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I had been taking pictures all day. I was trying to photograph all of Mission to Ukraine in one fell swoop. I had seen children and therapists and teachers and doctors and I was getting tired.
But when I walked into this particular room, a cross between a one-room apartment and a preschool, I took one look and almost dropped my camera. I had to sit down.
In the past week, I had seen children with a range of physical and mental disabilities, some of them fairly shocking, but it hadn’t stunned me. I walked into Romaniv Disabled Boys Orphanage for the first time, and didn’t flinch at the smell. This past summer I had the chance to visit a slum in South Africa. I was moved, but not startled into silence.
However, seeing this young man shook me deeply. Why? He wasn’t making eye contact.
Let me explain…
In High School, I contracted a strange and rather serious disease, and I was put on a form of chemo to combat it. This isn’t the full-strength-hair-falling-out kind of chemo. Instead, this chemo was psychoactive – it affected my mind.
Over the next year and half I watched myself transform from an easy-going, effortless honor-roll student into a bloated, shaking, stuttering child who ate his lunches in the nurses’ office because the cafeteria had too many lights and sounds.
It was horrifying. But at one point near the end of my ordeal I lost the ability to make eye contact. The concentration required for that simple act made it impossible to do anything else at the same time. So I just stopped.
I remember being at a movie theater, getting a ticket. Instead of looking at the cashier I had to stare at the counter, down and to the left. All I could think was,
“I’m different. I stand out. And everyone knows it.”
Which is why, in this tiny classroom in Ukraine, I felt suddenly overwhelmed. Here I was, five years and hundreds of miles away from that day, staring at someone who couldn’t stare back.
For a brief, blinding instant I wanted to shout at him,
“It’s OK! It won’t last! You’ll get better! I did…”
But he wasn’t going to get better. Short of a miracle, it wasn’t going to just “go away”. Maksim has Hydrocephaly, and he knows it. He knows who he is. He knows he is different.
Taking picture after picture I was tempted to despair. With my condition, I had a hope for a cure, the end of treatment, a return to “normal”. He didn’t have any of these. Where was his hope?
But then I started to really notice what I was photographing.
An Answered Prayer
In this combination house and preschool, Maksim was being taught how to care for himself through daily chores and simple tasks. He was being treated like he had the power to better himself, and that was exactly what he was doing.
When I was sick, I got a lot of different reactions. Some people would pretend nothing had changed. Some people would look at me with pity or sorrow. They’d tell me how much my situation moved them, or how sorry they were for my illness.
Night after night I prayed for someone, anyone, to take a third approach. Not to pretend I was okay, but not to treat me like a helpless unfortunate waiting to be fixed either. I begged God to send such a person.
As I watched Maksim’s instructor Yuliya laugh with him, direct his hands and correct his speaking, I saw a simple message being spoken over and over again:
You’re not helpless
You’re not powerless
We’re going to work to make things better
Because I love you, and God does too.
My heart broke with a silent prayer. All I could think was, “thank you God, for giving him all that I once asked for.”
Dignity and Joy
After class ended, I talked to Yuliya, and she was ecstatic. She described when Maksim first came here; he made his mother get his coat and shoes, he wouldn’t clean up the room or speak more than a few words.
But today he proudly put on his coat and shoes himself. When Yuliya tried to help him put a table away, he said “no, I will put it away by myself”. An independent sentence, an altruistic action, and the dignity of a human who has been treated as if they were more than they appear.
Treated like an image-bearer of Christ.
This kind of love isn’t simply something Ukraine needs. This is something Indiana needs. This is something the United States needs. This is something the whole world needs!
And not just in clinics either. When I was sick, I wasn’t in a hospital. I was in a school, in a church, in a movie theater. And I prayed for someone like Yuliya for a long, long time.
At MTU, prayers are being answered. But I know in my own home this prayer is echoing in many hearts as it once did mine. People are aching, begging for this kind of love right now. And I think it’s time that I start becoming part of the answer myself.
When I return, I’m going to be looking for these people in a new way. I’m going to be looking for all those struggles that I used to dismiss with a simple “I’ll be praying for you.”
I’m going to smile when I see them. I’m going to treat them like they are more than they appear, a victory waiting to happen, a creation in the process of being made perfect, a reflection of God Himself.
Maybe, in some small way, I too can be an answer to prayer.
- Someone is asking God for you right now – waiting for you to treat them like an equal in God’s eyes. Chances are you’ve already met them. Think through those you know that have struggles, and how you can make a change right now to strengthen their feeling of being loved, not of being different.
- Ask your pastor if your church has a ministry to serve adults and children with special needs. If so, sign up to volunteer. If not, perhaps it’s time to start one.
- Who in your small group has been suffering? Consider, as a small group, planning a special evening of celebration just to say how much you appreciate them. Make it a surprise expression of love.
- Mission to Ukraine offers transformative love and care, and they offer it for free. Consider donating to help them continue this ministry and expand it even further.
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.