Cost of trip: 2,600
Location: Zhytomyr, Ukraine
Partnership: Mission to Ukraine, Good Mansion Camp
“ I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.” –Ephesians 3: 16-19
Trust in Him
Our small team arrived at Camp Good Mansion in Zhytomyr, Ukraine on a hot–like major sweat stains and the painful promise of smelly feet–hot evening in July. It didn’t take long for us to realize that our motto “#NoExpectations” would be put to the test. After a quick tour of the campus and dropping off our bags, our guide asked, “Did you get a schedule for camp?” We nervously chuckled with high hopes of getting one and replied, “No.” He smiled with a blank stare, and motioned us into a big circle where all the staff was learning a dance. We were jet lagged, sweaty, and clueless about the camp that was starting the next day… In hindsight, we did have one clue: this camp always kept us on our toes. We dispersed throughout the circle, joined hands with strangers, and embraced the dance lesson, laughing at ourselves as we exchanged glances. Our trip was marked by moments like these. Moments where our plans had to change, our motivations were tested, and we were reminded that our understanding (among many other things) was lost in translation. Our motto became comedic relief. But, there was more to “#NoExpectations” than a way to laugh in the midst of the harder experiences. The motto was born out of our prayers a month prior to the trip. We prayed that we could enter camp with no expectations; instead, putting our trust in Him for the gifts revealed through the unexpected. It was a bold prayer, but one God provided for abundantly. He kept us strong in his love through each moment. I can’t possibly put into words the depth of gratitude and wealth in lessons I have brought home with me. Even so, I will humbly attempt to share a few of the moments that captured my heart and changed my soul.
How high, how deep
I woke up around 4 A.M. on the third day of camp. Jet lag is rough. It was two hours before my alarm, but I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I grabbed my towel and headed for a walk near the showers. It was a cold morning. My heart was anxious, my body exhausted; and being honest with myself, I didn’t want pasta for breakfast again. Tears started flowing down my cold cheeks. I had no motivation to stumble past wheelchairs and sweaty kids in 90-degree weather, up and down aisles to take photos. I had no desire to speak broken Russian with the other camp photographer to explain my camera settings and have him grunt “Bad”. I really, really did not want to eat pasta for breakfast. There was pain and frustration in my heart and I asked God, “Why did you bring me here?” My tears started flowing faster and faster. I prayed, “God, I don’t want to be here today. I have no motivation to do my job. I know you brought me here for a reason. Give me even the tiniest taste of the love that you have for these kids, this camp, and this country.” With a numb heart, I took a cold shower.
Later that morning, I made my way down to the front of the stage. I put one knee on the ground and tried to balance to get a steady shot. Unexpectedly, I felt two little hands wrap around my waist and squeeze me tightly from behind. I looked back and received a big kiss on the cheek from Bogdan. Before I could move, he sat on my knee as I tried to film. I tried to get him off me so I could change the angle of my shot. He wasn’t moving and made it clear that I wasn’t either. I let his hands wrap around my hands on the camera and we sat still there until my heart was at peace. I had a grin on my face, and a renewed motivation to take pictures. I heard God say, “Look at Bogdan. The way he loved you in the pain no one else could see; that’s how I love these kids, this camp, this country, and the whole world! That’s how I love you. Your heart is numb to the need and pain of those around you, but Bogdan’s isn’t. He felt your pain and celebrated you with a hug and kiss until you felt at peace and had joy.” Even now, I tear up when I think of that moment. Bogdan showed me that I was the one with a disability. I was the one who needed to learn how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is for all of us.
Laughter filled the hallway and I could trace it to my room. I walked in and found two of my roommates on their beds laughing at the happenings of the day. “They insisted that I fold these scraps of paper and string, tiny scraps that are trash, and save them in a box. I know there’s no way they will use them next year!” exclaimed my friend. We all laughed as we wrestled with some of the cultural differences we faced. Camp had a steep learning curve for the Ukrainian norms of openness, perfectionism, and frugality. That same night, our team met to debrief. We had finally settled into camp routine and begun to understand the purpose of this place. Awestruck by the fullness of life we experienced, we felt we had entered holy ground. The only words we could use to describe camp were, “a little bit of heaven on earth.”
Camp Good Mansion signaled the fullness of life made complete in Christ’s love in a way I have never experienced before. That’s why we felt so close to heaven! In a society that dismisses, rejects, and isolates children with disabilities and their families, Mission to Ukraine (MTU) was gently embracing and celebrating the worth of these lives. Just like the scraps of string and paper, Camp was restoring the value of what everyone else labeled trash. I am still deeply moved and challenged by the way in which MTU has grasped the depths of God’s love.
I arrived at camp with no expectations. I did not expect to reveal the disability of my numb heart from a child with Down syndrome. But I did. I did not expect to have my faith challenged and encouraged by Mission to Ukraine. But it was. I did not expect to leave a part of my heart at Camp Good Mansion. But I have.