Inside a Moment

Watch this 26 second video:

Our team sent us that video this past week and my heart melted. Tears filled my eyes and I couldn’t stop watching it over and over. Then I showed it to Jed and he kinda bawled his eyes out. I haven’t seen him like that for quite some time. It was a moment.

That video means so much to us because of the people in it, their stories, how our lives have become entwined and all that has led up to that beautiful moment in time. I’d love to break it down for you so you can see some of what we see when we watch.

The first boy I see is our friend Maxim. He is 34 years old and loves to tell that fact to everyone he meets by holding his fingers up in their faces. He knows how to count and is proud of himself when he counts correctly.

We met Maxim and his mama 6 years ago and have loved them ever since. Maxim is tall, quick to bear hug, only speaks a few words, but is as smart as a whip when it comes to math. He has always lived with his parents, but they are quite elderly, and after his older brother passed away they had no plan for who would care for Maxim after they are unable to do so themselves. A couple of years ago his mama approached us and asked if we would be willing to take Maxim into our Wide Awake family when they pass. “You don’t have to do much for him. Just help him with his clothes and make sure to cook him food.” Of course our answer was YES! And we’ll do more than just help him with his clothes and feed him. We will love him and care for him always. He will never be alone. He will never be placed in an institution. NEVER.

When we were at the sea in the fall our team felt like we needed to start incorporating Maxim into the life of our team, so every week, twice a week, he joins our boys for lessons and special time together. Because Maxim has always been loved and cared for, he doesn’t carry trauma like our other boys. His joy is like a little child. He adds something special to our family and is God’s gift to us all.

Next I see Ruslan, and then a glimpse of Anton: my precious boys. They wasted away for years- for decades- living like animals. Now they are celebrating Christmas, surrounded by people who love them and have given their lives so that they could live. They are known. They are happy. They are growing and thriving. In the good and in the bad, they are loved and accepted for who they are. BELOVE[d]

Then Kostya, sitting next to Masha, pops into the scene. Oh, my heart was so happy to see him there! Kostya lives with his courageous mama and is a great addition to our little group. Kostya has Down Syndrome and is also autistic. His autism makes it very difficult to engage with him. He is nonverbal and can get easily overwhelmed by new situations. But, oh man, he is perfect for us. He is just the kind of boy we love to love. He can be easily passed over in social situations, and it’s hard to know what’s happening in his mind, but our little company is great for him and his mom. Our teacher, Tanya, has worked really hard to keep connection with them and to help insure they are not isolated. They belong with us.

Oh, and then there’s Sergei! Look at that sweet smiling face. He’s showing us the ornament he’s made and he’s so proud of his work. Man, he looks so good, so healthy.

We met Sergei and his mama a few months ago when they were referred to us by the director of the institution. Sergei’s mama has been raising him all on her own and had reached the point of overwhelm many months earlier. Their situation seemed impossible, and his mama felt the only situation was handing him over to the institution. She couldn’t see any other way to move forward. Since then our team has worked so very hard to help keep Sergei in the home. They have encouraged mom, included Sergei in our classes and activities and brought him into the life of our team. We are praying and acting, doing whatever we can to keep this family together. We don’t know what the end of the story will be, but for now Sergei has new friends and he and his mama are a part of something bigger than themselves. Oh, my heart leaped when I saw his smiling face- happy and loved by friends. Please pray for his mama. She has been brave for so long. Pray that she will open up to our help and that she would know the Father’s love.

I see our team and Kostya’s mom, looking on with love and care. I know them and I understand what they had to do behind the scenes to make a little gathering like that come together. Oleg must have traveled all over town, picking everyone up and transporting them from their homes. Masha arranged the work schedule so there would be enough helping hands. Tanya planned the craft and made sure it was ready and developmentally appropriate. Max was there next to Anton, helping him to regulate his emotions within the bigger group. The candle was lit. I know music was playing- the atmosphere of love and warmth thought out and intentional. A gathering like that, with a group like that doesn’t just happen. It has to be thoughtfully created. But it is worth it that our boys would know they are loved and valued, and that they would feel Christmas cheer. 🙂

When I watch that video I remember the stories of how God brought so many different people together, people that 7 years ago we had no idea even existed, but are now our family.

Now go watch those 26 seconds again. Look into those faces and see what I see. I see beautiful, precious friends who were overlooked for too long, but are now celebrated. I see lives changed and I see love in action. Annnnd I’m thankful.

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The View From a Distance

You know how it is when you get so close to something that you can’t really see it clearly? What’s that saying? “Can’t see the forest for the trees”. Yeah, that’s me. I get so involved in the details of our day to day work, that it’s hard to pick my head up and see the big picture of what God is doing. I get bogged down in diapers and feeding people and the team schedule and documents, and can easily forget what we are actually aiming for in Ukraine. I mean, of course our work is our ministry is our life- all wrapped up in one, so I’m always “doing the stuff”, but sometimes I can kind of miss the heart of it when the details overwhelm.

It really is necessary though, to pick my head up every so often and remember why we are doing what we are doing. It’s important to pull back a bit and recognize the bigger picture of what God is doing. A good way to do that is to leave our life for a few weeks and watch the work happen from a distance. 🙂 We aren’t in Ukraine right now and we don’t have much control over what happens there while we are gone. We get to sit back and watch our team do their thing from a distance. The only glimpses we get of our Anton and Ruslan are videos and pics from the team- and that bit of distance, well, it does wonders for the heart.

From a distance I can see more clearly how far our boys have come. Man, I’m so proud of them! I see them safe and loved and I see a team that is working so hard to help them in any way they can. I see a group of people committed to changing their country and I see their dedication to do this thing right. I see them building something amazing. I see how God has provided everything we’ve needed right on time, and my faith is built up again as I remember that He will continue to be faithful in the days ahead. We have some very pressing needs coming up soon, so this increase in faith is much needed. (And, it has to be said that I definitely have not arrived. I still lose sleep over those pressing needs…but I’m deciding to trust Jesus in those wee morning hours instead of losing more sleep)

From a distance the rough patches in my heart begin to soften again as I rest and regain perspective. If you have been close to this work at all then you know that my relationship with our Ruslan has been a difficult one. We know that we know that God asked us to take Ruslan out of the institution. We don’t question that. But, it has not been an easy road for me at all. Ruslan struggles with his relationship with women- not in an unsafe way, but still in a very real way, and his feelings for me are a jumbled up mess. We realized after he had lived with us for over a year that it would be much better for him to live with only men, or with a much older woman. That played a part in the decision for him to move from our home last February. That, and then his increased need for independence and anxiety living with a large family. It just made a whole lot of sense on a lot of levels for him to move to an apartment.

Even after Ruslan moved out of our home, I still struggled with my feelings toward him. It was just so hard for me to live with him, and my heart felt let down, guilty, and ashamed of how difficult it was. I felt shame for a long time that I was “unable” to live with Ruslan any longer. I know there was no reason to feel shame and guilt, but those feelings were/are still there. I had many months of questioning God and asking him why he asked us to choose Ruslan when he knew we would not be able to keep him in our home, and when he knew how hard it would be for me. It’s been a journey. But, getting just a bit of distance has really helped my heart.

Earlier this week I was writing an update to Ruslan’s prayer team and I compiled a video of him, showcasing his love for music. In one part of the videos he is singing his favorite worship song and just going for it. He is worshiping with his whole heart and when I watched it my heart just broke. I remembered again where he came from and my heart softened again as I thought of all the terror and abuse he has endured in his life. I felt just so darn thankful that God asked us to take him from that horrible place. I can’t imagine him there!! He belongs with us. He is ours. Yes, living with him was the most difficult time of my life. Yes, I still don’t understand fully God’s purposes in it. Yes, I still have some places in my heart that need healing, but 100 times YES I am thankful that our guy is free. My heart needed that view from a distance.

When I look at our work in Ukraine from a distance I get so excited about what God is doing. Guys, it is amazing. It is freedom work. It is justice work. It is life-saving work. I’m just so pumped to be a part of it. It’s good to feel that again. 🙂

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Reflections on Home

The most elusive word to most expats is probably the word “home”. I actually put quite a bit of thought into my use of that word. It’s not one I throw around lightly. When you up and move 6,000 miles away from your home, and suddenly every single thing is unfamiliar and difficult, you wonder if you will ever feel “at home” again, and the word takes on a power and meaning all its own.

For several years after we moved to Ukraine I considered Oregon my home. Oregon represented comfort and familiarity and friendship and family. Ukraine represented frustration and difficulty and loneliness and hard hard hard. Ukraine was where we lived, but it was not my home. I never let our kids know that though. Even though Jed and I didn’t feel the feels, we were always super careful how we used the word “home” with our kids. Right away, after moving to Ukraine, we called it our home. We wanted the kids to recognize that we were in Ukraine to stay and we wanted them to start to put down roots there- physically and emotionally. We may have longed for the US and all it’s familiarities, but we didn’t want our kids to do the same. We didn’t want them pining for their old life. We wanted them to jump in to their new life- and we tried our best to do the same. When it was time to visit the US we told the kids just that- that we were going to visit the US. We never referred to those visits as “going home”. In hindsight, I’m really glad we did that because it helped all of us in keeping a perspective of permanency, regardless of our feelings.

Words are powerful, but they are still just words. The heart feels what it will feel, and no matter which words I used, it still took a loooong time for me to feel like Ukraine was my home. For several years I would just about die of excitement when it was time to leave Ukraine, and cry allllll the tears when it was time to return to her again. I knew that I knew Ukraine was where we were supposed to be. I had zero doubt of our purpose and calling there, but that didn’t make the reality easier. I was dying of loneliness and life was just so.dang.hard. Yes, there were many beautiful moments, but it still just felt super foreign.

But, sometime over the past couple of years, those feelings changed. I’ll be honest and tell you that this trip is the first one when I really felt sad to leave Ukraine. As much as I was excited to see our family here in the US, I still cried saying goodbye to our boys, our team, our neighbors, our house and our pets. I felt a sense of loss that life there will go on and we won’t be a part of it for a few weeks. I felt a sadness of leaving my home, my people. And I as sat back and recognized those feelings I felt so much thankfulness and joy. We’ve crossed into a new season, a new reality. My people-pleaser self wanted to immediately feel guilt over that and my “disloyalty” the US, but I decided not to go there. I think it’s good and right to feel at home in the place where you live. I see this new feeling of belonging as God’s gift and I’m only thankful for it. During these past 7 years I’ve learned that it’s okay to have your heart in both sides of the ocean. It’s okay to miss my family in the US, while also being content with our family in Ukraine. It’s okay to be excited to visit the US, but also sad to leave Ukraine. As an expat, that tug on my heart that stretches it across the sea will always be my reality. Like I tell our kids when they cry over leaving someone they love, “We are the most blessed, to be loved by so many people all over the world.”

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How to Fly a Family of 9 Overseas During a Pandemic: Johnson Style

Having flown across the sea a number of times with any number of children, I’d like to think of myself as a veteran child/luggage/passport wrangler. I’m not easily phased by the prospect of 24 hours of travel with multiple dependents. At this point in life, traveling with less than 4 children is basically like flying solo, in my book. And if Jed is with me and we can tag-team? Oh baby, Amazing Race has nothing on us. We are unstoppable.

Now, flying during a pandemic with this many dependents, two of whom (I’m looking at you Bmo and Evie) will keep masks on for approximately 3 seconds before sending them shooting across the room, is pushing our skills to the next level. If it wasn’t for the fact that we haven’t been back to the US as a family for 2.5 years, and have in-person-Wide-Awake-business that needs to be done, I’m not sure we would attempt it. Am I nervous? Maybe a little. But, you see, our whole married life has been preparing us for this. When we were newlyweds we were taking teams of teenagers on short-term trips to work with Jed’s parents in Kosova. Flying with 15 teens and a 3 month old Addy during our second year of marriage was good prep for our current situation. 😉

You’d think with all my gloating confidence I would be uber-prepared with laminated checklists and labeled passports…but, I have to confess that that is not the case. Jed and I are more “fly by the seat of our pants and pray everything gets done in time” type people. Somehow we manage to check everything off the lists (which we scribble on the back of receipts and lose 5 times before we actually check everything off), but I’m not sure our method is for everyone.

A few of the passports. I guess I should go find the others…

One week Till Go-Time

  • Decide to host a Thanksgiving feast for 25 people. Be sure to include everything on the menu and don’t cut any corners! Erect a tent outside to keep the feast pandemic-friendly. Make everything from scratch, as all the conveniences can’t be found in your host country. Spend 2 days in your kitchen totally destroying the deep-cleaning you did the week before while you were thinking you were “ahead of the game”.
  • Contact your brother to ask to borrow his van while in the US. You know, since you’ll be in the US for almost two months, it might be good to have a vehicle to drive…(face palm).
  • Check travel requirements and the lockdown situation in the states you are headed to. Search the internet for COVID testing sites that don’t require a physicians order. Make sure Boris can still enter the US on his visa and keep your fingers crossed that the world stays intact for just a few more days till you all cross the border together.

5 Days Till Go-Time

  • Stress about how you’ll keep a mask on Bmo and Evie for 20 hours. Lay awake at all hours of the night thinking about that instead of sleeping. You wouldn’t want to go into the travels too rested! Also, don’t forget to worry about Anton and Ruslan and if they’ll understand that you’re coming back. Sleep is for the weak.
  • Stock up on groceries for the next several days so you won’t be running to the store constantly and can focus on preparing for the trip. Make sure to forget TP and milk and at least three other items, just to insure you do have to, in fact, run to the store constantly.

4 Days Till Go-Time

  • Get all the suitcases out of the old house on the property where they’ve been stored for the past couple of years. Make sure to open them outside, as last time you opened one inside the house a mouse ran out and emotionally scarred you for life. You’ll never trust a suitcase again. Also, they’re covered in dust and nastiness. Employ teenage sons to give them a thorough cleaning. Argue with Jed about how many suitcases you will actually require for a family of 9 to spend 7 weeks away from home. Jed argues you can get by with just a couple of carry-ons- or maybe just a backpack for each? You argue that you would like to be able to change your clothes more than once during the 7 weeks and ask for checked bags. Jed considers…you drop it for the time being. (But you know you’ll win…hehe)
  • Check travel requirements and the lockdown situation in the states you are headed to, again. Double check that Bmo will still be able to enter the country (assuming he’ll wear a mask long enough to be allowed on the plane…)

3 Days Till Go-Time

  • You have your team over for the day to work and plan for your absence. You drink a lot of coffee and make another batch of homemade egg nog…because this day is a wash anyway. Nothing is getting done. The day might as well be tasty if it’s not going to be productive.

2 Days Till Go-Time

  • You venture, tentatively, into the pits of despair, aka dumpsters, that are your children’s bedrooms and sift through empty chip bags and wet towels and Seth “science experiments” to search for dirty clothes. I mean, if you’re going to fight with Jed over checked bags, you might need actual clothes to fill them. You then come to your senses and remember that your children are capable human beings and they, are in fact, the ones who should be sniffing through the piles of clothes on their floors. You come up out of the fog of teenage boy smells and instruct your children to do their laundry, if they intend on spending their time in the US clothed.
  • After much debate, you convince your 10 year-old son that it really is better to clean up the “science experiments” before travel. Yes, it could be fun to see what grows in them over the next 7 weeks, but it would be less fun to come home to a room full of mold. You assist him in cleaning his room. You want to poke your eyes out.
  • The house sitters come over for instructions. You share all the idiosyncrasies of your home and about how to care for your approx. 527 animals. When you get to the part about which drawers in the kitchen are prone to mice and which aren’t, you see their eyes grow wide and wonder if you should just stay home after all. On Instruction #182 their eyes kind of glaze over and you all just agree to text each other if questions come up. You never realized your house had so many idiosyncrasies!
  • You do laundry non-stop while the toddler destroys the house.

1 Day Till Go-Time

  • I guess it’s time to pack. You really do try to fit it all in the agreed amount of luggage, but there’s just so.many.people. The teenage boys fetch a couple more suitcases out of storage and Jed dies a little on the inside.
  • Run to the kids’ school to sign them out for the next couple of months. Oops. You actually should have done that last week. Better late than never!
  • More laundry, because it never ends.
  • You remember your children still need to eat today, but you didn’t really plan for that. Hmmm…haphazardly feed your children whatever is left in the kitchen: pickles, cheese, oatmeal, eggs? Never mind. You’re on your own, kids. Mom’s up to her eyeballs in laundry. Candy for lunch? Whatevs. You’ve got bigger fish to fry.
  • Clean and pack and wash and launder and pick-up and clean and pack and wash till the wee hours of the morning. At some point Jed runs to the store (again) for snacks for the plane. You heard they won’t feed you much on the plane these days, but teenagers and Bmos are hungry all the time, so you better stock up.
  • Pack the passports and check them 20 times to make sure you have 9 of them. Obsessively check travel sites to make sure Bmo will still be able to enter the US. Read up on airport rules and pray everyone wakes up healthy and ready to mask up.
  • Pack the suitcases in the van in the dark of night. Jed remarks more than a few times on the amount of luggage. You remind him that this isn’t a backpacking trip, and yes, you really do need more than one pair of shoes for a 7 week trip. You call truce and drink some egg nog.

Go-Time

  • Wake the troops in the middle of the night and check the passports 15 more times before groggily heading out the door.
  • Pat yourselves on the back for successfully exiting your life for the foreseeable future. You’re sure you forgot something, but you’re headed to the US! Anything can be replaced. -Except passports. You better check them just a couple more times…

See you on the other side! We’ll let you know how the Bmo-in-a-mask-for-20-hours goes down. If anything, it’ll make for good writing material. 🙂

About a Dog (Or a couple of them, rather)

Way back before COVID was in our lives (the beginning of last year, or 5 lifetimes ago…I’m not even sure anymore) our family made a plan to visit the US in the summer. We had this great idea to buy ourselves another dog, and then bring him back home with us to Ukraine when we returned in the fall. 

Our dog, Bluebell, is an English Shepherd and the best dog on the planet. We felt like she needed a companion, and was also the perfect age to teach a new pup how to behave. Our friend Paige, breeds English Shepherds and gifted us our Bluebell 5 years ago. She had a new litter of pups that would be the perfect age to travel to Ukraine at the end of the summer. Paige even had a sweet, sable pup that she thought would be a perfect addition to our family and he hadn’t been claimed yet. The stars were aligned- it was time to get ourselves a puppy! 

Bluebell

We purchased our puppy, Auggie, and Paige graciously agreed to keep him until we arrived in Oregon in June. 

Then COVID. (How many times have I written that sentence in my storytelling over the past few months??) 

The borders closed and flights were cancelled. It quickly became apparent that we were not going to be heading to the US for the summer. But what about our Auggie?  Well, a wonderful family that are also English Shepherd owners stepped in and agreed to care for Auggie till we could come to the US this winter. Problem solved! We were bummed to miss out on puppy time, but knew he was being well-cared for, and that the time would fly by quickly.  

Then came time to buy our tickets for our winter visit. And…surprise, surprise…COVID! 

Come to find out, many airlines have suspended pet travel during the pandemic, so our options for getting Auggie back to Ukraine dwindled and dwindled till we realized the only way to get him home would be by paying a pet shipping company like $1500. Needless to say, our “pet budget” doesn’t extend that far. Yikes. We were so sad to finally admit to ourselves that Auggie wasn’t going to be coming to Ukraine.

In the meantime, another pup had entered the picture. Our Seth, the saver of all strays, brought a puppy home off the street. This wasn’t the first time Seth has tried to adopt a stray, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. His soft heart can’t bear seeing an animal all alone. We told Seth that we didn’t need another dog because Auggie would soon be coming home (we were still fighting that battle). We tried to turn the pup out, but he wouldn’t go away. He stuck around, sleeping on our porch and even barking at strangers who would pass by! I guess he felt he had found his home. Pretty soon we started feeding him, giving him soft blankets to sleep on, and…it all kind of snowballed from there. At one point I told Jed “If we’re feeding this puppy we need to decide if he’s ours.” There are too many stray dogs around our village to start randomly feeding them all!

We were still tossing around the idea of keeping the puppy when we came to the conclusion that it was literally impossible for us to get Auggie to Ukraine this winter. I asked Auggie’s foster family if they wanted to keep him and they were more than happy to comply! They love Auggie and had become quite attached to him. Our hearts were at peace. Auggie was with a loving family, and “the puppy” was an orphan. He needed us. The whole situation seemed pretty “on brand” for our fam. Hehe. 😉

That’s the story of how Wendell joined our family. Life in the times of COVID- you just never know which strange turns it will take. Am I right? Our little Wendell will always be a reminder of our strangest year yet.

PS: When we were choosing a name for Auggie, Jed was really pushing the name “Wendell”. No one in the family agreed with him. None of us were fans. Then when the pup started hanging around our porch he started covertly calling him Wendell. I guess Jed came out as the winner on this one.

Bluebell and her new buddy

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