In a recent encounter with a friend from church I recounted to her my visit to the Ukraine in summer of 2010. I suddenly realized that I needed to tell my story.
We embarked on a crowded plain from Nampa, Idaho en route to Washington DC. Our connecting flight was to take us to Munich. From there we were to take a final flight to Kiev. Notwithstanding the plane bound for Munich was struck by lightning, which caused a layover of several hours. My friends and I all groaned but found enough time to socialize and pass the time. Due to this delay we were forced to stay a day in Munich before departing the next day.
Once in Kiev we were questioned up and down by customs. We finally emerged from the airport to the grand and old city of Kiev. Whether it was the old churches or the historic eight-lane roads something there gave the wet taste of nostalgia on my lips. The city is old, and it felt that way too.
After sightseeing and a heartfelt visit to the War Museum we embarked on our train trip to the small marginal town of Vapnyarka. The clunking train pulled in slowly into a small, seemingly abandoned station. The moon shone on miles and miles of trees, dirt roads and scattered houses. Our hearts lifted with the fact we would finally be able to rest soon after a long day of traveling.
All fourteen of us were relieved when we showed up at the compound. We men set our bigs in a large empty room with hardwood floors. Turn by turn we set down our sleeping bags and used the restroom. I imagine the five ladies had it better in their smaller abode.
We set out meeting people in the compound, visiting neighbors and tearing away the old foundations. The compound was due to be redesigned complete with a playground for the local children.
Our instructor, Dr. Lawrence, made sure we spent each night in collective contemplation and reflection. Each night was a session where we took turns talking about what we’ve experienced and what we’ve learned. I, naturally, was not one to shy away from sharing my opinion.
The following nights we went for walks in the small town. Vapnyarka is a small town with paved roads needing re-paving, a few grocery shops and a humble market. I estimated the town to number at around seven thousand. Of that seven thousand the majority seemed to be middle-aged or older.
My team and I got to know the people in the compound: Igr (the resident pastor), his wife and her sister, and the residents of the men’s shelter. This shelter housed half a dozen men who were recovering from drug addiction. I was told they were HIV positive. Regardless of their background we could easily read in these men’s faces that they had seen harsh lives and this town was long weighed down by a heaviness, a heaviness that could be felt among the villagers.
We set to work redesigning the compound. We tore the bricks off the old shelter, demolished the ruined gates and uprooted weeds to make way for the upcoming playground. The residents joined in with us. My friend Scott got to paint the interior with one of such residents. An older resident who spoke little English helped me in my quest of removing bricks from the exterior. I learned from him, firsthand, that when tea time comes around everyone stops what they are doing to relax and take a sip. I miss the old ways.
I used what little Russian I knew to explain what tools I needed and my newfound Ukrainian friend taught me how to spell in Ukrainian (at this point I only knew how to spell in Russian).
When we returned to Kiev the residents of the shelter in Vapnyarka expressed their appreciation. Igr and a handful of the residents gave us hugs and said they would miss us. It was a pity I never learned enough Russian or Ukrainian to hold an actual conversation with any of them.
Upon returning to Kiev we were treated to a fancy Soviet-era restaurant where we dined on Borscht, bread and seasoned meats. It was good to see my classmates and tour guides all happy and sharing in the moment. It was a good way to cap off a long trip filled with culture and reflection.
On the personal note of reflection I noticed a deep unspoken sadness and heaviness in Vapnyarka. Kiev seemed less so, in fact I got the feeling Kiev is another sprawling European city taking giant steps into the future (I love their subway stations!). I also felt that Ukraine in general was very old and rife with cultural pride; these people know who they are and where they’ve come from. Where they’re going as a nation is perhaps the more pertinent question. In my spare time alone I read the Hobbit and hung out with my fellow classmates from NNU. I am grateful for the experience and long to return to this country, perhaps, with the same mission in mind: helping people in need.