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Last night, I found myself sitting with a handful of university students, around a kitchen table, pondering and discussing the thoughts of C.S. Lewis. They call him “Clive” though, which I find charming. It’s so familiar – like we’re all friends.
I leaned back in my chair, with my cup of tea, and listened to these young students recount their most recent visit to Romaniv, the rural orphanage an hour or so west of Zhytomyr, for boys with disabilities. I have been putting off writing this blog, despite the fact that there is so much to share. Maybe I’m being selfish, knowing full-well my time here in Ukraine is limited (I fly out in less than two weeks), and once I finish this story, perhaps that will mean I will never return.
“There are no ordinary people,” Clive Lewis writes. “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
No flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. Read that again. Everyone has inherent value. The kids in wheelchairs that Mission to Ukraine serves, both high and low functioning – they have value. The men and women serving their country in the easternmost parts of Ukraine – they have value. Even the enemy they fight against – they have value. And certainly the boys at Romaniv, whom society has chosen to hide in a remote corner of their country – they definitely have value.
World Next Door has had the privilege of visiting Ukraine on several occasions over the last five or six years, and we have written about Romaniv each time. It is a miracle (truly) to see the changes that have occurred within the orphanage, and if you want to read some of those stories, you can find them here, here, and here.
But as I have been in Ukraine over the last month, I wanted to share my experiences with you, from maybe a slightly different perspective, and even encourage you with some of the new things that are taking place.
I’d like to introduce you to some new friends that I have met here in Zhytomyr. Jed and Kim Johnson are an American couple who have moved their family of six all the way from Oregon because they have a heart for boys with disabilities.
This is a family who takes their calling seriously. I think we live in a culture that often romanticizes working with kids in orphanages and living overseas. I’ll argue that notion right now – there is nothing romantic about Romaniv, and the Johnsons didn’t move to Ukraine because it’s glamorous. It’s cold, it smells, it’s chaotic, it’s depressing. Walking through the front doors, the need seems too high and the ability to make a difference seems out of reach.
Let me tell you a little bit about the kids at Romaniv. These aren’t just boys with disabilities – these are boys (and young men) who have been completely forgotten and cast off by society. Much of their suffering comes from years of institutionalization, a lack of physical touch, and far too little brain stimulation. Their development has been severely delayed, many of them have muscle atrophy simply from not having the opportunity to move, and they are often severely over-medicated, leaving them in a near-unconscious state.
Not much surprises me, but it broke my heart to see such injustice. I think I’ll forever have burned in my mind the image of a young man, swaying in the hallway, eyes half closed, in a drugged stupor. Life shouldn’t be this way.
Keep in mind, this is a government institution and, to be fair, resources are limited. There are over seventy-five boys at Romaniv and not nearly enough staff to adequately care for each one in the way where they could truly flourish. In the West, we take for granted a culture that cares for and has laws in place to protect such a vulnerable population. But this is a post-Soviet country, which has a long history of hiding those with disabilities away, making sure they aren’t seen.
Mission to Ukraine has been involved with Romaniv for many years, and as the organization continues to expand and have significant impact on their culture and community, they are in the process of handing off the baton of responsibility to Jed and Kim to continue to work within the orphanage.
The Johnsons’ main focus is for the boys who are kept in what is called “Isolation.” You can only imagine what a place with that name is like. These are the ones who are low functioning, have a significant disability or mental disorder, and cannot be kept with the majority.
In Isolation, the day usually starts with hand washing, banana eating, and maybe listening to a little accordion playing. I held one young man in front of me the other day, arms firmly wrapped around his chest, gently rocking to the accordion’s rhythm. He can’t be left to his own devices or he’ll wreak havoc, but in a secure embrace, he was able to eat a little and enjoy the music with the rest of us.
Romaniv actually has a sensory room and Jed and Kim usually take two or three boys on any given visit for time inside. There, they get individualized attention, a calm and safe environment, the opportunity to sing and play, and the reassurance that they are loved. One of the best things I’ve ever seen was Jed on the guitar, singing to one precious young man named Boris “You’re Beautiful,” by Phil Wickham. Yes, that song is about Jesus (He IS beautiful, isn’t He?), but it was awesome to see its dual meaning in that instance, singing quietly to a boy who has never heard anyone else ever tell him that he is indeed beautiful.
I don’t doubt God’s goodness or sovereignty, I really don’t. But the injustice of it all – these beloved lives full of pain – I have to be honest and say it’s difficult to see the hope through the heartbreak.
A.W. Tozer once wrote, “To believe actively that our Heavenly Father constantly spreads around us providential circumstances that work for our present good and our everlasting well-being brings to the soul a veritable benediction.” I truly believe that Jed and Kim Johnson and the staff of Mission to Ukraine are being used in Romaniv to fulfill that very thing. Easy? No. Beautiful? No question.
The world is full of brokenness, yes. I’ve seen enough of it to last me a lifetime. But we have the ability, if we’re willing, to be a part of providential circumstances that will bring a veritable benediction (I just love that, don’t you?) to someone’s soul. For Jed, Kim, and MTU, it’s seventy-five boys at Romaniv. For the rest of us, whose soul will it be?
About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.