This post originally appeared on Assist News Service in March 2015.
After an absence of more than two months, we’re settling back into life in Ukraine. Once every three years or so, we take a two-month family furlough to the United States. With many traditional furloughs lasting a year, two months sounds incredibly short to some people, but to us it feels like a long time to be away from the work God has for us in Ukraine, which is church planting. However, we’ve found that it’s the shortest possible amount of time in which we can accomplish all we need to do when we visit the States, and we’re so grateful to our ministry team here in Ukraine and the wonderful people of the church who are able to keep things running smoothly while the pastor and his family are away.
When we returned from furlough this time, people were especially glad to welcome us back. Given the uncertainty, violence, and economic instability that have become the new norm for Ukraine, I think some wondered if we would come back at all. While there has been no fighting anywhere near where we live, it’s a heavy fact of life that Ukraine is essentially engaged in a war fought entirely within her own borders. There are constant reminders.
Yesterday in the course of running errands, I saw two notices about how the average Ukrainian could help the war effort. One was posted on a large cardboard box in the grocery store, informing people that they could drop off canned goods to send to the soldiers. The other was in a pharmacy, where they had a list of all the medications they sold that the army needed, so that concerned citizens could buy a few and send them to the troops.
A few nights ago when we went out to eat dinner in a restaurant near our apartment, we were surprised to find an entire dining room taken up by women with traditional Ukrainian headscarves tied around their hair making dumplings. When our server came to take our order, she informed us that we all needed to order the same entree, because the kitchen was busy preparing all these dumplings to send to the soldiers, and there wasn’t much room left to prepare anything else.
Even the conversations you have with casual friends serve as a grim reminder of the country’s difficulties, because allusions to the war are one of the most likely subjects for small talk, right up there with the weather and one’s health. But I should clarify that technically, it’s not a war, since no one has declared war on anybody. It’s actually called the Anti-Terrorist Operation, and the abbreviation ATO has become embedded in colloquial vocabulary.
But war or not, it looks a lot like war. We’re incredibly grateful that our city has been spared the shelling, civilian casualties, and complete destruction of infrastructure that some of the cities in Eastern Ukraine have experienced. It’s heart-wrenching to think of the dire circumstances that many Ukrainians in the east have been facing. From the shelling of residential neighborhoods, to the unavailability of food, to the impossibility of fleeing cities after their public transportation systems have ceased to function, the lives of people in the conflict zones have changed drastically. In many cases, the only relief has come from the efforts of true Christians who are risking their lives to go into these areas to take aid and bring out anyone interested in leaving. Our church and others in our city have been involved in collecting donations of money and clothing for such relief trips.
I’ve never lived in a situation like this before. On the whole, Americans of my generation have led charmed lives. We may have to step outside of our culture to recognize it, but being a citizen of one of the world’s wealthiest nations has distinct advantages, even if you are nowhere near the top of that nation’s social structure. And wealth aside, the United States has not had a war fought on her soil since 1865, when the Civil War ended. In contrast, the territory of modern-day Ukraine has seen a long string of wars during that same time period. Barring the current conflict, the most recent of these was World War II, which claimed the lives of over 8 million Ukrainians, roughly one-fifth of the population at that time. Most of them were civilians.
There are those living today who remember that nightmare and other tragedies that have ravaged this country. I can’t conceive what it would be like to live through something like that. Over the last year as we watched the events unfold that led to the current situation, a part of my mind always knew that things could become dangerous, and we might have to consider evacuation for the sake of our children. But even as my husband and I discussed what we would do if violence threatened our area, even as I packed our passports and a few items of sentimental value to be ready to grab at a moment’s notice, I found it hard to believe that it would actually come to that. Even admitting that such a thing was a possibility felt surreal. Our ministry is here; our church family is here; many dear friends are here; our children’s schools are here—and the list goes on. The idea of leaving seemed far-fetched, at best.
At various times over the last year, a few people have hinted that we should leave Ukraine to return to the United States. These well-meaning individuals believe we would be safer in the U.S. While I appreciate their concern and can see their point of view, I have found this attitude somewhat irritating and frustrating. I’ve never really known how to respond to it, however, because until recently, I couldn’t define why it bothered me.
While we were in the States this past winter, we did a lot of driving. We saw cities and countryside and everything in between. One day, as we were driving through a suburban area, passing all these houses with their yards and proverbial picket fences, I was struck by the enormous contrast between the life my family and I live and the lives represented by these cute homes and well-kept yards. On the one hand, we have uncertainty, no place to call our own, and financial insecurity. On the other hand, they have stability, a place to put down roots, and probable financial security.
I used to covet what they had, hating that we had to move so often, wishing that we didn’t always have to rent apartments, longing to be able to settle in and build a nest somewhere. But as I looked out the window of the car that day, I almost felt pity for the people who were living the life I once envied. We get to travel the world, experience new cultures and languages, and do things many Americans have never imagined. And beyond that, we have the privilege and honor of joining God in what He is doing here in Ukraine. It nourishes our souls, makes our hearts swell with joy, and fills us with purpose and meaning. The people in the houses we were passing may have been experiencing all that too, but from my experience of American culture, I doubt many of them were.
And that’s when I realized why the attitude that we need to return to the United States in order to be safer, or better off, or whatever bothers me so much. It’s because this mindset assumes that life in the United States is intrinsically safer and better than life elsewhere. While there are many material advantages to living in the U.S., mere comfort and possessions do not automatically make life better. In fact, I would argue that the rampant materialism that you can find in the United States actually detracts from the quality of life by creating dissatisfaction and shallowness. And the idea that life in America is safer leaves God and faith out of the equation and willfully ignores the fact that there are no guarantees of peace and safety, no matter where we live. If nothing else, the events of September 11, 2001 should have taught Americans that safety is an illusion.
On the surface, living in Ukraine, where there is ongoing armed conflict, seems more dangerous than living in the United States. However, we believe that this is where God has called us to be right now, and given that conviction, we feel safer here than we would if we were trying to build a more comfortable, less risky life for ourselves back in the U.S. Of course, we want to be prudent about our family’s safety, but not at the expense of following God’s will. Ultimately, our security is in Jesus, and we’re content to let Him lead the way and to trust His judgment of what is best for us. I’m convinced that this is the only way to find true peace and safety.
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