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I’d done my homework.
Before heading to Ukraine, I’d read books about its history. I did interviews with people who grew up there; I talked to missionaries who worked there.
I’d even read the book When Helping Hurts, and been introduced to the idea that maybe these people I’m visiting are not being served by me as much as I’m being served by them.
I thought I understood it all. Boy, was I wrong.
I came to Romaniv and expected to be changed. I knew that I would be touched by the children there. But when I imagined how these kids would affect me, I always pictured it as something transcendent. Something elevated and “spiritual.”
But my time at Romaniv was spent in a crowded, un-airconditioned classroom scrunched up next to some of the most colorful desks and behind them, the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. Some of the kids drooled and needed their noses wiped. And a solitary window, meant to air out the room and disperse the smell, kept slamming shut in the breeze.
Whatever this was, it wasn’t transcendent.
But when they passed out photos of the children, pictures of each child that could be pasted into their workbooks, I saw an expression I have no word for. A smile surpassing any sort of joy I’ve ever felt.
I found myself smiling too, uncontrollably and for no reason whatsoever. There was nothing spiritual about that moment. It was hot. It was smelly. It was human. And it was very, very good.
Waving goodbye to dozens of boys who crowded into windows as we passed, I felt suddenly disarmed. I was expecting God’s transformation in spiritual epiphanies or profound realizations. But there were none.
Instead, I felt that I had brushed up against something. A God too big to be confined to the “spiritual” and a reality that I’d read about, but never truly known.
Surprised by a Mountain
It took an hour to drive back from Romaniv Orphanage to Mission to Ukraine’s main office in Zhytomyr.
As I passed the pillars at the entrance, pillars covered with the pictures of saved children, I felt like I’d been stripped of something. My “intellectual shield” was gone. Before I came here, it was easy enough to say “God is at work at Mission to Ukraine” but for the first time I was feeling the enormity of those words. God is very big.
And I suddenly felt very small.
I’d grown up in church, I knew God was greater than I could imagine. But there’s a big difference between reading that Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain and standing at its foot.
Mission to Ukraine made me feel like I’d walked smack into a mountain I’d been reading about all my life.
And now I’m seeing that mountain everywhere.
In a crowded upstairs office, four desks jimmied into a room not much larger than a parking space, I listened to amazing stories of women who couldn’t feed their children, whose poverty meant they would have to abort their pregnancy.
But because of Mission to Ukraine’s crisis pregnancy center, they were able to receive the counseling and material support they needed. Once seen as impossible burdens, these healthy, happy, children are now thriving as living proof of God’s love.
The child I had read about as a statistic was now playing peek-a-boo with me.
In a quaint cottage classroom I saw preschool children with special needs, who once would have been forever excluded from any opportunity for education or development, receive special classes and training designed to prepare them for school.
I sang “Jesus loves the little children” as a child. But I’ve never imagined those children as unruly or autistic before.
Simply walking back through the halls I was told about children suffering from physical disorders labeled “incurable” by doctors, these children are now receiving care that is transforming them, healing them.
I’ve used the word “hope” before, but never to describe a mother who has just been told her child will not be a vegetable – there is treatment.
There is not a square inch of Mission to Ukraine that I can go without tripping over miracles and mercies. And my ability to fit them into neat categories has been destroyed. The mountain is just too big, too close, too real.
Humbled and Happy
I knew I was going into a place where God was present. What I didn’t know is what that meant.
I’ve been learning when I travel I’m not bringing the kingdom of God, but visiting it. What I didn’t know is that the kingdom has little respect for theories or book knowledge, and a strong habit of shattering any sort of pride.
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt smaller. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more foolish or unprepared. But I do know that from now I when I say “kingdom of God” I’m not talking about an idea.
I’m talking about a place I visited.
About the Author: Brad Miller is a year-long fellow with WND. A student of Psychology, Biology, and Theatre, he's worked as an actor, teacher, balloon artist and last-minute fill-in guy for any number of projects. He loves camping and tinkering with broken and discarded things. Brad's passion in life is to unleash the potential in others.