My parents, siblings and I lived in Kyiv, Ukraine from 1995 to ’97. After that, my dad pastored a church plant in Bloomington, Indiana, for about three years. In late 2000, we moved back to Ukraine, this time to a city in the east called Dnipropetrovsk (try saying that three tim-nah, try to say it even just one time fast!).
While the move to Kyiv had me kicking and screaming, I couldn’t wait to set foot in Ukraine again when we moved to Dnipro, as everyone called it. The three years we spent in Bloomington had taught me that missionary kids are never quite at home again in their birth country, and while it was a rich and fulfilling time with an amazing church body, I had continually felt the stirring to be back on the mission field.
My plan during those three years was to graduate high school and head back to the field, wherever God led. I assumed that my parents were in Indiana to stay, and I remember thinking about the fact that if I moved onto the field, it would be just me, leaving my parents and siblings back in the States.
Another typical and extremely vital part of missionary life is the close relationships you develop within the family unit. Missionary families often move around a lot, leaving friends and relatives, so you come to depend on one another, and your siblings and parents become your closest companions. I felt called to be a missionary, but I admit that it was scary and heartbreaking to think of going it alone and leaving family behind.
Imagine my shock and thrill when our parents called a family meeting and laid out in detail why they felt God was calling us back to Ukraine. It was an incredible story – one of those “duh” moments when it couldn’t be any clearer how God is leading you. I was overjoyed – yes, God had been stirring my heart for the mission field, but it turned out that serving overseas wouldn’t mean saying those awful goodbyes just yet.
Dnipropetrovsk – Life in a “Regime City”
Dnipropetrovsk was a world of its own. Under the Soviet Union, it was a “closed” or “regime” city, where rocket engines were manufactured for Soviet military missiles. The city was not included on official maps and was closed to all foreign visitors. Because of its location closer to Russia and its history, Dnipropetrovsk had (and has) a strong Russian influence in its culture. Russian language is dominant, architecture has strong Soviet influences, and, until recent years, many street and park names still commemorated famous communist leaders. A monument to Lenin still stood in the main square of town until it was torn down as a result of the Euromaidan revolution in 2014. The city itself was officially renamed “Dnipro” in recent years, another step taken to move farther from Soviet memories.
Winters were harsh in Dnipro, too, but the summers were the bigger challenge there. The climate is hot and humid, and there was no air conditioning – almost anywhere back then. I went to McDonalds often, just because it was the only place in the city that had AC. I recall many, many a time on public buses, crammed in like cattle, everyone pouring sweat. No air conditioning, but often, passengers would refuse to open any windows, due to the belief that drafts can cause sickness or neck aches.
In Dnipro, my family again rented a four-room flat. When we first moved in, the living room had dark red carpets hanging on the walls and deep red, chaotically patterned wallpaper on the ceiling – typical in post-Soviet homes. But, in those days, people were beginning to remodel their apartments, and my parents gradually freshened up this flat with a brighter, more modern look.
Ukraine’s economy was on the mend – at least better than it had been when we lived in Kyiv. In the beginning, we still did all our shopping at open air markets and small stores. There were still many times when you couldn’t find something you wanted to buy. But, as time went on, we saw more stores open, even some supermarkets and eventually large, modern looking shopping centers (similar to American malls). You began to see people going to restaurants or cafes occasionally. Things weren’t quite so desperate as in those early days of Ukrainian independence.
Not being rude…just brutally honest
Despite the economy improving, life in Dnipro was harsh – that is overwhelmingly the best word to describe our daily experiences in the city. People walking down the street didn’t smile or greet you. Every time I walked out our door, I braced myself for the emotional onslaught I would inevitably face. Walk in the store, get yelled at by the salesclerk. Get on a bus, get yelled at by the driver. Almost always these verbal assaults were for no very good reason. I remember in the early days, when my language skills were greatly lacking, people would become irritated with me for not understanding them. Their response was usually to get louder, seemingly angry, and much more adamant about whatever it was they thought I would understand at this much higher decibel level! By nature, I’m a sensitive person – but I developed thick skin living in Dnipro!
Surprisingly, we discovered that while public interactions were unfriendly and even abrasive, personal relationships in Dnipro were deep, sincere – real. When you walked into someone’s home, you were automatically served the very best food they could afford, the family photo albums were broken out, and if you stayed for anything less than several hours, it was offensive. We got to know people in such depth that they were more like family than friends.
Frankness is a hallmark of Russian culture (and Ukrainian, but not quite to the same brash level). It was not uncommon in Dnipro for a friend to tell you that you looked fat or to outright say, “You’re wrong” – no mincing words – ever – period. In the beginning, this was hard to swallow, and I was easily offended. But with time, I learned to appreciate that their words were not meant as harsh or offensive – these were people who loved me, simply telling me what they believed to be true.
In future years, I would live in Indiana again and would find it frustrating and difficult to understand why people were so concerned with being polite. I would often wonder what someone was actually thinking, as opposed to what they were saying. I’ve come to appreciate the positives of both these cultures and learned to say, “This is just different,” rather than, “This is strange,” or “That way is better.”
Church in Dnipro
We moved to Dnipro to start a church – evangelical, non-denominational. It began as a Bible study in someone’s apartment and slowly grew. My dad pastored, and my mom, several of my siblings, and I were all involved in various ministries, along with several other missionaries and a number of the early church members.
The church had weekly Bible studies, an active youth group, and ministry school for young believers who wanted to grow in their faith and learn to serve others effectively. We recognized the importance of reaching out to our community. We held street outreaches, where we would play music and perform skits to get people’s attention and share the Gospel with them. As in Kyiv, we visited orphan babies in a hospital. We also regularly visited children in a sanitarium, a “place of rest” for kids who had family members with tuberculosis.
The church was young, with most of the members in their teens or early twenties. That age group was particularly drawn to the casual, less traditional style of the church and the message of freedom in Christ through grace. The youth were energetic and eager to put their faith into daily practice. There was a strong core group of young people who were at the church almost every day to hear the Word or help in ministry.
Missionary Kid Growing into a Missionary
My personal experiences in Dnipro were quite different than in Kyiv. I spent two years there as a missionary kid, then moved to Hungary for Bible college, and then came back to serve at the church as a young adult, single missionary.
I finished high school in Dnipro and then attended a year of university for intensive Russian language courses. We studied five days a week, morning to mid-afternoon. It was a program for foreign students, and every other person in my class was from China. Our professor was a friendly, smiling woman who spoke flawless Russian, German, some Chinese and about two words of English! Because she taught only in Russian, my brain had no time to translate, so I learned to think in Russian.
This was a critical shift in my language skills. I found that once my thoughts were in Russian, I gained a much deeper understanding of the people around me – the culture, the mentality. So much of who we are, what we believe, how we think is wrapped up in how we speak. It was an incredible step toward more effective communication. I have even found that at times I understand what is being said better in Russian than in English!
I shared in my last post how God gave me a heart for serving when we lived in Kyiv. That passion grew while living in Dnipro. Along with the youth, I was involved in almost every church Bible study and ministry. I first became a worship leader there, playing guitar and singing, and while Sunday mornings were a MAJOR struggle for awhile, worship for home groups was a sweet, intimate time of meeting with the Lord together. I also led the drama team and taught English, which were geared toward evangelism.
But more than anything else, God planted in me an insane love for developing relationships and discipling young women. There were three girls, university students, who gave their lives to Christ after visiting our church. We met together once a week. I came to their dorm room, and we had tea and cookies and talked about the Bible and growing in a relationship with Christ. Their hunger was insatiable, their faith so pure. It was incredible to watch them grow, learning to make tough decisions to follow Christ and becoming eager to serve other people, as well. Their families were not supportive of their new faith, and they were such an example and a challenge to me to follow hard after God, no matter the cost.
Go, go, go!
When I think back on those “Dnipro days,” I remember that they were the busiest ministry days of my life. I would leave the house in the morning and have ministry related meetings or events until night. On Saturdays, our church group went first thing in the morning to visit kids at the tuberculosis sanitarium. We got back to the church around noon, and I would teach two English classes, then scarf down a quick dinner before helping set up for youth group, where I led worship. After youth group, we all worked together to clean the church and set up for Sunday morning service. It was usually between 10 and 11 PM when I got home those nights…and I loved it!
I was in my early twenties, had boundless energy, no family of my own to care for, and God’s love and grace urging me to serve others. My favorite verses at the time were 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.” It was an honor, completely undeserved grace, that God allowed me to live and serve in Dnipro.
What about today?
Fast forward about ten years – throw in some time living in the States, add an awesome husband and two adorable kids, subtract a WHOLE lot of energy, and you’ve got me today…different city, but once again, I’m in ministry to the Ukrainian people, for whom God has placed a great burden in my heart.
This time it’s a blessing to serve with my own family, my own little missionary kids. Life as a missionary looks crazy different this time around. I’m continually wrestling through the daily choices of ministering to my family and ministering to the church and the lost souls around us.
I’ve always been a perfectionist, extremely motivated and ambitious about whatever is before me. As a missionary (as a Christian in general, really), you constantly see needs around you. My instinct is to want to help, to say “yes!” to every opportunity. But God continually reminds me (often through the very appreciated challenges of other moms) that these three souls at home are my biggest mission field right now.
There’s not a formula out there – give 80% of yourself to your family and 20% to other ministry, and it will all pan out right. Boy, do I wish it was that simple, that cut and dry. But it’s not. Like anything else in our Christian life, it’s about walking in the Spirit, being led by God in every choice we make, and being willing to admit and change course when we make the wrong decisions.
We all have busy, conflicted lives. Friends, I know you’re in this as much as I am! I pray that today you sense God’s Spirit leading you and giving you wisdom in each choice you make. May He give you peace as you follow His will and passion for the things He has called you to do this day.