A Commentary on Christianity

We didn’t join Peace Corps because of our Christian faith. Like in our life in the US, our faith informs the way we live, work, and interact in Ukraine. Faith and religion is quite different in Ukraine though, and it really challenges preconceived notions about Western Christianity.

Religion in Ukraine, whether it’s Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, or Roman Catholic, it’s all more conservative than most of the Western brands of the Christian Church. We do periodically attend a church which is a modern, Western-style, Assembly’s of God church. It is, however, quite uncommon to find this style of church in Ukraine.

The Orthodox and Catholic churches in Ukraine are deeply rooted in tradition and ritual, while Western churches are the newer off shoots stemming from these traditions and rituals. Due to the American social construct, the temptation is to view the Western Church as the “new and improved” form of Christianity. This would be completely untrue.

Chris’ Response
We live in western Ukraine, which is a deeply religious part of the world. It has a complicated past with all kinds of different influences. The result is a religious environment that is quite unfamiliar. I can’t help but ask myself, “if I’m a Christian in a Christian culture, how can this be unfamiliar?”.

Coming to Ukraine, it wasn’t unexpected that I would see an unfamiliar form of Christianity, but I also didn’t look at in a self-reflective way until recently. In hindsight, that’s crazy! Biblically, the Church is one under Christ. Christians in America are one with Christians in Ukraine, Christians in Ukraine are one with Christians in Bangladesh, and so on. Of course, you can account for some the unfamiliarity simply with cultural differences. I would, however, not say that I was even aware of the multitude of differences, let alone encouraged to embrace them.

This isn’t a commentary on Ukraine, America, or even religion in either of those places. This is about the Christian Church, its self-imposed denominations and its tunnel vision. I don’t want to be overly critical because I have found new life in the God of the Bible, but I also don’t want to ignore where we as the Body of Christ have gone wrong.

I recall that it was put like this one time. Jesus healed multiple people in the Bible of blindness. On one occasion he rubbed mud on the eyes of the individual. Now imagine that individual meeting someone else that Jesus healed of blindness without the use of mud. Can you imagine for a moment the conversation they might have, having been unaware of the circumstances of the other person? One might say “you need mud to heal blindness”, and the other may respond “no, you don’t need mud to heal blindness”. Can you then imagine what might come out of a conversation like that? Perhaps two different schools of thought or denominations? Pro-mud vs. No-mud?

I don’t intend for this to read like an indictment, but rather an encouragement to see each other as brothers and sisters, as family members who really are like minded, and not as “us” and “them”. Making every attempt to understand one another is vital. What can I learn from the traditions of the Ukrainian Orthodox church? Or even more, what can we all learn about other people; the religiously “different”, IDPs, refugees, migrants, or asylum seekers; whoever “they” are.

I think we can agree that there are many misunderstood people in this world. Why don’t we step back and challenge what we think?

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

1 Chorinthians 12:12-26

Camp You and Me

This June, we spent a week in Uman, a mid-sized city in Central Ukraine. Uman’s big tourist draw is Sofiyivka National Park;  you might have seen some of the pictures from that:

But we went to Uman not as tourists but to work with a fellow PCV and friend on a camp she was running. June, for PCVs in Ukraine, is camp season. The country is full of volunteers running these 5-10 day events for kids and teens with all kinds of focuses, from creative writing to Model UN to girls’ empowerment to HIV awareness to music and theater. If the youth are into it, there’s probably a camp for it. And when I talk to Ukrainian teens, these camps are the highlight of their summers. My students still say “that one time at Camp ACT,” “last summer when I was at Camp WILD….,” “at Film Camp we…” with great enthusiasm. Peace Corps camps are highly competitive, and many are funded by partnerships between local partners, State Department Grants (like Let Girls Learn), and donations from supporters in the States.

But Camp You and Me was the first of its kind here in Ukraine. This camp was a two-week endeavor. During the first week, 25 teens took part in sessions with topics like gender equality, leaderships, anti-bullying, which are pretty common education goals for PC camps. But these teens also had trainings on inclusive language, etiquette when working with individuals with special needs, tolerance and acceptance. These trainings prepared the teens for the second week, when 25 kids, ages 6-15, arrived. Then the teens became counselors,and they were paired with a kid camper, each of whom had some sort of special need, from autism to dyslexia to Down Syndrome to cerebral palsy. The counselors were in charge of making sure that their camper had a great time, and could participate in every activity. Each morning was filled with different stations that teams rotated through, with activities including making slime in a Sensory Station,DSC_2522

playing sports,

painting,

and more. After lunch at a local cafe, each afternoon had a theme. One day was a carnival, where PCVs and teachers ran games like ring toss, face paint, knock-the-cans, etc.DSC_2027

Another day was a quest for treasure, complete with maps and a pirate.

And the last day was a talent show, where campers and counselors performed all kinds of talents from singing to art to puppets.

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The best part though, as a PCV, was two-fold: being a part of making camp a super fun and special place for the campers, who had a stellar time, and watching the teens step up and spend a week making sure their camper was having fun, hanging out and playing. These teens went above and beyond to make camp a positive experience for everyone.

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And all of these great pictures? Taken by the one, the only:

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Chris came to Uman to be the photographer for this camp, and if you want to see more of what the camp was like, all the photos are on their Facebook page. The camp was even featured on local television.

It was a super special experience for both of us, and all of the volunteers involved are hoping that this is the first of many inclusive camps in Ukraine. Here, where inclusive education and attitudes are just beginning to really spread, this is a crucial space for kids to just be kids. In the words of the PCV director: “Just let them play.”

Dogs of Ukraine

Things are different in Ukraine than in American for dogs. In some ways, dogs have a better life in Ukraine, in others it’s a harder life. Street dogs (i.e. dogs with no owner or home), are all over the place. In almost every town and city we visit there are dogs on sidewalks, in the parks, and in the neighborhoods.

To some capacity, the dogs here are taken care of. Most of them are reasonably well fed, whether it’s by their own effort, or from the compassion of someone who buys them sausages, or the meat shop owner who lays out the pieces no one buys.

Most communities have some sort of organized effort of at least controlling the spread of this issue or working to eliminate the issue. During our few months of training, Chris was partnered with an NGO which worked to vaccinate and sterilize the dogs. Each dog that received this treatment was then tagged on their ear with a number. This is also now happening to a higher degree in our current community. Based on our observation, about half of the dogs in our community have received these ear clips.

It is also worth noting that while some of these dogs are technically without owners, there are some who have a sort of informal caretaker. For example, some schools will have a dog or two that hang around because the left overs from school lunches are put out for them and the kids will play with them on the school grounds.

The terms “stray dog”, “street dog”, or “homeless dog”, really don’t capture who these dogs are. Many people here do see them as a problem or a nuisance, but also many people see them companions or a kind of a character or personality of the community. No one wants to see them without a home, but until in the meantime, let’s see them for who they are.