens they found in the woods.  
Jenya is loved by many.  He just warmed up to many on the American team and I knew they would like him prayed for!
Tiny Ula loved to hug, play hopscotch and draw on the sidewalk.
I played Uno with Vika and seemed very interested in the track I gave her. 
Kids in our Bible lesson group… 
  • Fourteen year old Anita looked like she could be the older sister of Vika.  She has a boyfriend and was very standoffish, and never seemed very interested in our Bible lessons.  
  • Anita's friend, Anya, seemed a little more interested and friendly.  She would listen when she was there, but only came about half of the time.
  • Nastia would arrive talking very loudly, plop down on the floor and be very distracting.  Jane, a Christian from the Ukranian team, started rubbing her shoulders, which calmed her down  Jane would look over at me and wink--she knew what she was doing.  J  When Nastia was calm, she would listen very intently.
  • Natasha, Masha and Masha are three very sweet girls.  They would smile and listen intently.
  • Ira and her 3 friends—Ira was strikingly beautiful with her piercing light blue eyes and blond hair.  My bet is that she could have fit into the "cool" crowd like Anita and Anya, but chose not to.  She chose to hang out with these 3 sweet other girls.  Ira was one of the older girls (most older girls would not come every day to the Bible lessons) but she came every day and was very interested in the daily topics.  
  • Vlad was Mr. Personality.  Could be a rambunctious, but seemed to be interested in the gospel.  
  • Ula, Ula and Alina—three very sweet girls. 

These are just a few of the kids who were at the camp.  I'm sure the team has a list of kids needing prayer as well.  
Here are some of my favorite memories or not-so-favorite memories I have not already mentioned above...
  • The name "Lah-OOO-rah" called across the camp.  This is how the orphans pronounced my name.  

  • The second night there, I forgot to put on bug spray.  I got bit quite a bit, waking the next morning scratching a particularly nasty area.  This area kept getting redder, then turned purple and very swollen, spreading down my leg and to my foot.  I eventually saw the camp nurse who gave me a very strange looking ball-shaped pill.  As I took a swig of water to swallow the pill, I tried to ask (with a mouth full of water) "Is this water filtered?"  (Americans have to drink filtered water or else they will most likely get terrible stomach problems.)  When they couldn't understand my closed-mouth mumblings, I swallowed, then asked, "Was that water filtered?  Both Jenya and the nurse stood there looking a little helpless as they both shook their heads no.  So, as I thanked them, I thought, "Well, I'll probably see you tomorrow morning with stomach issues."  Btu then I went back to camp and asked Pauline to pray for this little issue.  Thank the Lord, nothing happened.  (Two years ago, I threw up and continued to have a queasy stomach for two weeks due to one sip out of a German drinking fountain in the airport.)  Anyway, my leg continued to look purple, swollen and nasty until just yesterday.  We think it was an allergic reaction to a couple of spider bites. 

  • The cheese Jenya provided for us.  Jenya asked what food we would like and I suggested cheese.  He immediately went out and bought a huge wheel of delicious cheese, serving it up to us nightly. 

  • The look on team members faces when they suddenly got the "missions bug".  When they would start crying and not know why, or when they realized how happy they could be serving others or when they could feel God at work in their lives. 

  • Seeing the joy in the eyes of every child as we handed out the clothes we brought to give away—a tee shirt and baseball hat for every boy, a pants/shirt "All Star Cheerlear" misprinted outfit and makeup/hair accessories for every girl. (Thanks to Harvest International!)  It gave me such a warm satisfied feeling when all these little orphans showed up that night and for the rest of the week wearing our red and orange "Cheerlear" outfits!  Even the boys!  But the funny part came when Big Matt V tried on one of the little girl outfits!  Wow!  You'll need to check that out on my pictures!  

  • Our beds that were bricks-tuned-hammocks.  When I first sat on our beds, I felt like I was sitting on a brick that was higher on one side than the other.  I slept on this for three nights, feeling like I was going to fall off.  By the third night, I was determined to figure out why.  Suzanne mentioned that the guys on our team had removed their boards off their bed.  WHAT???  I could simply remove the board?  I thought it was attached!!!  I slept like a baby in a cradle after removing that blasted board! 

  • The porcelain toilets!  Okay, maybe those of you who don't have bad knees can't relate.  But to have porcelain toities just made my day!!! 

Every year I go, I do not want to return just to pat ourselves on the back and say, "Well, that felt good.  I'm glad I went." I don't want to hug these orphans, build a relationship, then leave them (and us) crying.  You could ask, "was it really just self-satisfying a need to do something good, and risk hurting those (orphans) already hurting?"   I asked this question to Marc McMurrin, who has had much experience in this area, and he said that Ukrainian orphans are many times treated like second class.  If they know that Americans are coming all this way to spend time just with them, they feel very special and very loved. We then give credit to God for our capacity to love.  And hopefully that opens their heart up to God.  That is our ultimate goal.  Many times we are there just to plant the seed.  We may not be present when the harvest comes, but oh, how good it is to be a part of the planting!  
When Koya just couldn't figure out why I was crying when we had to say goodbye, we were at first joking because I was a girl, and he was a boy, and as we all know, girls are emotional!  But then I motioned with my hands, "No, this is why.  I cry because God is in my heart, and He makes my love huge." 
I appeal to you who are reading this to pray for each of these children listed here.  Pray for Jenya's team members who continue there.  And you may even consider adopting!  This isn't such an unusual request!  Two years ago, after we returned home, Sheri and Greg Bell decided to adopt two orphans, Vika and Ira, from the camp we visited in Kharkiv.  This dream of theirs will be a reality in the next few months.  While in Kiev this trip, we were able to hang out with Tom and Mary Mack, who are awaiting the adoption of their two girls!
It's an exciting thing for a 50 year-old-woman like me with arthritic knees to see God at work still in my life. So here's what I figure…I go…simply go…and wait to see how God works!

-Laurie Copeland

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Praise be to Our Awesome God!

In July 2007, I had the privilege to go to a Ukrainian orphanage for 2 weeks. I fell in love with a little girl named Ira. She was 12 years old and the sweetest person I have ever encountered. I left my part of my heart at that orphanage and especially with that little girl. For two years now I have longed to go back to Ukraine. This was the summer God called me to go. I hesitated at first, "It's too much money; I can't take off that much time from work; There's not enough time to plan for this trip" are all the things I said to try and convince myself that I couldn't possibly go. I had just talked to our team leader Mrs. Copeland and told her that there was no way I could go.  While I was driving in my car though, I was overcome by a strange feeling, and called her back, and said that I had to go, and that God would work out the details. Sure enough, God did work out the details, every last one! Before I knew it I was on a plane landing in Ukraine - my heart overfilled with joy. This camp was different from my first camp. Poor children from the village were there along with the orphans. It was encouraging to see that every day more kids were coming to our Bible studies and evening concerts. It had to be the fastest 5 days of my life because before I knew it we were already saying goodbye.

I believe that everyone on this trip has a story to tell about the last day at the orphanage, and I think that everyone's stories are bittersweet. I know that mine is. To make it short, I'll skip to the part where we were loading up the van. My favorite boy, Jenya, was an 11 year old who was in my group. With tears in his eyes, he was the first to say goodbye. As I said goodbye, I was reminded of the little boy I got to know that week. He showed up in our Bible study group on the first day and was hooked after that! He listened to the messages, memorized his Bible verses, and helped me with crafts. He even made up a secret handshake that incorporated the words "God Loves You".  And now it was already time to say goodbye to him. Another little boy, Sergei, clung to my side for an hour the night before and the whole morning before I left. I stepped on the bus and took a seat on the left side of the van next to the window. I looked out at all of their little faces and suddenly saw Sergei running up to my window. The bus started up, and Sergei put his hand up against the window yelling my name. I put my hand up against his hand through the window and began to cry. The van began to move and I watched out the window as his little crying face got farther and farther away.

Why did we do that to ourselves? Why did we spend all of this money and fly across the world only to leave those kids crying? But we can't look at it that way. Our Lord has a much bigger plan. We showed those kids His powerful love, and that is what is most important!

And here's a little bit more praise to God:

The little girl that I left in Ukraine two years ago is now being adopted. I can barely write this without tearing up! I can't believe that after praying for two long years for her to be adopted by someone, and taken out of that orphanage, that God answered my prayers. And not only did He answer my prayers; He surpassed them. He is putting Ira in the Bell family who lives here in Orlando and goes to Northland.

A big thank you goes out to my team, and especially my team leader, Mrs. Copeland. You are a great leader, second mom, and best friend. Also, thanks to Matt Snyder for putting together all of the technical stuff, including this blog, and also for playing a great Jesus character in the skits! Jessica, thank you for your prayer on Friday night around the bonfire; it changed my life. Pauline and Kristi, thanks for helping me with crafts, and for being such great sports throughout the trip! Mrs. Snyder, thank you for smiling…ALL THE TIME. (=  Matt and Danny, thanks for being so funny during all of the skits; I believe you made such a positive impression on the kids as well as the team (A special thanks to Matt for putting on one of the "All-Star Cheerlear" outfits.) Anthony, thanks for carrying all my drinks and stuff in your backpack back from the store! Chris, thanks for being understanding and caring on the last night we were there when I was crying. Thanks too for sarcastically calling my Sunshine in the morning. Susanne, thanks for being so sweet and funny on the whole trip, and always having a good, team-player attitude (and also for letting my use your phone).  And of course, thanks to Jenya Ivashko, Patti Harshey, Marc McMurrin, and everyone else behind this trip. But most of all, Thank you, Almighty God, for a successful trip and showing us your mercy and love every day. Praise be to our Awesome God.

 Mission Accomplished!

-Erika Cooper

Monday, July 13, 2009

Leaving Ukraine

Breakfast time in Kyiv! After breakfast our team leaves for Orlando after 9 days in Ukraine. We know that God is working in the hearts of the orphans in Andreshivka, and to be a part of that for a week was such a blessing!

Please pray for us as we travel home. Pray for our flights to be on time and for us to make each of the connections. Pray for health and a quick recovery from jet lag as we arrive home and begin the "debriefing" process.

Thank you for your prayers and support. We love you all!

-Matt for the Ukraine Team

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday's Events

Today we are in Kiev, and we have only seven minutes before we leave to visit the Lavra, the WWII museum and shopping! So this note will have to be quick, more to come later on tonight. We will also be watching the Northland 11 am service tonight. Kiev is such a beautiful city, but nothing compares to the orphanage. It was so heart-wrenching to have to leave the kids yesterday. Everyone was crying their eyes out, but what we left behind gives us a joy and peace that passes all understanding. We left God's love...

-Erika Cooper (=

(more later from Mrs. Copeland, our team leader, and the rest of the team as well)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

From the minute we stepped out of the airport, every sense awakened the extremely real fact that I am in the beautiful country of Ukraine. The air temperature was the first clue that I definitely wasn't in Florida anymore. Cool breezes waft distantly familiar smells past my nose and make my fully fulfilled eyes begin to water. I remember from when I was in Ukraine three years ago: the sound of Russian murmering in the background, the smell of smoke and pointy shoes, and the joy that enters my heart and begins to fill it to the brim.

But that first glance of the country outside the airport is but a mere shadow of the brilliance that surrounded us as we stepped into camp after the two-hour drive from Kyiv. Camp glows a bright green as it is towered over by mignificant trees. Everything is green and growing and beautiful. Flowers bloom. The air smells sweet and cool like a sip of fruit tea in the summer time.

As we settled into camp we were delighted to find beautiful buildings that we are staying in inside of which lie RUNNING WATER and PORCELIN TOILETS. I could hardly believe my eyes - especially after my last two mission's trips in which "roughing it" would be putting it delicately. Our first meal was not only edible but actually quite enjoyable as all the rest have been since.

But if you can believe it, none of what I have described so far has come anywhere near to touching the best parts of being here. How do you even describe the joy that bubbles over and overflows when meeting your long lost brothers and sisters in the Lord and the experience of the fact that you don't even speak the same language does not put a dent in the beautiful friendships that are beginning to emerge as we bridge the divides of language and culture with smiles, hugs, service, and the love of Christ. We are very fortunate to have not only our own personal translator but also a team of college-aged students who were born in Ukraine and moved to California when they were young - completely bilingual people who understand English and Ukrainian language and culture and are some of the most beautiful, helpful, and kind people I have ever met in my life. A passion for Christ pours out of their spirits and reaches out to everyone that they are around.

The 180 children we have been ministering to are a mix of orphans and children from poor families from the neighboring villages. They range in age from 4 to about 16. As I look into some of their eyes I can almost feel God's heart break as He longs for them to be a part of his family and know the hope and purpose that only He can bring to their lives. I can also feel His joy for the innocence of the children that He loves as they run and play and wrap their tiny, dirty hands around my neck - or in Katya's case around my waist to tickle me and watch me squeal and then begin to beam. For this 12-year-old girl, age, race, language, and culture bear no weight. All that matters is laughter and love. She plays this game with almost our whole team and never seems to tire at all. It is looking like all the clothing and gifts are about perfect in size for what we need, and all of the supplies we brought seem to be a very big blessing for the camp.

Our days are filled helping with skits, songs, crafts, and sports and mainly just hanging out with the kids. Please continue to pray for our team as we continue to adjust to culture shock and jet lag. Pauline did have some travel sickness yesterday but not as bad as usual, and praise the Lord as she is feeling much, much better today. The rest of us have been tired, but no other sickness for us to report, thankfully.

A few important shout-outs: HAPPY BIRTHDAY BREANNE!!! All of our team members say hello and we love and miss you to all of our supportive families and supporters back home. We could not be here today if not for your love, support, and most importantly prayer. Please keep it coming! And to all of you who will be seeing my darling angel Rebecca, kiss her for me, tell her I love her, and I miss her and pray for her every day. Thanks for reading!

Sharing in the joy of Christ,
-Jessica for the Ukraine Team