Have you ever seen the Rocky Balboa movie where he goes to fight the Soviet boxer? I grew up hearing my dad describe his first impression of Ukraine as the scene where Rocky first deplanes in the Soviet Union…desolate, snowy, gray…oh, and the grim-faced soldier with his fur hat and AK-47 standing by the bottom of the plane.
It was 1995, four years since Ukraine had first gained independence from the Soviet Union. I was twelve and had rarely been outside my birth state of Indiana, certainly never out of the U.S. I was the oldest of five kids, the youngest just three months old when we arrived in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. We moved so that my dad could serve with a church plant that had started several years before.
Most people in Kyiv spoke Russian. During Soviet years, Ukrainian language was banned as an official language. I remember during those first years that the official school language of Ukraine switched back and forth multiple times – school would be taught in Russian, then in Ukrainian, then in Russian again. Today spoken language in Ukraine is still somewhat meshed, with both Russian and Ukrainian being widely spoken.
Both Ukrainian and Russian languages use a Cyrillic, rather than Latin alphabet. This means that not only did we need to learn to speak and understand another language, we also couldn’t read a thing when we first arrived!
Street Markets and Soviet Block Housing
Some of my earliest memories of Kyiv are of the city region where we lived, called Teremki. There were a few small stores for groceries and household supplies, but the shelves were almost bare, a sign of the struggling economy. For those of you old enough to remember and the others who read it in history books, I stood in those stereotypical long lines of people for freshly baked bread. Later, when I would live in the States for a few years, that smell of fresh bread would always transport me back to Ukraine, back “home.”
We shopped daily at the local street market, where we bought everything from dry goods to produce to fresh dairy products. The babushkas (grandmothers) sold homemade sour cream and fresh milk out of jars – you could taste anything before buying. Far away from the U.S. and standards of food safety, the butchers would slaughter their animals at home in their village, throw the raw meat into the trunk of their car, and sell it right on the street. I distinctly remember the tree stumps and big slabs of meat in the open air…in the summer time, they would use a small tree branch to swish away the flies.
Teremki is a residential area, with row after row of nearly identical looking Soviet, block style apartment buildings. Some of them are 16 stories high. The lifts (elevators) were filthy and often broke down. I remember one time when my brother, Aaron, ten years old, got stuck in a broken elevator for hours on end. Our pastor, George Markey, finally got him out with a crow bar.
Our family of seven lived in a four-room apartment, which means three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and two separate rooms for the toilet and for the bathtub and sink. It came furnished, and almost any stick of furniture in the place converted into a bed. Rooms are small, so the furniture is built for practicality – dual daytime and sleeping uses. There were no screens on the windows, and we held our plates on our laps in the living room at mealtimes, since we didn’t have a table big enough to fit us all.
Push and shove, people! Push and shove…
One of the things I loved then and still love now about Ukraine is the relative safety for kids, compared to the States. Kids become independent at much earlier ages here. When we lived in Kyiv, it was safe for my brother and I, ten and twelve, to ride the city buses and the subway system (the metro) with our young friends. I was close to two of our pastor’s daughters, Melanie and Rhonda Markey, and we often went into town on our own and with other girls from the church. I remember when the first McDonalds opened in Kyiv. Melanie and I went together, and we waited in line for over an hour for that taste of American fast food!
Not that Ukraine doesn’t have its own set of dangers. We used to joke that in Ukraine, we believe elbows were made for shoving. The metro and buses can be so packed that people physically force their way on and off. My mom and I were out once with some of the girls on the metro at rush hour. The crowds were worse than usual that day. Our train pulled up to the central station platform, but it wasn’t our stop. Despite my best efforts, my scrawny body was sandwiched in between people so that they picked me up off my feet and carried me out of the train. As soon as the crowd dispersed enough, I turned around, saw my mom and grabbed her, and pulled us both back into the train before the doors closed. Once we had left the station, I noticed that my mom looked as if her heart was pounding out of her chest. Turns out she’d been pushed to the ground and had fallen thigh deep between the train and the platform! When she looked up, she actually saw me being carried out over her head!
A Cold, Gray World
That first winter was bitter cold. My feet were always freezing, no matter how warm my socks were. I remember going to the main clothing market (also outdoors) to buy some warmer sweaters. The market was a maze of individual stalls, no heat sources anywhere. Boy, was I shocked when I learned that trying things on meant undressing right in the outdoor market stall, with a thin curtain at best for privacy and nothing to fend off the cold!
Streets and sidewalks were not well cleaned, so I, being the clumsy 12-year old that I was, fell on the ice constantly. Winter time was dreary. Most people wore black, and there weren’t many colorful signs or storefronts. Lots of gray buildings and gray slush on the ground. Everyone in Kyiv waited for May, when the lilac trees blossom, and color is added back into life!
Seeking Hope – Church Arising from Underground
People were hungry for hope back then. The economy was struggling desperately to recover from the drastic political changes that occurred when the Soviet Union fell. People worked for months without being paid, but they were afraid to quit their jobs, knowing they might not find another. Stores were practically empty. The entire social structure had changed overnight. Many people had wanted a free nation with a democratic government, but the time it would take to recover and restructure an entire nation politically, economically, and socially would take its toll on quality of life for years to come.
The Soviet Union had driven the church underground, given its atheistic philosophy. The salvation plan of God had not been freely preached, and the Bible was scarce and hidden during those years. In a time of crisis and desperation, the people of Ukraine eagerly grasped onto the hope that Jesus Christ offers.
We moved to Kyiv to be part of a church plant, the first Calvary Chapel in Ukraine, which was pastored by George Markey. The church was young, primarily made up of teens, but there were some families and a few older people, babushkas especially. This was a church unconcerned with earthly pleasures or comforts. We met for a time in an old building that was so cold in the winter that the worship team had to wear their winter coats and hats on stage as they led us in song. You could see your breath in front of your face. But nobody cared. Nobody complained. They were meeting with Jesus. They had found hope, purpose, something to live for.
There was a depth, a sincerity in the people of that church that I’ve rarely seen equaled anywhere else. Though they had next to nothing, they were content, because they had a relationship with Christ. And yet in that relationship, they were never content to settle, always hungering for more of God. They were such examples of the supernatural joy of God, joy independent of circumstances, that to this day it brings me conviction of my own discontent over earthly things. God was almost literally all they had, and He was enough.
Not Just the Faith of My Parents
People thought my parents were crazy for moving five young children to a post-Soviet nation in 1995. My childhood had some very different challenges than I would have experienced had I grown up in Indiana. But those two years in Kyiv had perhaps the most lasting impact of anything in my life to date.
I fought hard when we first moved. I wanted my friends. I wanted my American comforts. I wanted to go “back home.” I, I, I, I…you get the picture. I was so focused on myself that it spoiled nearly every aspect of life those first nine months. And then one day, I was standing in church during the worship time, and I heard God speak to me for the first time. There was no audible voice, just a deep impression on my heart. “You can keep fighting and be miserable, or you can accept that this is My will for you and grow.”
I became a Christian at five years old, but my faith became my own that day in Kyiv. No longer just the faith of my parents, I now had a personal hunger for the Bible, for prayer, for worshipping God with the church. He placed in me a love for others, a desire to serve, a heart to see others also come to know Him.
I got involved in church ministries, most regularly in visiting “the baby hospital.” Girls from the church went several times a week to a local hospital, where there was an area for babies who had been abandoned or were orphans. At any given time, there were five to fifteen infants who had either been brought to the hospital because they were found abandoned, had been left at the hospital by their mother, or were orphans who had been brought from an orphanage because they were sick. The hospital was understaffed, and these babies were neglected, left for hours in dirty diapers, bottles propped up against blankets at feeding times, and rarely taken out of bed. We went to hold them, bathe them, change them, love on them.
Now that I’m an adult with two young kids of my own, it’s almost physically painful to remember these babies. So much need for love. Such precious lives.
My parents took a huge risk moving us all to Ukraine. I appreciate that now more than ever as a parent. I recognize that my siblings and I came face to face with some incredibly hard life lessons much younger than we might otherwise have experienced. In some ways, we had to grow up a little faster.
But I hope and pray that my Nora and Titus will be just as impacted by their childhood as I was by mine, that they will come to a conscious and growing relationship with God at a young age and that their hearts will be bent toward His will, His heart for the nations. The God who began a work in this stubborn, selfish 12-year old knows and loves my children, knows and loves your children, if you are a parent. He wants to give them spiritual life through Christ and wants to bless them and use them to love others in this fallen world.