By Ryan Itzel
In the summer of 2017, Daniel Russell (now my brother-in Law) and I began talking about going on a missions trip. We had just met and started hanging out earlier that year. Both being fans of music, we decided to try out something known as "busking," a term that simply describes "playing music on the street." During the summer of 2017 we went out "busking" nearly every week, and sometimes more! Over that summer, some of the people who passed by would tip us, and we ended up with a little less than $1000 in total. Mid way through our summer side job, we talked about how we should use the money. With some time, we agreed we wanted to use the money for the spread of the gospel overseas. This was the beginning of the planning of what would be one of the most impactful trips of my life.
As the year went by, through prayer and discussion, the details of the trip began to come together. We decided to go to Ukraine to work with Pastor Oleg, a missionary who focuses his efforts on evangelism in nursing homes and orphanages. Daniel and his family have known Pastor Oleg for years. After trip planning meetings, multiple fundraisers, and a lot of prayer, it was finally departure time.
The morning of August 9, the team gathered to begin the long journey to Ukraine. The planned trip would have us take a bus to New York, then a flight to Odessa, Ukraine, with one stop in Kiev. The team left with high energy and excitement as the months of planning were turning into reality. However, the journey turned out to be very different than we expected. The bus ride was about the only thing to go right in what quickly turned out to be a nightmare of delays. Our first flight from New York was delayed by 4 hours. As we waited, we were concerned it might cause trouble with our connecting flight, but we trusted the Lord for provision and boarded first flight. The plane was crowded and hot, as the air conditioning was not working, but not even the sweaty atmosphere could stop our evangelistic zeal. After roughly 12 hours in the air, we finally touched down in Kiev, Ukraine.
When we stepped off the plane, we were enthusiastic, but slightly anxious as we looked to navigate the Ukrainian airport. Quickly our fears became reality, as an airport employee informed us that our connecting flight had already left. Normally this would not be an issue, but the problem became clear when we found that the next flight to Odessa was 2 days later. We knew we could not wait for that flight, but we had no clear path of getting our trip back on track. After 8 hours of waiting, we found a man who was willing to drive our whole group through the night to Odessa. Six hours later, we finally made it to our destination.
Friday and Saturday
Exhausted, in pain, and severely jet lagged, our team arrived with Pastor Oleg and his fellow evangelist Valeri at the very time our day of ministry was supposed to begin. We had been traveling for around 40 hours before getting to our destination, sleeping very little on the plane and not at all at the airport/bus ride, yet we were faced with a dilemma: do we rest, or do we begin our day of ministry? By the grace of God, we decided to do what we set out to do. We loaded up into a small bus and left for a local village in a rural part of Odessa.
This first village was so encouraging. Right when we got off the bus, we were greeted by over 20 young kids who were excited to get to know us! Tasia (my wife), and three other team members interpreted for
us on the trip. In this village, we ate food with the children, sang worship songs for them, and I had the privilege of presenting the gospel. Pastor Oleg and Valeri minister in this village regularly, and it was beautiful to see the love this community had for them. It makes me think of Isaiah 52:7, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns.'”
|From the first village|
After our time at the village was finished, we left to go back to the hostel where we were staying. When we finally went to bed, it had been 52 hours since we left our homes back in Maryland. Amazingly, when we woke up the next day, our sleep cycle was adjusted to Ukraine which allowed us to complete the remainder of the trip without jet lag!
Sunday and Monday
Sunday, we celebrated the Lord's day with a local evangelical church. Daniel and I led worship, the team gave testimonies, and we joined our fellow servants of Christ in hearing the Word preached and participating in the Lord's supper. The rest of the day was enjoyed with church members in fellowship. As Monday arrived, we spent the morning preparing for the day of ministry, gathering supplies from the local stores. This day was to be spent at the Black Sea with a large group of kids from an orphanage. During the day we ran our usual kids meeting, leading worship, doing crafts with the kids, sharing testimonies and a gospel presentation. Since we were their all day, we also spent time playing with the kids in the Black Sea. Many of these kids spoke English, making our conversations much easier. When leaving, we were met with many tears from both kids and team members, but we were thankful to have shared the gospel in detail with the near 30 orphans who were in desperate need of the message of hope.
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday
Tuesday-Thursday we focused on ministering in nursing homes. In Ukraine, nursing homes are very different than anything we would see in the U.S. From what we saw, even the nicest nursing homes in Ukraine would not meet U.S. standards. Those who live in these homes are very open to the message of the gospel, as they are faced with the prospect of eternity. At each nursing home we went to, we would
drive hours there and back, only to spend around one hour communicating the gospel. At times we questioned if it was the most valuable way to spend our short time in Ukraine, but God clearly corrected our thinking when we saw multiple residents respond to the preaching of the gospel with faith in Christ.
|An Orthodox church in Balta|
In these homes we would sing songs, present the gospel, talk to residents, leave supplies, such as food, adult diapers, and Bibles for the residents. Pastor Oleg told us that they must leave Bibles at these homes every time they go because locals will often come into the homes and steal the Bibles for the pages to role drugs. Though the stories we heard from the residents and workers were hard to hear at times, we rejoiced at the hope many found in Christ.
On our final day of ministry, we gathered for breakfast in downtown Odessa. As we finished our meal, Pastor Oleg told us to make sure we ate our fill now and to not eat anything else till after we finished at the nursing home for the day. He said this place of ministry would be the most difficult to face. He described it as "hell on earth." With this vivid description in our minds, we packed into the van and prepared for a 6 and a half hour drive to the final ministry location.
When we finally made it to the nursing home, we were bombarded with emotions. In many rooms the floors were covered in human/animal waste and vomit. The living conditions were so poor that many of the residents covered themselves with blankets just to keep the flies off them. As with the other nursing homes, after we shared the gospel and testimonies with those who could gather together, we would follow Pastor Oleg as he would share the gospel to each resident
who was bed ridden. We would talk to individuals, where possible, and continue the discussion raised by Pastor Oleg's preaching. In this home, the need for the gospel was evident, for some of the residents were moments from death. While this was by far the hardest ministry site, our time was not wasted. Some of the residents already believed in Christ, and it meant the world to them in their last days to have a few moments of fellowship with other Christians. Many heard the gospel, and we trust the Lord as they pondered the message of reconciliation. When we finished preaching the gospel and giving what supplies we had to the residents and workers, we packed in the van for the long drive back to the hostel.
|Some of the residents from the final nursing home.|
The trip back to the U.S was just as bad as the trip to Ukraine, as our team missed the bus to Maryland and got split up into different buses after 9 hours of waiting in the bus station. Yet even the difficulty of the journey gave us time to reflect upon what we had experienced on the trip. There are three truths I found from this trip that I hope encourage you as you have followed along with our journey. First, any definition of results must be conformed to God's definition. In a world full of churches following an "attraction church" model, also known as the "seeker sensitive" church, too many focus on numbers as the goal of any Christian ministry. While we saw multiple people profess faith in Christ, a missions trip should not be focused on generating numbers by whatever means possible. Rather, we must be faithful stewards of the gospel, trusting that God will use the Word to accomplish His perfect will, "In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all
|The Team: With Pastor Oleg and Valeri|
"remember the former things of old;for I am God, and there is no other;I am God, and there is none like me,declaring the end from the beginningand from ancient times things not yet done,saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,and I will accomplish all my purpose,’calling a bird of prey from the east,the man of my counsel from a far country.I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;I have purposed, and I will do it."
Here is a link to a video made from our trip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKHCUTMnPhI