Friday, February 28, 2014

Missionary Musings :: thoughts from the road.

My closest friend is fluent in any number of languages.  It seems the grand total changes from week to week, "Oh, my Korean is worse than my Estonian - which is really pretty awful" he prattles away during a break from his language lessons.  His goal is to know a double-digit number of languages - more than a dozen, at least.  He's Ukrainian, so this view isn't really seen as bizarre or special - probably half of my friends speak a set of four standard languages and one additional obscure language.

I'm terrible at languages.  I failed out of Spanish class in middle school, muddled my way through German in High school, held to the bare minimum assignments in French throughout college, and learned conversational Russian and Ukrainian along the way.  By American standards, I am a linguist and a polyglot.  By Ukrainian standards, I'm adorable for trying.

When I returned to Lviv to serve full time, it became clear that I was going to have to buckle down and force myself to learn Ukrianian.  My closest friend and I spent an entire month having lessons whenever I felt like it.  If I was awake and ready to learn at 1 AM, a lesson commenced at 1 AM.  I'm a miserable learner and I spent the entire month angry and bitter at the Ukrainian language.  I'm not proud of my behavior during language lessons.  I throw tantrums.  It's really embarrassing.  Over time, we have learned that I need extremely difficult lessons for 15 minutes at a time and then a cool off period.  This is real.  I wish I was joking, and that - like a normal person - I could just sit down, study, and then speak a foreign language.

Nazar getting swallowed by the giant chair before speaking to a large membership church. 

It was during one of the darkest days of that January, when I was mentally and emotionally exhausted from language acquisition that my closest friend explained to me why he loved learning languages so much.  He told me, "I believe that God fully revealed himself through the world's languages.  Every time we learn a new language, we learn a little bit more about God's character."  And I think he's right.

Every language has a little bit of God to add to the world.    

Until you speak the language and grasp at least that much of the culture, you have very little to add to the conversation.  You can listen, you can be present, you can pray - and these are HUGE aspects of mission.  But, if you intend to join the conversation and challenge injustice and offer Christ through proclamation - language is a necessity.

I was being rushed to the hospital when I said my first sentence in Russian.  My friend's father was driving, and trying to buckle my seat belt while swerving through the streets of our small Russian city.  I looked at him and I said, "Ya saam." I can do it myself.  We had learned it just a few days before, but this was honestly the first time I had ever said two words together in Russian - and a complete sentence none the less!  As my foot swelled two sizes too big, my smile swelled, too.  I was so proud of that sentence.  The next day, as I hobbled on my crutches, a teacher's husband stopped me on the streets and asked, "Kak naga?" How is your leg?  I answered "harasho"- good.  It was my first full conversation.

But what I remember most strongly about these two conversations was the incredible sense that I had spoken to Russian people for the first time.  Now - my host-brother had valiantly translated everything for me for two weeks by this point, but at this moment there was something deeper and more beautiful.  It was like the connection was truly mine.

It was the first time I saw the beauty and brilliance of languages.

Two nights ago, I was coming home at about 10 at night.  A neighbor stopped me on the street and invited me to her house for tea.  Lyuba is probably older than my mother, but not by much.  She started the conversation in broken English, and exhaled an audible sigh of relief when I responded in Ukrainian.  We drank tea and talked for more than an hour.  We told jokes, we talked about politics, and we talked about family:

"My boys were on the Maidan during the days of violence.  They both went, just to give their mother more to worry about.  The older one has a five year old son, and I said to him - 'You can't go, you have a child to take care of.' and he told me, 'Mom, that's why I'm going.' I cried so hard I thought I would die.  I just sat at the TV and cried while I watched everything.  I cried even harder when they came home to me."  

I told her about how much I've made my mom cry during this revolution - and apparently sons acting this way is a universal.

When I left, I told her that I thought most of the neighbors were afraid of me because they rarely speak to me.  She told me, "Well, once they find out from me that you speak Ukrainian, they're all going to want to talk to you - so get ready."

Language is connection.  Language is life.  Language is mission.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Pain and Hope.

Tomorrow morning people that I love and care for deeply will join together for the funeral of fallen heroes.  They will cry for their friend, lecturer, neighbor, brother, or son.  Some of our Pilgrims were close with the lecturer from the Catholic University.  One of my good friends sat with her classmates in grief after hearing the news that their friend had died.  

On the second night of the revolution, long before anyone had begun calling it a revolution, Ihor Kalynets stepped up to the microphone to speak.  He is a 75 year old widower and a tremendous poet and patriot.  He begged the students not to listen to politicians nor the press - but to follow their conscience and their hearts.  He told them - us - that we would find our own path.  I don't think Ihor ever set out to be a revolutionary.  His wife was arrested first (in 1972) and sentenced to six years of hard labor - and he really didn't have a choice after that, did he?  He was arrested six months later and sentenced to nine years in a forced labor camp.

I don't think any of these young men wanted to be revolutionaries.  Too many of the dead are young fathers.  Revolutionaries are young and unattached - but many of these men were fathers, they fought for their children.  They fought so that their children could live in a normal country and have a government that works for them instead of the other way around.  They fought because they were secretly and illegally baptized and they never wanted their children to experience the lack of freedom of religion.  They fought because the president had blood on his hands and no apology on his heart.  

I don't know a lot about Ukrainian culture.  I've only lived here 3 short years, and I don't how much longer I'll get to live here - but I'll tell you what I know:  sixty years from now a grandmother will tell her grandchildren of the valiant struggle and the names of these fallen heroes.  Can you name someone who died on 9/11?  Americans don't forgive, but we forget awfully fast.  Ukrainians don't forget.  They will pass these names from generation to generation.

We only know the names of about half of the dead.  Slowly pictures and names emerge on the internet.  More than 50 people are in intensive care in Kyiv hospitals, it is likely that the death toll will continue to climb.

I remember that night, after Kalynets stepped away from the microphone someone began chanting "rev-o-lut-si-a" and as I heard the chants of "revolution" my ears could hardly believe it.  My students and friends surrounded me and they were chanting too - and soon enough, I joined them.

I never followed politics in Ukraine.  There are too many surnames and they all mix together.  For a project I asked my best friend if I could interview his grandmother - I wanted to hear about her life and her work.  She agreed and I thought that I would start with a softball question.  I asked her to tell me about a happy memory from her childhood.  She said, "I don't have any happy memories from my childhood.  My father was arrested when I was quite young and my mother and I were persecuted from that day on.  I only saw my mother twice after that.  She was forced to work on a beet farm and she was grating beets when I saw her last - I didn't know where the red of the beets ended and the red of her own blood began."

I'll never forget those words.  I talked with my friend later and he told me that I should follow the political situation - starting with the history.  The history was painful and gruesome, but I couldn't live here and be present here fully if I didn't know it.

I stood on the Maidan with our students because I weighed both sides, and I understood that I must stand with the side of freedom and democracy.  I took a rather active view, and perhaps because of this I will have visa issues in the future.  But every day, I get up and I can look myself in the mirror knowing that I did the right thing.  The death of these young people has been tragic, but had the Ukrainian people remained silent they would have become slaves to a totalitarian regime - I believe this with all of my heart.

The Maidan in Kyiv might be covered with blood and ash and soot - but it is also covered in hope.  The people have fought for their own dignity, freedom, and future.  This is what democracy looks like - it is bloody and ugly and painful, but it is free.

I believe that Yanukovych is in his final hours and that soon a new democracy will be formed.  Our primary goals will be healing of wounds, forgiving enemies, and building one country together - and I say "our" because the whole world will have to help.  We must invest in this great country and help it to move forward as a European nation.  We must share the story of the brave little country that fought to oust criminals from leadership.  We must tell our grandchildren the names of these young men who died for freedom.

There is pain, but there is also hope.

And hope, like heroes, never dies.