Ukrainian Gypsy Villages

I left Ternopil with the YWAM team of translators at 2:00am for a 6 hour train ride to Mukachevo. The train car consisted of row upon row of open berths each with smelly feet protruding. It was hot, muggy and the air stagnant and thick. The team kept telling me how lucky we were to get a "nice" train car. Seems there is worse, though I can't imagine in what way. Upon our arrival in Mukachevo, we were able to spend a short time with Sergei and Luda and their 10 month old son, Daniel. They are YWAM staff from Ternopil living here and ministering to the Gypsy villages in western Ukraine. What a wonderful couple, giving so very much for His Kingdom. They were so kind and hospitable. They even let me take a quick hot shower (little did I know it would be my last for a very long time!) Later that day the bus arrived with nearly sixty Swedish students eager for their missionary outreach experience. We divided into six teams and boarded vans bound for Gypsy villages scattered throughout western Ukraine.

Our team consisted of Natalia (my ever faithful translator), Victor and Magnus (staff of YWAM Reston, Sweden) and students Linda, Veronica, Henrietta, Benjamin, Linnea, and Lina. We were on our way to Sabatano (later we found this was the poorest and most difficult village where teams were sent) to minister to the Gypsies.

Sabatano was unbelievable in so many ways. I can express neither what I felt, nor the work God did on my own heart during my time there. God revealed so much to me about the difficulties and problems associated with ministry to the Gypsies. There is not just the obvious poverty, but spiritual warfare, troubles with the Gypsy churches, their leadership, a lack of discipleship or direction, and apathy at an indescribable level. I found the Gypsies had a better knowledge of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ than many "professing" Christians I know; however they do not have a personal relationship with Him. They have been visited by countless teams of missionaries and humanitarians. They've heard the Gospel more than I have. Everyone has "received Jesus" at least once or twice in the village. But again, no one seems to truly know Him! Teams come and teams go… no one stays to grow or disciple these people. This has resulted in a kind of side show of evangelism that seems to be netting not much more than hardened hearts. There are a few positive signs of the efforts spent here, money given away, some wells dug, new roofs, out houses (though unused), and churches where none previously existed, and yes a few Christian Gypsies living as Christ's examples. But so little change is truly occurring.

As for my heart for children and families… the picture is so very bleak. Parenting is a foreign concept to Gypsies. The children are abandoned to their own devices from third grade on (when schooling ends). They have no hope other than to possibly become better "beggars" than their parents or to find something useless to sell in the markets. Four year-olds smoking and ten year-olds drinking is a normal sight. In countless discussions with the children one-on-one, not a single child spoke of dreams or hopes of anything better. Not one spoke of any additional education or employment, or knowledge of the political and social changes the rest of the nation is experiencing. Most will never leave the village or the Gypsy way of life. At least the children in the orphanages and the street kids I've spoken with have dreams of something better. Not these Gypsy kids! Hopelessness does not begin to describe the state they are in. It's more like blind resignation to nothing beyond the current existence. I would even venture to call it an "acceptance" or "willingness" to do no more than continue in the steps of the previous generation. Pray for these children! Nothing but divine miracles could begin to change these hearts. I thank God for the ongoing efforts of Christians like Sergei, Luda and Kathy. I wouldn't even know where to start with the children. Even loving them seems almost pointless at times. I felt utterly useless. To work full time with these kids I will need to have Phil. 4:13 tattooed on the inside of my eyelids after I have my tear ducts surgically plugged!

Let me give you a rough outline of their daily lives. Wake up (or not… I was the third oldest person we met in the village), move the family horse or goat to a patch of grass, gather sticks in the woods for the stove, gather mushrooms from the woods for Mom to sell in the market, help all day with siblings, play in puddles of what most of us would call sewage, and walk back and forth up and down the village road. Laundry was always being washed in the waste stream (how it comes out clean is a mystery to me). I had to opt for the pipe in the ground, I was afraid to even put my clothes in the stream! They had decent clothes donated by humanitarian groups and always tried to look good (if not over dressed). The girls always in skirts and the boys clean looking for the most part. The girls and guys put on their best clothes at night for hanging out, dancing, drinking and partying. It's surreal to see the girls in nice dresses and the guys in nice slacks and shirts. A couple of the guys were wearing sports coats!

I pray our presence in the village changed their lives at least for the short time we were there. While there, we played, sang, preached, fed them, prayed with and for them, took them to a lake, took pictures and walked with them a lot. Most of the time we just held them and their hands, forgetting what we smelled, felt or saw on them (and us). Even the Swedes were great. No one complained about what we would be covered in at the end of the day. At night we would gather in our "suite" and baby wipe every inch of ourselves down, while praying like we had never prayed before. We lay crammed like sardines, trying to fall asleep in spite of recollections of the kids and what we had experienced that day.

On a more positive note, the Swedes were a riot. They were wonderful examples of both Sweden and of Christian youth. There was plenty of opportunity for teaching, discipling and ministering to them as well as the Gypsies. They came from different churches and backgrounds. Most had never met before the outreach. They came together as if they had been together in ministry for years. I am positive I will see one or more of them back here in Ukraine one day!

The ten of us lived in a ten by twelve room on the (very hard) wood floor with open slats to the dirt ground below. We had no plumbing (toilets, sinks, nothing) and the only water was a ¾ inch pipe sticking 5 inches out of the ground gurgling out a murky "water like" substance. This source provided the only "drinkable" (Ha!) water for the entire village. There was electricity (three bulbs and a couple plugs for hot plates) a couple times a day (never when we needed it). This made North Philly living a cake walk! Funny how none of us complained much (ok, some). After all we were just visiting for a couple weeks! These Gypsies are permanent residents. I have done some rough things in my life. I have camped primitively with the Scouts for weeks at a time. I can even remember going a single week without washing once. But nothing compared to this. Nothing has come close to preparing me for living in these conditions.

After two weeks, we were all physically, mentally and spiritually spent. On the long ride back, I was counting down the hours to the city and the apartment with its on-again, off-again rusty water and my "tree bark" toilet paper. On arriving back to Ternopil we were informed that the entire city was without water for the next three days! No toilets or showers! Nothing for three days in a city of over a quarter million people! As I type this I am laughing at how God has so drastically changed my perspectives. Oh, for a tree in the woods! I miss the village already! I will have a couple productive days here in Ternopil until Saturday (7/9/05) when I leave for Kyiv. I pray for running water before then and an opportunity to clean my clothes if only in the tub!

As you have an opportunity to review the pictures, I ask that you will choose a child or children to pray for specifically. For me it is a boy named Joseph, who has one of the most beautiful singing voices and a girl named Nina who is such a huge blessing to her mother since the death of her father. Only through God can these children be saved from this painful existence and have a hope-filled future and everlasting life. May the faces of these children move you to a deeper prayer for them and others like them.

I have been blessed by your prayers, support and encouragement and continually remember you with thanksgiving to our heavenly Father.

See our photo album of Gypsy villages.