I arrived at Sunshine Children’s Center on Sept. 13, fully expecting to have my last blogged admissions tested. I know with every word I write and release into the blogosphere comes a promise of truth, an expectation of accountability and a dare to challenge. As I settled into the room that would be home for the next 10 weeks, my mind making circles around every possible and ultimate purpose for my being here, I knew there was great weight in these days. I resolved to take each of them captive, journaling everything from the joy of secret midnight snacks with the girls, to the overwhelming helplessness I have felt as I’ve uncovered each child’s heartbreak.
I left Ukraine just before Thanksgiving, and with time so short, I found it nearly impossible to write this post. I feel like I owe you impact, revelation, something solid and profound and different from all the other Christianese-laden missions blogs you’ve read. I decided on the first day I came to Sunshine that I needed to know God’s purpose in this chapter before I sat down to write my next post—unadulterated by my tendency to spiritualize and over-think. And yet I’ve spent weeks discerning and deciphering, admittedly worrying on paper and calling it prayer.
With three weeks to go, I realized that while having a perfectly packaged message to bring would be nice, it is the heavy beauty of the details, small and humble and unconnected, that make this time meaningful—like the 6-year-old boy with his tiny arms wrapped around my neck right now watching me type words he can’t read. Like the sound of 10-year-old Valik praying for his estranged father in Moscow to come to God and come back for him, his little legs dangling from the chair, swinging to the rhythm of his prayer. Like the righteous anger that burned in my heart today as I watched that boy’s father not bother to put his cell phone down as his son ran to him with open arms for his annual visit with “Papa.” The things I write home may not shatter the earth, but they have shattered my heart and every lofty selfishness I’ve tried to keep. They have taught me that my Father is in the small, humble, unconnected details. And only He can connect them.
The Sunshine of My Life
In a small Ukrainian village straight out of Sholem Aleichem’s Fiddler on the Roof, a dozen of the most honorable people I’ve ever known spend 365 days a year giving traumatized children a hope and a future. Sunshine Children’s Center raises Ukraine’s most precious resource: children rejected by the apathy of non-parents, and the corruption of a heartless government.
I live in a building with Sunshine’s foster family. Igor and Inga have four biological children and seven foster children, including four sibling refugees from Afghanistan. My immediate neighbors are two teenage girls sharing a small but well-equipped apartment, learning life skills like cooking and cleaning and paying bills. Across our huge gated yard is the main center. Eleven more children, ranging in age from 6 to 18, live there.
Most of the kids attend regular school, but a few stay home for lessons in our schoolhouse. I help teach English and accompany our music teacher on the piano so she can do hand motions with the little ones (or just keep them from running away after 30 seconds). They teach me Russian, Ukrainian and how to make cool car noises. Each Saturday and Sunday, we take groups of kids to church at Hillsong Kiev, despite a near two-hour commute between the crazy yellow bus, the metro and the walking. Constant, deliberate effort is made to meet every one of the children’s needs. Marek and Anya, the directors of the center, are two of the most upright and kind people I’ve met in my life. Their purity of heart and unwavering dedication to these kids astound me.
It is here that God has shown me what an orphan is. And why His heart breaks for them.
The idea of the “social orphan” is sort of new to me. I always had this romantic Anne Shirley idea of orphans: parents dying of scarlet fever, child left alone without one living relative and a consistently sad face. Here I am seeing that orphans smile, and orphans sometimes even have parents. But breathing doesn’t make you a mom or a dad. Rejection can hurt worse than death. Abuse worse than absence. It has been selfish and nearsighted of me to think of orphans in such a melodramatic, cinematic way. I am grateful for the new perspective.
Ilya is a social orphan. He first appears like any normal kid—sweet, with enormous blue-green eyes and a tiny beautiful face, scrawny, initially quiet, likes to spit on the windshields of his toy cars to make rain. His mouth hides the first evidence of neglect. Get him to flash you his precious smile and you will see every one of his little teeth rotting away. Ilya begs for attention by making terrifying Gollum-like noises and saying inappropriate things. He is only 6 years old. His mother an alcoholic, his grandmother uninterested in caring for him. He’s been raped. He often feigns injury, plays dead, curls into a ball on the floor to cry quietly until someone acknowledges him. So much is broken in that sweet boy. When I look at him, when he finds me just to put his hand on my cheek and say my name, I feel like I can reach out and touch God’s compassion. And His anger.
Most of these kids are children of alcoholics, drug addicts and prostitutes. Some were taken out of their homes. Others ran away. Whether Sunshine rescued them directly from the street or from a neglected state-run home, every child here has a story. A story that frustrates and infuriates and follows me. A story God refused to leave in the gutter and refuses to leave unfinished.
This blog is part one of two. The second part will be posted in the following weeks.