Well hello there! Long time no… see? read? post? I’m not sure what the correct form of this expression is for the blog-o-sphere. Anyway, you might have noticed that I have been on an extended hiatus from blogging. This has been for a number of different reasons, but I won’t bore you with all of them.
What I will say is that this blog will be changing it’s focus here before too long as I am Seminary-bound this fall!! (Betcha didn’t see that comin’! OK, maybe you did…) It will become a place for me to share my thoughts and struggles during the next chapter of my life. BEFORE that though, it will become a keeper of campfire tales from Camp Jensen Woods, where I have been hired as the summer site director (look, so much exciting news in such a short time!). I’m so pumped for the coming year!
The long an the short of it is I have ended my term as a Mission Intern with Global Ministries and am off to some new and exciting adventures. Keep an eye out for this blog’s face-lift, (coming soon) and please continue with me on this ever-exciting, totally-unpredictable, amazing, wonderful, terrifying, joy-filled adventure called LIFE!
And now for those of you interested, here is the sermon that I wrote to give at churches during my time of Itineration. Feel free to read it, or not, no offense taken either way. There are just a few folks who weren’t able to come hear it any of the Sundays I gave it and I promised to post it for them. Peace and blessings to you all – Katie
Доброго ранку, Мене звати Кеті Стіл.
У минулому році я працював Сент-Джонсі Об’єднаної методистської церкви та молод до Ісуса в Львів, Україна.
свою місію; СФОРМУВАТИ ТА ОБ’ЄДНАТИ МОЛОДЬ YKA РОЗУМІЄ, ПРИЙМАЄ, ЗРОСТАЄ І ПРАКТИКУЄ ЖИВУ ХРИСТИЯНСЬКУ ВІРУ.
Good morning! My name is Katie Steele.
Last year I worked for St. John’s United Methodist Church and Youth to Jesus in L’viv, Ukraine.
Their mission is to form and unite youth who understand, accept, grow and practice living Christian faith.
This opportunity came from my participating in the Young Adult Missionary Service program through the General Board of Global Ministries of the UMC as a Mission Intern.
From their website:
“Young Adult Missionaries commit to linking faith and justice. Young adults have the opportunity to live out their faith through justice ministries, connect to networks, raise awareness, transform communities, and become a part of a community through presence and solidarity.”
The program is designed for Young Adults ages 20-30 that hold a Bachelor’s Degree or have equivalent life experience. Although funded and run through the United Methodist Church individuals from all denominations and faith backgrounds are invited to apply and serve.
Now, as great as “living out faith through justice ministries” and “transforming communities” sounds, I have to admit that I really applied for this program mostly because it seemed like a great form of what I like to call “Productive Procrastination.”
You see, at the time I applied I was a recent 23 year old graduate with a degree in Recreation but didn’t have a clue of what it really was I wanted to do when I “grew up.” I was working as the Christian Education Director at a Presbyterian Church but did not want to permanently move to the tiny town in which I was working. Besides, I had always wanted to live abroad and this would not only provide a means for me to do so, but pay me to live overseas! What a deal, right?!
I would be lying to you and fooling myself if I said that my motivation for applying to this program was entirely altruistic. But that’s one of the wonderful things that God does, he turns any moment and every situation, no matter how we came to be in it, into an opportunity to teach us, stretch us, grow us and help us to become more like the disciples we are called to be.
In hindsight, God’s hints about what this experience was going to be like started early, but at the time, I wasn’t really paying attention. As early as the interview event, months before I was accepted into the program — let alone knew I was going to Ukraine — I sang for the first time The Summons. Have you ever really listened to the words of The Summons?
“Will you leave yourself behind…”
“Will you let the blinded see… kiss the lepers clean… set the prisoners free…”
And the one line that really gets me, right at the beginning:
“Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same.”
HA! What was I thinking, singing that? Here’s a word of caution to you all: don’t sing hymns like The Summons or Here I Am, Lord, unless you mean what you are singing.
Sure, as well as a neat opportunity to go and live and work abroad, I thought that this would be an excellent opportunity to put my faith into action. I was raised here in the middle of the JW congregation, participated in every mission trip I could, and had been interested in world missions since the first time I participated in World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine in 6th grade. I thought I was singing the hymn in good faith, not necessarily because I really wanted to be completely changed. Change, more often than not, does cause some pain.
Although I had an inkling and dare I say even a fear that going to Ukraine would be a life changing experience, I did not count on it being the defining moment of my faith and my life thus far.
From the first day, the journey to Ukraine was nothing but a challenge. Upon arrival to the Indianapolis airport I was told my flight was cancelled and I would have to come back the next day. A 2 hour drive back to Cincinnati and a rather sleepless night led to a flight to NYC the next day. The first step in my overseas adventure ended with a week-long stay in the “city that never sleeps,” where they closed the subways, airports, buses and most stores and restaurants. That’s right, my travelling partner and fellow intern Nick Haigler and I were stuck in NY for a week while Hurricane Irene shut down the entire city.
When we finally arrived in L’viv a week late on the 1st of September we were just in time for the first day of school and the first Pilgrims meeting of the year. Pilgrims is the name of the student worship service at the Student Center. It meets every Thursday evening during the school year at 6:30pm and features music, scripture, preaching and a time for tea and cookies with friends.
Even being severely jet-lagged and caught like a deer in the headlights when asked to introduce myself to a room full of students that first night, I could tell that I had walked into a special ministry. The energy on that first Pilgrims of the year was electric and contagious. Students were excited to greet Nick and me and full of enthusiasm for the year ahead. I was hooked right away.
And it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was going to be the one being ministered to as opposed to the one doing the ministering. For the first several weeks either one of my supervisors or one of my newfound Ukrainian friends had to go shopping with me because I barely knew how to say “good day” let alone communicate to market and shop owners what groceries I needed. (EVERYTHING is behind a counter.) My roommates were responsible for any and all communication with our landlady and for paying all of our bills. And any time I needed to travel anywhere in the city that I couldn’t get to by foot I had to have a chaperone because even with the new English tourist signs being put up for the coming of EURO 2012 I was still bound to get myself lost.
In addition to the language barriers I faced in those first few months, there were also a slew of local customs I needed to learn about Ukrainian culture. When to use the formal greeting as opposed to the informal. When I should surrender my seat on the Marshrutka (bus) to an elderly passenger and when it was OK to keep my seat. Why women are not to sit in direct contact with the ground – a particularly hard rule of thumb for this die hard camper to abide by, especially during picnic season!
I had to remember that when visiting another’s home I was always to take a bag of cookies, flowers or some other small gift for the host. Seasonal greetings always seemed to escape my low level of pronunciation skills and I never really figured out how I was supposed to share my lunch with everyone in the student center if I was caught eating it in public.
When I wasn’t out committing a slew of cultural faux pas I like to think that I was actually involved in some pretty good ministry. Life at the student center and our tiny church community was pretty busy. The church and student center occupied the same space and with the exception of Mondays when people were still gearing up for the week (yes, having “the Mondays” is an international phenomenon) and Fridays when students were headed back home for the weekend, our tiny meeting space was a pretty hopping place in the center of town.
Our church service met at 11 am on Sundays with the afternoon often consisting of church-wide get togethers, picnics or “Servants of the Church” meetings for our lay leaders. Tuesday evening was our weekly English Club, which seemed to encourage more foot traffic on those days in the afternoon as students came and waited for us to begin in the evening. Pilgrims met on Thursday evenings, the most high traffic day of all as far as I can recall. Small groups and Bible studies met throughout the week and covered anything and everything including but not limited to: a Craft Club, a study on the Gospel of Matthew, Cooking with Jesus, The Book of Acts, Rob Bell’s NOOMA video series, guitar lessons and a study of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.
One of the most amazing ministries I got to witness while I was in L’viv was a partnership that Nick developed between our student group and another Protestant group headed by our friends the Blessing family. The church they planted a few years ago recognized an opportunity in the city to build relationships with pensioners, mostly older women, by taking bags of groceries into the streets of the city every other Saturday. Because of the way pensions are in Ukraine most of these women have to choose between buying groceries or paying for their utilities each month and are thus forced into the streets to beg for money. Just like here in America these people are usually the ones most overlooked by the rest of society.
With Nick’s encouragement our students began donating food to go into the bags we were taking out twice a month and a handful of them even started joining us, acting as translators between the Americans and these women, inviting them to church and listening to their stories.
After a few months of our being involved in the Feeding Ministry with the other church we started seeing more and more homeless friends coming into our doors. First they just joined us for Sunday worship but before we knew it we had at least 5 homeless men and women coming to use our shower facility, joining us for congregational meals and asking about the other activities we offered.
As one of the Service and Outreach Coordinators it was in my job description to
“…help to start a mercy and justice outreach in the local church. To assist Lyubomir, Erika, and David in finding a population in need, building a program to serve this group, and include this group into the community of faith.”
But in reality I didn’t do that at all. Instead what I witnessed was our community of faith already being the ones on lookout for these marginalized individuals and brainstorming ways to be the hands and feet of Christ. Before I even had a chance to suggest a clothing drive I learned that our student pastor’s wife was already collecting coats and warm clothing to hand out to these men and women and had also invited them to her home once a week for a warm meal.
I had a ton of ideas for ways we could be in ministry with and for these people. But I quickly learned that with a church of about 30, most of whom worked full time or more than full time jobs and who were already working at making these people feel like a part of the community, my job was to support them in what they were already doing. My lack of language skills also proved to be a huge challenge in this endeavor.
That’s not to say I wasn’t helping brainstorm and dream possibilities for the future of this outreach ministry – I did hold a visioning meeting or two – but really, given what we had to work with, the Pilgrims and St. John’s church community was doing a fine job on its own meeting the needs of those around us.
When I wasn’t busy watching and being blown away by the missional hearts of the members of St. John’s United Methodist Church I was being humbled by the things God was teaching me through the students and through every day interactions around town.
- There was the day my Ukrainian tutor and I were sitting in the park and were joined by a preschooler during my lesson. She wanted to trade her book for the one we were using. Besides being adorable we were able to tell her mom about our Kid’s Club on Sunday mornings.
- On at least 2 occasions we had students come to Pilgrims and ask if they would be allowed to announce a monetary collection that night, much like an Extra Dollar Service or Coins for the Poor, in addition to the regular offering to go and support a family or individual in need.
- One Thursday I was reminded of the importance of corporate prayer and just a simple invitation to pray together when I asked one of the newest visitors if she would like to pray with me during our weekly prayer time after the service. When I finished praying she looked at me and said “I’ve never prayed with anyone before.” (Really, never? Quite a thought for someone who grew up in a Protestant church environment in the West her entire life.)
- And on my most stressed out days it was wonderful when one of my friends would come up to me, stop me in my tracks and inform me she was going to pray for me. Right then, in that moment. (See, I told you I knew from the beginning that I was going to be the one being ministered TO.)
Perhaps the most wonderful thing of all during my time in Ukraine was the fact that numerous Sundays and Thursdays would end with my thinking “I hope this moment lasts forever,” a sentiment often shared with my friend Nastia and rarely felt (with apologies) about any church service here in the States. As I said in the beginning, the community in which I served this past year is quite an incredible thing to be a part of.
Today, as many of you know is Epiphany. The Sunday we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men, the Magi. What you may not know is that tomorrow, January 7th is the day that Christmas is celebrated according to the Orthodox calendar, the calendar followed most widely in Ukraine. I hope you find it as fitting as Pastor Mark and I did that I should be sharing with you all today J
In preparing for this morning I thought a lot about 2 things. First, how to tie the story of the Wise Men into my presentation about Ukraine and Second, how to avoid only talking about the most depressing experiences I had in Ukraine, yet still share how powerful they have been in regards to my experience, witness and in shaping who I am becoming.
As I’ve grown older I’ve realized, piece by piece, year by year, that the story of the Nativity we in the church world know and love (Mary and Joseph having a sweet new baby boy in the middle of a silent night surrounded by cuddly farm animals and receiving gifts from some nice gentlemen from the East – yeah, that one) most likely wasn’t. This story is one patched together from multiple accounts, sterilized for “G” rated audiences and carefully preserved from one year to the next so we can retell it with all the warmth and happiness and “well isn’t that precious” Christmas sentimentality we all know and love.
I LOVE the traditional telling of the Christmas story, Children’s Christmas pageants and the warm feeling I get hearing it or seeing it each year. My point is that this cannot and should not be our only understanding of the Nativity story. Jesus’ birth was a political game changer. He was born to working class parents and was part of a marginalized community being oppressed by the Romans.
So what’s the big deal about the gifts that came from the Magi? Well, if you woke up one morning to find President Hu Jintao, Queen Elizabeth, and President Vladimir Putin standing at your door to offer your toddler $100 Million dollars, an iPad and a Jet Plane you would be pretty stunned and perhaps a little suspicious of what was going on, would you not?
Imagine how the carpenter Joseph might have felt. Didn’t these gifts, expensive and unique as they were, mark his child and his family right away? They must have for the first verse after the passage we read today, Matthew 2: 13 reads “When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Um. What? Perhaps the gifts that were given to Jesus and his parents by the Wise Men weren’t exactly gifts that they would have asked for. I can’t imagine that they wanted to pick up and leave everything and flee to Egypt for their safety. Yet wouldn’t they have had to flee regardless? In hindsight perhaps those gifts, the ones that more or less marked Jesus as the one Herod wanted to get rid of, were the very items that made it possible for them to flee in such haste. They were expensive, remember?
In July, just one month short of my 1 year anniversary in Ukraine the unthinkable happened. Those of you who read my updates in the messenger know the story, for the rest of you a quick overview.
At the beginning of July the Student Center was hosting a short term mission team from Sugarland, TX. We were in the process of moving to a larger meeting space because both of our ministries had grown so much. This was a dream that David and Shannon Goran, my supervisors, had been working on for a great deal of time and this summer it was finally becoming a reality.
On the last day of work for the team the roof in the building they were helping to repair collapsed. One of the men from Texas and a student from our ministry were fatally injured and David was in critical condition, necessitating an immediate medical evacuation for him and his wife and sons to Germany.
In a matter of moments the world I knew changed. My experience in Ukraine went from a life changing one built on mountaintop experiences and fantastic memories to one of pain and anger, confusion and despair.
Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand wrote a book called The Gift of Pain. It is a book that is now on my reading list but is not one I have read yet. It documents Dr. Brand’s discovery that painlessness is the root cause of the damages that leprosy patients experience. By giving back to these individuals the “Gift of Pain,” the ability to know when something hurts so that they will stop what they are doing, burning a hand, for example, Dr. Brand gave them a way to reduce their suffering.
Although this book talks about a very physical kind of pain, I believe the same discovery can be made about spiritual and emotional pain. The description of the book claims, “Pain is not something that most of us would count as a blessing. However, Dr. Paul Brand’s work with leprosy patients in India and the United States convinced him that pain truly is one of God’s great gifts to us. In this account of his fifty-year career as a healer, Dr. Brand probes the mystery of pain and reveals its importance. As an indicator that lets us know something is wrong, pain has a value that becomes clearest in its absence. Indeed, pain is a gift that none of us want and yet none of us can do without.”
Never in a million years would I have asked for the pain and suffering that my friends in Ukraine and from Texas endured over the summer. I would still do anything I could to give Pani Onoprienko her son Illya back. Comforting a woman who had just become a widow was not an experience I was expecting or wanted to have during my time as a Mission Intern, or ever for that matter. Helping my supervisor pack for an immediate evacuation when she did not even know if or when she would be able to return to her home and ministry in Ukraine was a surreal experience.
Standing at funerals, hugging shaking students who have just lost a friend, planning worship services when there seemed to be no words to offer… all of these and more are experiences, painful memories that I would not have asked for.
Yet, just as the description of the book claims, “pain has a value that becomes clearest in its absence.”
Because of these painful moments, memories and seared-in-my-mind experiences I am a completely different person than the one that stood before you 18 months ago as you commissioned me and sent me forth.
Because of these moments and memories I have a new understanding of the world and a better grasp of what I believe and why.
Remember how I said when I first started this program I had no idea what I wanted to do? Well, because of the experiences I had in Ukraine, I know that my next endeavor will be seminary. Thanks to the “Gift of Pain” I was given this past year I heard the call to seek graduate education and training in Pastoral Counseling.
John Wesley, I cannot thank you enough for your support, your time, your love, emails, and care packages and for being the village that raised me. I truly do not know how I would have survived this experience without your constant love and support.
I hope that no matter what gifts you receive this Epiphany season, whether you are currently on a mountaintop or in a valley, or somewhere on the path in-between, that you are able to look at the Nativity and the story of the Magi in a new way, in a new light.
As you have sent me out, I bring back to you witness of what your prayers, love and support have done and continue to do for the ministry in L’viv and for myself.
Thank you for allowing me to share with you this morning.