A Day in the Mind of an American Missionary in Odessa

It was a good day. Lately life has been full of big discouragements and at the same time, signs of grace in our lives were everywhere! This morning when I opened my eyes the first thing that came to mind was 007 Skyfall. We had watched it before going to bed. I remembered my wife being bothered by his promiscuity. It bothered me as well, and I considered the allure of unattached, independent, rebels for worldly women. It may seem glamorous in the movies, but in reality, it is a lonely life plagued with guilt. To focus in my thoughts on something more fruitful, I grabbed my phone, opened my Kindle ap and began reading “A Praying Life” by Paul Miller. This week it had been my book of choice, jumping back and forth between that and “Ordering Your Private World” by Gordon MacDonald. Actually, I was part way through a few books, (Understanding the Koran, What do Jewish People Think About Jesus?, Planting Missional Churches) but these two happened to grab me and steal my attention away from the others. I was very hungry to bring God’s presence back into the center of my life in a real and tangible way. I had been longing for it for some time. I was beginning to feel it again. My faith was growing strong and warm. It made me happy. So I read.


Paul Miller’s book brought my mind to good meditations and I began to see into the insights he had about prayer. I began to apply trust more, without cynicism. How I could come to God as a child and trust in His love toward me in every detail of my life. I was being stirred to talk to God and listen to God not as a morning duty, but as a way of life. Praying a lot was something that usually happened to me only in seasons of suffering, which had been more than a few. God put it in my heart to become determined to have this in my life whether I was suffering or not. Between the lessons from this book and MacDonald’s, who contrasted so well the difference between a driven life and a called life, comparing King Saul to John the Baptist, I was beginning to experience more of God’s presence. I was also being ministered to by reading Ed Stetzer’s Planting Missional Churches. He would talk about how you can have the building, the team, the finances, etc and a church plant will not work without prayer being first in your life, or you can have none of these things and a lifestyle of prayer and it will work! God was building me up and strengthening me in my prayer life!


After reading prayerfully and praying prayerfully in bed, I rolled to my feet and showered. First on my plate was usually devotional time. I picked up my “One Year Christian History” by Mike Rusten and began to read. I love church history and looking at the date I realized I needed to slow down on these readings because I was a week ahead. Admittedly, I didn’t get to it every day, but the days I did had got me ahead of schedule, because I found the stories so interesting that I would sometimes read two or three. After learning about the birth of the King James Bible when King James kind of threw the Puritans under the bus, and Dawson Trotman and the formation of the Navigators, and how he loved Scripture memory and discipled thousands of sailors in it, I realized that today I would not be able to read the portions of my other daily devotional books (Puritan Prayers, A Gospel Primer for Christians, Voices from the Past, The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts, The Narrated Bible in Chronological Order). I would not have time today.


Lately, I had been waking up around 2 PM, and staying up anywhere from 6-10 AM, in order to be on US time and contact friends in the U.S. about getting behind the mission and vision financially. It was a lot of work, but beat traveling back to the States again and spending all that money and time it would take. Besides, God was steadily increasing the number of verbal commitments almost by the day.


The evening was planned for me to meet my buddy Ilya from camp, who I had not seen in awhile. Ilya was a young man I had met at our summer English Camp who I had hung out with one day after English Club near the end of summer. He told me he liked to read and he had a lot of interesting ideas about God. So I decided to travel with him to a Christian bookstore in the city center. It was raining hard that day so we both walked and discussed God’s existence in a philosophical sort of way. Upon arriving at the bookstore the woman said they were closing early that day for the holiday. Her and Ilya were communicating in Russian and we were getting soaked, so I asked him to ask her if we could please just buy one book before she finished closing shop. It was a no go.


We decided to keep walking to find another bookstore. It would be a secular one so I was unsure if we would find anything good. After finding our second bookstore after the first one, I stumbled across a translated version of Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God”. I thought, “for a postmodern thinking guy this might be even better than “Mere Christianity”. He did not want to accept the book from me as a gift. So I got him to take it by saying I would just loan it to him and he could return it later. He accepted it.


After having a McFlurry at McDonald’s, before parting we agreed that I would accompany him one day to a Campus Crusade meeting. He went there on occasion with friends. I was curious to see what kind of ministry they were doing there and to see who I could meet. It had actually not worked out several times for various reasons, one being he didn’t like to go so much because he was tired of hearing people talk about God all the time. He had some friends there who were girls. Finally, a few months later, we would meet tonight and he would take me.


The night before Sergey, who I had worked alongside during our internship at Living Hope Church was calling to ask if he could get our song list from our wedding on his flash drive. His wedding was Saturday and it was late Thursday night. I didn’t want him to have to walk over to our house at midnight so I said I would figure out a way to get him his songs. Being as it was getting close to 3 and I was planning to meet Ilya at 5:30 meant I had to be leaving home for the bus at 4:15. I needed to make sure I got these songs to Sergey, so down went the books. He didn’t know how to use dropbox, so I decided to see if it would work to email him all the songs. It was quite a long list of all your classical love songs with Frank Sinatra, Aerosmith, Al Green, and a variety of Christian stuff.


Gmail would only send four songs at a time, and they took a few minutes to upload. I soon realized I would be pressed to get this done before getting ready to leave. To be productive, I decided to catch up on emails and facebook messages between loads and sends. It is normal for me to be doing four things at once at the computer.


One friend had emailed bothered by the fact that I engaged people boldly on facebook with apologetics and said that was why he was not sending us financial support, I received two emails from friends on the west coast putting together a big box of socks to ship over here for the homeless, I was exchanging emails with three or four different pastors in the process of deciding whether they would support us or not. Previously three pastors had said, “no, not this year, maybe next,” and one church would say “yes”. Later the church which said “yes” would disband, and so now here I was, praying and fasting for provision as our cushion only lasted six months. Soon after, two churches would say “yes” and a couple others were still considering it. Then I had to answer a long conversation between Reed Olson who has tracts from The Action Bible in Russian for children and young teenagers.


He had sent me these stats by email from when he was in Ukraine in 2007,


“In 2007 Ukraine had between 100,000 and 500,000 orphans, and upon being released from their orphanages at the age of 16, 70% of them became criminals, 50% became prostitutes, 33% became homeless or unemployed, 80% of those who married divorced, 30% attempted suicide within the first two years.”


It would turn out we would need about $900 to buy 10,000 of these tracts for children which we do not have. We have decided to try to get enough to start out with 3,000 and see how those go, then if we hand those out trust God for more. To give towards this, click here: http://projectodessalife.com/givetosend/ Be sure to indicate what it is for.


Then I messaged a friend who goes to a big University in Odessa who had said he wanted to help me reach out to people there. The night before I had met up with another friend from summer camp, Zhenya, after our English Club for the orphans. We met downtown and sat at a café for awhile and then walked around in the city center. Up until that time I had had many conversations with him about God. I thought it would be a good time to ask him what was keeping him from Jesus. He said he needed more information first. That night he was asking me about how the Bible came to be canonized. His sister, who is into some eastern religions, was telling him that many books had been rejected from the New Testament canon. It was a great opportunity to explain apostolic authority, the Gospel (once again), eyewitness accounts, and the quotes of Scripture by the church fathers, along with their defense of the Gospel against the Gnostics. While Zhenya and I walked, we ran across a friend of his who was a taxi driver. He invited us to sit in his van with him and talk for awhile, which we did. His English was excellent and I soon learned he had lived on the East Coast working for a time and seemed to have been somewhat into partying. We discussed wages in Ukraine and how much taxi drivers make, corruption in the country and several other things before I explained to him my desire to build a large recreation and ministry center in Odessa. He seemed a bit surprised when he learned I was a missionary. He decided if I did something like that I would be a hero and my face would be on billboards in the city, half jokingly of course. I am well aware of the challenges of trying to do something like this. Then he explained to me about some organizations that may actually help. One of them being Sife, which is a group of University students who help people raise money from large corporations who are trying to do something that will help the city. These students help with this for free in order to enhance their resumes, portfolios, and create opportunities for future business connections for themselves. This would be one more possible resource to add to my list.


Then there were my friends who are the pastors of the church we recently left because of structural and preaching convictions I have. I had been being intentional about connecting with each of them individually for some healing and reconciliation, and up until then, meetings with two of them had gone extremely well. I was afterwards left to struggle with whether or not my convictions were right, or if I should be more flexible. I believed a board of church leaders should have more unity and agreement in their methodology, understanding of Scripture and theology, and creeds. These things seemed of little importance to them and later I would find that these things would be excused as being a “missions board” rather than a “board of elders”. However, I saw little weight in this as the church is five years old. So I had a lot of serious decisions to work through, and I had desired to discuss them with these guys as a team, but because of their unwillingness I would be forced to talk to people back in the States about them, and be left alone here for a time in Ukraine. It was a breath of fresh air to hear people in the States understand my concerns once I explained them. However, any close friend in Ukraine I discussed it with didn’t really seem to care about these things I found so crucially important to the health of a church. I would be wrestling over the issue of what should be a close handed and open handed issue among leaders in a church plant team and what does or doesn’t define an elder, for awhile. Good things to wrestle with in cross cultural missions! Plenty to think about for a first time church planter in another country, with no longer a team, who doesn’t even speak the language yet. Finally, there was an exchanging of emails with my new accountant who does taxes for missionaries at a great rate. We would be getting our entire $1,200 refunded, which would help us out a bit.


I was face to face with this tremendous challenge and it towered over me casting its long shadow across my face, as I looked to God for the answers. All the questions I faced would be brought to the cross; to the Bible. Would the financial provision come in we needed in order to stay in Ukraine? How would I find a team which had a sound understanding of church government, doctrine, and Scripture? Why were the few friends I had letting me down with the small ways I sought out their help? Did people in Ukraine care about truth or just friendships? Would I be able to learn this hard language at 36 years of age? Was I even doing the right thing? How come only a few people out of all our friends were interested in our Bible study? Would we be able to find a building to do ministry out of? How? Where? When? Would any of my friends in the States who were praying about missions end up coming over at last to help? Why wouldn’t the team I worked with reach out to me? Was it all up to me to work this out? Why didn’t they understand my intentions were for them and not against them? Did they care? How had I communicated things wrong? Was there still a chance to make things better? Why didn’t they understand these convictions and my heart? Was God using this to lead us away from there? Would I steward our financial support faithfully? How in agreement should elders be or shouldn’t be? What defines an elder biblically? What is the best, most biblical form of church structure? Would God get us out of debt? Would this dream for a Gospel movement in Ukraine become a reality?


So many questions and challenges came at me head on and all at once they demanded an answer from me. All I knew was though people were hurting me and letting me down left and right, God was providing, guiding, strengthening. We were alone but not lonely and God’s presence was strong in our home. We decided to stick to our convictions, although some would misunderstand it, and to continue faithfully trusting in God. We decided to pray, wait, and be honest with everyone. It was no small task to be a cross cultural missionary, but I saw that God had given me a will to believe and persevere. God had given me the wherewithal to ignore negativity and stand on His promises. God had provided up to this point in spite of some critics I called friends. Our home was in order. By grace our faith was strong.


The final few songs uploaded to gmail and if I wasn’t suited and booted soon, I would be late. On the bus I fought with myself. My hands inside my pocket touched my rubber band bound stack of Russian flashcards. I had a goal to learn my first 1,000 words within a few months. Actually, I was learning sentences and phrases, more than words. The English books on my phone offered me a mental escape from the challenge of Russian language learning, and I caved in, reading another chapter of “A Praying Life”.


Soon I was downtown and stood outside of Odessa’s first ever Orthodox Church which had been destroyed by the Bolsheviks in the 1930’s and decades later restored by looking at old pictures, the Transfiguration Cathedral in Sobornaya Square. The cold this spring had lingered in Ukraine and it began to get chilly. Once Ilya arrived we began to walk and talk since we had some time to kill before the Campus Crusade meeting. I practiced my Russian a bit and it was humorous for him. My pronunciation and accent is terrible! Once getting there, it was a joy to see a couple familiar faces. Kate was there helping to lead the meeting on the welcoming team. Then I saw Zhenya (another Zhenya) who I had once met at a marriage retreat. He immediately apologized to me because he had once invited my wife and I out to dinner but because of being so busy and recently having a baby it hadn’t happened, also, because my wife and I had recently spent three weeks in Israel. Lera’s grandma, who lives in Natanya, had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. Lera was worried she might not get to see her granny, who she hadn’t seen in years, before she would pass away. Additionally, we hadn’t yet had a honeymoon and this was a long time dream of mine to see Israel. We found round trip tickets for two to Tel Aviv from Odessa for just $800 and learned I was allowed to leave the country and return on my missionary visa, so we took it! We knew this would be our last trip we’d take for some time, as we were planning to start trying for children later this year.


So, Zhenya and I made other arrangements to meet when things slowed down for him in a couple months. He wanted to discuss our vision with us. He also invited me to paintball the next day, which was nice of him, but I couldn’t make it because of Sergey’s wedding the next day.


Then I ran into Sergey (another Sergey), another older pastor in the city who I had been planning to meet with for some time. He would be speaking that night. I was impressed with his English as much of the theology books he reads are in English. It was easy for us to get into a long discussion about theology and church government. The next day I would message him and we would wind up meeting a couple more times in the next couple weeks. I wanted to explain to him our vision, who we were, and why we were in Odessa. He is a very likeable guy and many people tell me he is a gifted preacher although I can’t tell because my Russian understanding is so limited.


I endured the Campus meeting with little understanding of what was said. They were doing a series of meetings on love and dating and there were several unbelieving University students in the room. Ilya, who’s English is intermediate, was not very enthusiastic. He would lean over and say, “they just said, ‘blah blah blah’”. He is not a believer, tired of hearing about God, and wasn’t very interested in what was being said. I did not get much out of the meeting at all. But I was more there to meet people and see what they were doing in ministry. I would end up attending for the next few weeks and they would make sure I had a good translator if I hadn’t brought my own. I made some new friends this way, and our friend Tanya came with me one day after going to help me with our English Club with the orphans, also in the city center.


After the meeting Ilya introduced me to his friend Lena. She was a nice girl who said she knew me from the Living Hope English Clubs I used to help with. She explained to me that she was Orthodox all her life but liked protestants because they live their faith all of the week instead of just on weekends when they attend worship. For me this was very interesting to hear her say this. I also explained to her that Orthodox view the Eucharist as the center of the worship service, and Protestants view preaching as the center, because the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. She replied that the Orthodox do not preach, but they do have another time set aside for expounding the Bible. Then she said she had a question. I barely knew her, but was glad that she was coming to me with a theological question. The question however was more for Ilya than myself. She asked, “why does Jesus ask us to become slaves of Him”, implying of course that the word slave was a harsh word.


I explained to her and Ilya that we are always longing for, thinking about, working towards, chasing after, or worshiping something. At all times this is something we cannot not be doing. Whatever most has our hearts, minds, desires, and choices is what we have chosen to be a slave to. We are always a slave to something whether it is sin or Jesus, and as slaves of Jesus we are most free! Jesus is the good slave master who calls us friends! She really liked the answer. Ilya did not seem to like it so much.


We all walked to the bus together and I got on the same bus with Kate and Lena because they thought it would take me home. After some discussion with Kate about evangelism, Campus Crusade, a meeting I wanted to plan at a University, American Christian Celebrities, Bono from U2, and Hillsong music and doctrine, they got off. It was now after 10 o’ clock and dark. I rode on the small swerving bumping yellow bus, reflecting on the events of the day, contemplating possible places we drove past to possibly plant a church someday. I would not make it to the grocery store however for the few things Lera wanted me to pick up. It was too late. She was waiting for me at home slammed with studies for German and English final exams coming up. She was a very diligent student. Sometimes I think she studies her lessons harder than I study theology, and I study pretty hard at times.


Kate had made a slight error though in directing me in which bus to take. Of course she did not know exactly where I lived. She only knew we lived in Tierava which is the area of the city where Living Hope Church is. But, we live another 2 or 3 kilometers further towards the Sea. I watched everyone but two people get off the bus. Then the one guy left standing with the bus driver began to look at me funny. He started to say something. He and the bus driver both looked Georgian. I couldn’t understand a word, but I figured out that he was saying this bus was no longer going and I needed to get off. My stop would be right at the church we had left four months earlier.


I phoned Lera to let her know it would be a little while before I made it home. Oddly it was warmer than it was earlier that day. The walk down the street was pleasant. One thing about Odessa, it seems almost everywhere, late into the night and all through the day there are people out walking. With a good deal of thinking, praying, rejoicing in my heart, and people watching, I thought of these lost people walking by me. I couldn’t talk to them. I considered that I should at least have a tract to give them. I would be a lot more productive than just walking by all these lost souls without a single action or word. The tract I was writing and having translated and illustrated wouldn’t be ready for a while. I couldn’t wait to have that. People tell me that handing out tracts in Ukraine does not work well. In the U.S. if people are relationship based and it is important to build relationships with people before you share your faith with them, it is even more important here. People here got burnt out with religion, they say, after the fall of the Soviet Union. So many missionaries came and people were curious at first, but now just aren’t interested. They don’t want to hear a logical argument, what really matters is, they say, if you are their friend, not the power of the Gospel I suppose. I do believe there is definitely something to that and a place for building relationships in order to be more effective in your conversations with them. But I will not throw out the baby with the bath water. I believe strongly there are many conversations to be had about Jesus, God’s Word, and the Gospel, done in a healthy and constructive way with passersby on the street. I have had enough conversations with Ukrainians now to know that they are very intelligent and often very logical in their thinking. Apologetics and reason definitely has its’ place here.


As I walked, I gained more momentum in my heart in my desire to learn the language. One day I will show others that street witnessing can be done and done well in Odessa. With all the experience I had with it in my life, and taking people out witnessing with me in the States, who had given up on it, and hearing how they were encouraged otherwise after going out with me. Someday, I will show how wrong they are about witnessing in Ukraine. They need to know.


As I walked closer to home I knew I would tell my wife it had been a good day. It had.