Experiencing Cross-Cultural Ministry | Knight and Robertson Intern in Ukraine
On May 17, Josiah Knight and Jeremy Robertson stepped off a plane in Odessa, Ukraine. Both young men are seniors seeking the same degrees: a major in Humanities, a Master’s in Bible, and a minor in Missions.
Upon arrival, other expectations sprang to mind aside from their educational endeavors. They knew that living in another country for two months would be difficult. They knew that God would work in their lives. They knew that this would be an experience they’d never forget.
In addition to these, both Josiah and Jeremy had another desire in their hearts: that God would make known to them whether He wanted them on the mission field or not. Such a decision is not one that can be taken lightly, as both young men understood well.
Getting Started in Church Ministry
Odessa is a large city in Ukraine, sporting a population of around two million people year-round and three million in the summer. Pastor Mark Priem and his wife, Lydia, who planted Lighthouse Baptist Church in Odessa nearly twenty years ago, welcomed Jeremy, Josiah, and their fellow MBU student Caeley Griffith with open arms and quickly assimilated them into the various ministry opportunities available.
Their primary responsibility was the teen group. In addition to taking turns teaching Sunday school each week, Josiah and Jeremy also organized various activities and outings for the teens. Although they were without a translator much of the time, each activity was a success, and the teens enjoyed bike riding, bowling, volleyball, a trip to the zoo, and, their favorite, playing games at the church. It turns out that Mafia is a popular youth group game around the world!
In addition to serving with the teens, Jeremy and Josiah took turns preaching at the church with the assistance of a translator. Each week they met for Russian lessons with Lenna, a Ukrainian who had taught Pastor Priem when he first came to Ukraine; in Odessa, the primary language is Russian, not Ukrainian. Although Lenna is not a Christian, God had used her to assist the pastor in his establishment of Lighthouse Baptist Church nearly twenty years ago, and now He used her again to aid Josiah and Jeremy in their internship.
During the week, the interns traveled with Pastor Priem and other church members into the neighboring villages to canvas and share the gospel, handing out copies of John and Romans and information about the church. Jeremy observed that the population of these villages is mostly comprised of elderly people who have very little contact with the outside world; there are no churches, Orthodox or otherwise, in the smaller villages, and as a result, the locals are rather disinterested in the gospel in general.
They also assisted the church in presenting two VBS clubs throughout their internship, one in an orphanage and one in a neighborhood association near the church, as well as two English clubs at the nearby public school.
Adapting to a New Culture
Perhaps one of the most exciting adventures Josiah and Jeremy were led on during their time in Ukraine was a ten-day tour around the country. They visited various churches in Kiev and other large cities, and both of them received the opportunity to preach in these churches. They handed out a lot of tracts, both in the cities and in the small villages in between, and visited many famous landmarks, including a famous park with a massive monument symbolizing the once-vibrant friendship between Ukraine and Russia, a zoo in a forest, a salt mine, and Sofiyivka Park, a beautiful garden designed by a Ukrainian aristocrat for his wife.
Both Josiah and Jeremy found their classes at MBU valuable in the circumstances they faced. Josiah mentioned specifically how his history and literature classes helped shape his understanding of different cultures and different worldviews. Writing and communication classes were essential as well; “If you can’t communicate effectively in English,” Josiah explained, “[there’s] no way it’s gonna work with a translator.” He remembered that communicating with the translator was a challenge at times. Having the ability to think of synonyms for common English words at a moment’s notice is a skill that he credited directly to his English classes.
Jeremy agreed, adding the statement, “Communication classes were key.” He found that the Greek and linguistics classes he’s taken helped greatly during the Russian lessons as well as in communication with the translator. He had a better understanding of which English words would translate well and which ones wouldn’t. Having taken cross-cultural classes as part of the Missions minor was also helpful to Jeremy in teaching him to respect different cultures and alleviating some of the culture shock.
The culture shock was one thing that Jeremy didn’t expect to hit quite as hard as it did. After a couple of weeks in Ukraine, the newness and excitement began to wear off, and the differences between the United States and Ukraine began to set in. Simple tasks such as communicating with neighbors and buying groceries became increasingly difficult. Jeremy confessed, “You feel like a kid again because you don’t know anything.” Although he shared an apartment with Josiah, Jeremy commented on the loneliness that came with living in a building where nobody spoke his language. He hadn’t expected the ministry in Ukraine to be in such stark contrast from the United States.
Both Jeremy and Josiah observed differences in the perspectives of Ukrainians and Americans. The Ukrainians they worked with were very superstitious about many practices that seem normal to Americans. According to Josiah, they also have a very different understanding of time; on many occasions, teens would show up for an activity an hour late and think nothing of it.
However, the biggest thing that stuck out to Josiah was the view that Ukrainians have of Americans. Americans are considered very self-centered and xenophobic, and the Ukrainians both hate their arrogance and want to be like them at the same time. Their music and clothing designs are all in English, and currency exchanges are set up on every corner because their currency is based on the American dollar. Because of this, Josiah noticed how difficult it was to develop real relationships with them; after two months, he and Jeremy felt that they had barely scratched the surface in getting to know the teens. However, the Ukrainians accepted Pastor Priem as one of them, and Jeremy described it well in this way: “An American will never have an impact on Ukrainians until he decides to look at himself as Ukrainian.”
Eventually, July 17 rolled around, and it was time to leave Ukraine. When Jeremy and Josiah boarded the plane, their expectations had been met. Living and serving in another country was difficult, but so rewarding. God did an incredible work through them, and it was certainly an experience that they will never forget.
However, one expectation did not turn out the same for the two interns. Jeremy entered Ukraine expecting God to reveal His will and to solidify in his mind and heart his desire for missions, and He did so over the course of the internship. Jeremy has decided to start preparing for the future now with the hope of returning to Ukraine someday. He values the experience he has gained through the internship and the opportunity to witness firsthand what missionary life is like.
Josiah entered the internship with the same desire for God’s revelation in this area, but He provided it in a different way. Although he is certain that he is called to full-time ministry, Josiah is less confident now that the mission field is where God wants him to live out that calling. However, he recognizes the incredible opportunity he was given and appreciates the insight and experience he has gained through it, even in reference to serving in the United States.
Although both interns indicated several lessons God taught them throughout this experience, an overriding theme that seems to encompass much of what they learned is the importance of relationships in ministry. Josiah mentioned, first and foremost, how vital a thriving relationship with God is to the Christian worker. He saw this in Pastor Priem’s life, and his example of honesty in failure and choosing to live with a spirit of joy in the face of difficulty caused Josiah to say, “I want that in my life.”
Jeremy expounded more on the aspect of relationships with other people. He was reminded to see people as souls, especially lost people who have not heard the gospel and do not understand the goodness of God. However, Jeremy found that this extends to other Christians as well, as many Ukrainians are first-generation Christians who need to grow and be discipled.
But the greatest application that Josiah and Jeremy witnessed firsthand is that the gospel is cross-cultural. Although the Ukrainians sang different songs, spoke different words, and ate different food, Jeremy summed it up well: “Salvation is the same salvation. Testimonies are still testimonies. People are worshipping and growing just as we are. The Holy Spirit still works.”