Speeding down the highway on their way to the airport, seven men contemplated the day’s Gospel Reading from Matthew 9:27-35, which retold how two blind men called out to Christ for mercy, how He healed them, and proceeded to travel to all the nearby cities and villages to minister to the people. This small group of men heard Christ’s call and were now themselves traveling to minister to people in need.
On this late Sunday night, the 8th of August, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, having months earlier begun preparations, now led a group of Seminarians who comprised this year’s Mission Trip to Ukraine.
Joining His Eminence were seminarians from the St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary Subdeacon Pavlo Vysotskyi, Reader Andrii Vatrych, Reader Maksym Zhuravchyk, Seminarian Andrii Akulenko, and Seminarian Mykola Stefanyk, along with guest, Very Rev. Fr. Volodymyr Muzychka, pastor of St. Volodymyr Cathedral, New York, NY.
Catching a late-night flight, the Mission Team members spent the following 11 hours in the air flying over the Atlantic on their way to bring happiness, hope and love to the orphans in Znamyanka. Even though they were tired, they found it difficult to sleep due to the anticipation and excitement as they embarked on their long-awaited journey of joy.
Preparations were months in the making as the seminarians worked hard fundraising to offset the costs of the trip. Having sold out of their recorded Nativity CD, they began to bake Paska Bread for people to have blessed on Pascha. Realizing that every parish needs prosphora, they began baking and selling the small loaves of leavened bread to be used during Divine Liturgy. They worked hard, staying up all night baking, packaging, and shipping the bread, while continuing their studies, and participating in daily services.
Their excitement was palpable as the plane finally landed in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The team disembarked, gathered their luggage, and headed off to another mode of transportation. Having flown through the skies, they now embarked on a lengthy land journey via train.
For most of the Mission Team members, this would be their first time visiting the Znamyanka Orphanage. As they sped past villages and across the vast plains, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, took a moment to remind them of the importance of this trip.
This was far from a vacation. They were traveling on a mission from God. “The Lord instructed us all to care for our neighbors; to spread love and mercy; to feed, cloth, and visit the ill… knowing full well that when we do this, especially for those who are the most helpless and innocent of society, we do this for God,” stated His Eminence. The boys sat up straighter in their seats, realizing the magnitude of the responsibility that lay before them. These children were isolated, living in a small village, and the Mission Team brought the world to them.
Over the years the orphans were visited once or twice each year by groups comprised of clergy, seminarians, and laity of the UOC of the USA. The children knew many of the team members by name, as they returned from year to year bringing with them supplies, joy and laughter.
The children living in the Znamyanka Orphanage, which is supported by the Church, are some of the most severely disabled (physically and/or mentally) orphans in Ukraine. While many traverse the orphanage grounds in wheelchairs, others are bedbound, waiting for someone to come and visit them, hold their hand, and talk with them.
During these much-awaited mission trips, His Eminence and the team bring with them a sense of peace, as the days start and end with group prayer. Archbishop Daniel blesses the children, stopping by each bed, giving each child importance, and asking for God’s mercy upon them. The members of the team take time to feed the children, play with them, read together, and hold the youngsters who crave the human touch.
As the team members excitedly bounced along the backroads, crammed now in a van for their final leg of the journey, the children of the orphanage eagerly hung around the doorway, popping in and out, awaiting to see the van approach. With shrieks of joy and laughter, the little ones bounced up and down announcing the arrival of the Mission Team.
“Vladyka! Seminarians!” they screamed as they ran out and encircled the van. The tired team members forgot their weariness, as they exited the van and found themselves surrounded by little round faces filled with joy, and dozens of little hands reaching out for hugs. Dropping their bags, and forgetting about their luggage, the young men immediately bent down and filled their arms with happy squirming children who clung to their necks and pulled on their noses. With arms filled with love, the team made its way inside the orphanage, where they will spend the next 10 days teaching about Christ, praying with the children, giving them comfort, love, and attention, and thereby, changing this world for the better, one child at a time.