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I used to participate in my high school’s musical theater program. Singing, dancing, acting… It was a blast. And although I was usually up front in a costume myself, I loved watching our tech team “wow” audiences with interesting lighting effects, cool set pieces and dramatic sound effects.
One of the most versatile tools they used was called a scrim, a semi-transparent curtain that could be lit from different sides to make it anywhere from see-through to completely opaque. Actors would often perform behind the scrim, visible only as shadows. Throw in a fog machine, and the tech team could create quite a bit of ambiance.
But then, in just about every musical, there would come an especially dramatic point in which the scrim would be lifted and everything behind it would be instantly revealed in all its color, brightness and vibrancy.
What was once vague and undefined became crystal clear…
Raising the Scrim
You see, back home in suburban Indianapolis, things like injustice, joy, evil and the kingdom of God are sort of hard to see… They are like shadows, fighting and dancing behind a scrim. With a constant barrage of advertising, entertainment, fast food, technology and work, it’s easy to let the important issues of this world slide out of our minds.
But for me, coming to Zhytomyr and joining in with the work of these ministries was like having the scrim raised. Brokenness, justice, life, evil and joy came into sharp focus in ways I never would have expected.
Here in front of me was a concrete realization of the kingdom of God breaking into this world.
So, for my sake as much as yours, I’d like to share a few of the things I saw behind the curtain. I want to get them down on paper. Because in just a couple of weeks, I’ll be back behind the scrim of suburbia… and I don’t want to forget what I saw.
Part of the Family
Every summer, Mission to Ukraine holds several camps. Children and young people from all over the region come to participate in an experience that is hands down their favorite part of the year. Our interns Krystallin and Lauren have already written a bit about the camps, and as you can see from their articles, these summer programs are unbelievably life-changing for the kids.
I was lucky enough to participate in two of these camps myself. But because my Ukrainian and Russian language skills are pretty much limited to “hello,” “thank you,” and “Please give me apple juice for my elephant” (true!), I couldn’t communicate much with the campers. So I spent most of my time just observing.
I watched as disabled children were loved on in ways they have never experienced before. I saw beautiful kids from MTU’s Life-Savers program (here only because their mothers chose not to abort them) run and dance and play. There in front of me were elderly babushkas smiling as they heard about Jesus for the first time.
It was the kingdom. And it was beautiful.
Images from both camps have been seared into my mind forever. Little Bagdan, struggling with muscular dystrophy, running as best as he could to give me a hug. Sweet Anton, unable to communicate with words, smiling from ear to ear. Lovable Oleg, out of his village for the first time in his life, singing quietly along to his favorite camp tune…
In the “real world,” these kids struggle to be accepted, loved and understood. But at camp, they are all just part of the family.
Another powerful image from the summer came from time that I spent with the Shelter, one of Last Bell’s two community centers for at-risk orphans.
These kids, though still a little rough around the edges, would literally be out on the streets if it wasn’t for the Shelter. After years of abuse, trauma and abandonment, these teenage orphans have every right to be cynical and furious with the world.
But they aren’t.
If you read the articles by our other intern, Chris, you can see just how alive and hopeful they are. Surrounded by a surrogate “family” – with mothers, fathers and even younger siblings – these young people are blossoming.
Just the other day, I spent the night at the Shelter. Chris and I went with some of the boys to play laser tag at a nearby mall (and got clobbered!). We grabbed ice cream at Zhytomyr’s only McDonalds and later sat around eating watermelon in the Shelter’s small kitchen.
Instead of drinking, doing drugs or getting into prostitution to make a few extra bucks, these kids were enjoying life with their family. It was beautiful.
The next morning, we sat around the breakfast table telling jokes and eating pancakes. As I looked from face to face, the kingdom was once again was thrown into sharp focus. Jesus spent most of his time hanging out with the outcasts and “ne’er-do-wells” of this world. Now I can see the reason why…
Hope. Where there should, by all accounts, be none.
There is one final image I’ll leave here that I think sums up the summer really well.
Every year, MTU brings six or seven boys from the Romaniv Disabled Boys Orphanage to their summer camps.
The boys, wearing bright, brand new t-shirts in all primary colors, get to participate in each of the camp’s many activities. They play games, hang out with super-cool volunteers, sing songs… In fact, it is such a highlight of their year that they think camp is called something it’s not.
Here in Ukraine, the ultimate, ideal vacation is a trip to the sea. Many people here talk about going, but few can afford to make the trip. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the Romaniv boys repeat one thing in the weeks and months leading up to camp…
“We’re going to the sea!”
The Front of the Parade
Such hope. Such life. Here in Zhytomyr it is all so crystal clear.
The broken, lost and powerless are being loved, honored and respected. The abandoned, forgotten and outcast are being drawn into a long and steady embrace.
I’ve realized recently that “The last shall be first in the kingdom” is not just some saccharine ideal. Looking into the faces of disabled children and abandoned orphans this summer, I’ve come to a new understanding of the upside-down kingdom of God.
These are the people standing hand-in-hand with Jesus. These are the children cradled in the arms of God. When the kingdom someday comes in all its power, they will be the standard bearers marching at the front of the parade.
In the States, we tend to think of the kingdom of God as a vague and blurry future thing. Nothing more than shadows dancing behind a scrim. But here in Zhytomyr with Mission to Ukraine and Last Bell, the scrim has been raised. In sharp clarity and color, the true message of the gospel is shouted out:
“The kingdom of God is at hand!”
- Go back and read any articles you may have missed from the summer. Be sure to check out each article’s next steps!
- Consider getting involved with Mission to Ukraine’s ministry here in Zhytomyr. Check out their website for more information.
- Partner with Last Bell through prayer and finances. They really need your help! Click here for more info.
About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.