He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
1 John 5:19b
We know that when we see our brother, our sister, that person has been made to compel a love response and has been made in the image of the unseen God. Perhaps these features of the human design are the same thing.
There are still open sores on my body from Ukraine. Literally. I say this by way of preface to tell you coming out of the gate that I will not apologize for nor qualify anything that follows about my time there.
Thank you for paying so I could go. Thank you for praying so that I could step into the role of priest I am meant to be to the least and last. And thank you for praying for us, the Ukrainian and American saints who went to do the work of the Church and give ourselves bodily to the fatherless and motherless.
It was very hard.
I am thankful and heartbroken. I question God’s justice and I am convinced He is at work. I am angry. I saw beauty I couldn’t imagine and pain I will not forget.
There are many orphans of whom my heart says I saw God “lovely in faces and limbs not His.” And I’m going to write much more than this, but for today I will tell you about one.
Bogdana most likely met me in a hold-you-too-hard embrace when I first stepped down out of the van. But so many kids swarmed us like honeybees in that first twenty minutes, I do not remember her. For me, we met on my second day there at the summer camp where the orphans stay for the summer. I was drawn out, saying yes to too much. As I tried to get away for some time alone with God, children kept finding me everywhere, to draw on my arm, present me with lizards, or ask again for food, convinced that an American had to have something tasty on her person at all times. At last, after multiple extractions, some of which I regretted, I got alone and started walking the rutted dirt road that ran along the back of the camp.
I walked, under the tall pines, singing the only song I know that always serves to walk me to God’s arms, U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name. And she came. Bounding through the trees, leaping over turrets of root and grass like a wild thing. She wore the same red shirt all the orphans have, her bulbous knees and slender legs mooring out beneath it, like string tied to a balloon. Later, when she laid across me, conked out with heat and exhaustion during one of the concerts, I would see the many scrapes and open bites on them, the blue and yellow bruises blossoming beneath the skin at her ankles.
But on my walk she took my hand and demanded nothing, simply turning her head to the side, like a cat catching the trill of a nearby bird. We walked, and she listened to my foreign voice reaching out. I felt her watching my face as I sang.
When the song ended, she lets me to one of the small pentagons of blue and yellow benches with a pole in the middle and what may have once held tent panels above. She seated me in the primary viewing place. Bogdana leaped down from the bench, swinging herself around the pole in a feat of daring-do for me. She did this again and again. I cooed and repeated astonished amazement in appreciation for her show. A few times she faked as if she is going to leap, then stepped lightly off the edge of the bench like a pert bird. She grabbed my face, twenty minutes later when I got up to go, clung to my arms, patted my cheeks and called me Mama. Roughly she tried, when we stopped, to pull my face down into hers, so I was inches from her aquamarine eyes, electric in their capture of the world. She laughed at me when I pulled away, redirecting her arms into a bear hug, and holding her suspended, making me half human half jungle gym.
When she laughs it sounds empty, synthetic somehow, likes she has learned the tones, how and where they go, but she has no actual feeling in them. Just rote reaction, or imitation, or performance, who can tell which, but no genuine delight. Another American caught her attention and I watched her dark head as she darted away, ready for another play, another negotiation, another audience.
The next time I saw her, she and Deanna, who are thick as thieves and hit and hug each other about the same amount, stole my sunglasses (with my consent) from my head. They paraded me around the back of the buildings that serve as dorms. I am their willing captor for the jaunt until they tried to pull me through an opening in the chain link fence—a place where the kids go to smoke and do other things.
“Niet! Niet!” I shook my head and fake cry, a method of communication they often employ to sucker in the softie Americans like myself, even after we catch on. That I have given them back their own shtick proved hilarious, and they only pull harder, two young warhorses with all the strength needed to get a cannon on the battlefield. So I did the only thing left in my arsenal: I broke their grasp with a simultaneous twist of my wrists and fled. I knew they would follow.
I dashed inside a large pagoda near the cafeteria, walking the benches around its edge like a circus performer, in hopes they would imitate me. Soon we were in an improvised game of chase along the benches, and I pursued a smirking Deanna. Seeing where the attention has gone, Bogdana faked falling off the bench (faux injury for focus another common technique). Howling, she hid her face in her hands. It’s all show and we both knew it, though she’s smart enough not to break character and peek at me. I continued my journey her direction and stroked her head in passing anyways. A minute later they both chased me around the corner with the warped ping pong table.
We had a few more rounds of “hang on the American” as we waited for dinner, and then I extracted myself with promises to see them at the concert, escaping into “the office” (one of the few zealously guarded kid-free-zones) for some recovery of self.
The next day it rained. I stayed out under the Pagoda, joining Jill and an older boy in coloring there. The ping pong table formed our desk, and there are pencils and crayons, and plenty of free sheets as well as my coloring book. In time both Jill and he left, but the younger orphans, like sweet Kolya, all picked pages and go to work, so I happily stayed.
At first, Bogdana surveyed us like some predatory hawk, and shook her head no when I invited her to color. Then she grabbed the book, picked a page which I pulled for her, and settled in with crayons. She kept peeling them off their paper and then sliding the tubes back on. This activity not being diverting enough, Bogdana threw a colored pencil at another girl across the table, no provocation. I hailed a nearby Ukrainian, Irina, to translate, and set down the warning. I told her that if she threw a pencil again I would make her leave. Her hair was so tangled, I longed to run my fingers through it, but this action has been refused in the past so I resist the impulse. Bogdana gyrated at the edge of the pool table, a timorous beastie, pretending to shrug off my boundary. She returned to sorting and defrocking the crayons, refusing to look at anybody.
She lasted three minutes before throwing the second pencil.
I waved over Irina, and regretfully but firmly banished Bogdana. There’s a torrent of crocodile tears and pleading before she pushed and pulled in protest, but Irina got her away.
A few of the calmer girls exchanged brief remarks about her departure that I can’t understand. What I did catch is that they could care less about her absence. We kept coloring.
Ten minutes later, she and Irina returned. Bogdana’s face was wet with real tears, and she apologized, at Irina’s gentle prompting, first to me, then to the girls who she chucked the pencils at. I forgave her and invited her back, this time into the coveted spot right next to me, inside the corner. I pulled out her picture that I saved and she began again pressing colored wax to paper.
She pushed a crayon up a little out of its casing and laughed her mechanical laugh. I saw her amusement but failed to get the joke, as she held it up to me, laughing and laughing again. About twenty minutes later, after peeling one back for her, I get the punchline: the crayon is a penis.
One of our leaders, who works full time fighting against sex trafficking back in the US, had confided in me earlier that Bogdana is one of the girls that they suspect from her behaviors is currently sexually active. I take this as a confirmation. Is she twelve? Ten? Seven? She’s so small and developmentally so like a naughty three-year-old, I can’t tell. Of course, she has to laugh at it. How else can she shift the balance of power her own way, even for a moment?
Another orphan from her group calls to her. Bogdana doesn’t finish the picture, but turns the sheet into my custody, signing that she’ll be back for it later. The rain had cleared but it was still cold and the chill took more than my body. As I watched her walking away towards the woods, all I could think is, “Where are you being called away to now? Some out of the way place at the back of a building, some abandoned room where a grown man will make you touch him and pay you in cigarettes? You, my darling, my precious wolf with vivid blue eyes, my wild thing?”
I went inside and sat for a while, but I could not get warm.
I shared many more days and moments with Bogdana, but there is only one more I want to talk about.
The impossible morning.
The day after crayons, after our morning exercise, we were all waiting around to get breakfast. Bogdana pulled me and Jill into a bear hug proclaiming, “Babushka, babushka!” Jill is the leader of Bogdana’s group, and I am deeply honored to be included in this unsolicited salutation. I’m glad because while calling me Mama was a deliberately manipulative tactic, Grandmother is a more revered title in Ukrainian culture. When the nation lost a whole generation of men—fathers and grandfathers—in World War II, it was Babushka who stepped into the gap as the head of the household. It was Grandmother who raised up many daughters and sons of her daughters and sons. Manipulative or not, Babushka is a healthier moniker so I decided it was safe to reward it with some extended attention.
Bogdana was clearly sleepy, and since I felt tired myself, I sat down on the grass. I am still holding her hand, so I thought she might sit next to me or in my lap. Instead, Bogdana lay down, knees bent, with her head in my lap so that she can watch me from upside down. I stroked her head and feathered through her hair like my mother did and still does for me. Gently, I did it, so gently at times it tickled. I ran my fingers down the side of her face. Softly. And she began to mirror me, like an infant. Soft side stroke. Soft side stroke. Tap the nose. Tap the nose. Brush the hair away from the eyes. Brush the hair away.
We made silly faces at each other, and she gurgled involuntarily, with genuine surprise as I crossed my eyes at her. We both crossed our eyes and flared our tongues, and the little lion in my lap gazed and gazed and gazed into my face. In her micro-expressions, I could see the synapses, the fallen bridges reforming as she copied, imitated, and searched. I sang to God in my heart for this gift. I knew that we were re-writing her brain, maybe not for forever, but there in that moment.
The morning sun brandished our open faces. We looked. We stroked. Intimate and gentle and safe. This is priesthood. Despising any thoughts of what would cost me later, I stayed in that moment. I did not pull back. I was there when the fairy tale came true when my dear lion became a lamb.
Seven minutes later, Bogdana went to breakfast.
Eight days later I went back to America.
I had to come home, and leave her in that place. There’s a reason why I can’t just smile and tell you all the marvelous things God did. It’s not because He didn’t do them. It’s because I am grieving. I miss my wild girl, and I can’t believe I had to give her up. Even if I could hold her every day and she never changed, never grew or healed or became a “real girl,” to hold her would be enough.
As I was the arms of Christ bodily, so now I will trust her to the arms of the Heavenly Father who I have not seen, who I cannot see. Some rare days I will do this with gladness, and other days with sorrow, but mostly I do this because it is all I can do. I lay her in His arms, and I carry her with me, my wild one, Bogdana.
For more information about the ministry organization I served with loving orphans in Ukraine please visit Hope for Orphans. What you’ve just read is the kind of ministry they do year-round, so please pray for them, give to them, consider supporting them financially, or joining them yourself. The harvest is great but the laborers are few.