I took my second trip to Ukraine in October 1997, fulfilling a promise I made to myself the year before: to return with surgical supplies for my new found Ukrainian friends who are ophthalmologists in Bela Tserkva (a city in the Kyiv region of central Ukraine). I arrived with four 70 pound bags of eye supplies, ready to pick up my professional relationships where they left off a year earlier. My mission would resume on Monday morning, but not before spending Sunday with local members of the church of Christ. Harold Shank, then minister of the Highland Street church of Christ in Memphis, rose to speak. At his side was a modestly dressed, pleasant-appearing Ukrainian woman who translated with a confident and firm voice. Her name was Galina.
Numerous pre-trip e-mails had introduced Galina and told of her assistance translating for prior groups. The e-mails also mentioned individual Bible studies with her and her interest in becoming a Christian. Little did I know how God’s plan for this Ukrainian woman would impact me and so many others.
The worship service concluded, and in the ensuing fellowship, I was approached by Galina. Her first words to me were, “So you are the eye doctor?” a phrase with which she still playfully greets me at the beginning of each of my visits. The day’s activities continued into the evening and my thoughts began to turn to my hospital visit on Monday morning. As I inquired, it seemed no specific plans had been made for me in regard to my translator. I was frustrated at the lack of a clear plan. I shared my frustration with my brother Gerald, who immediately put the situation into perspective. He said, “Get Galina to translate for you and make your own plans.” I still thank him for that advice. We then arranged for Galina to translate for me and to have the hospital send an ambulance to retrieve me and my four suitcases of supplies.
On Monday morning quite a commotion was caused when the ambulance arrived; it was an old VW bus with an army cot in the back. And what a sight it was: an American man, a Ukrainian woman, and four suitcases piled into the back of the ambulance. So began my experiences with Galina as my translator, visiting hospitals and children’s homes and encouraging the local Christians. Each day presented a new encounter with new people. And, as each day passed, a friendship was being formed between Galina and me as we walked from place to place. As the walks became longer, so did the talks. No matter how many questions I asked or how gently I probed, it was obvious Galina was a very private person who was struggling with the current circumstances in her life. She offered few details about her two children or her living situation. I became aware of how many short-term missionary groups she had assisted and how many of those who had promised to stay in touch were never heard from again. That made her wonder if their promise of prayers for her were also empty.
Let me give you some background as to how Galina came to work with our particular group. Betty Dollar is someone I first met when I was in medical school in Memphis and leading singing at the Union Avenue church of Christ. She was the church secretary at the time and went on to sell real estate. She ultimately made the decision to move to Bela Tserkva, Ukraine. Soon after her arrival, she found herself on a crowded local bus. She missed her stop, and her pleas for help in Ukrainian went unaided until she exited at the next stop. She was approached by a kind woman asking in English if Betty needed help. The woman was Galina. The encounter led to an invitation to Betty’s flat that same evening for a women’s devotional. Galina came to the devotional, translated for Betty, and a loving friendship was born.
Each group of Americans who visited Betty was exposed to her friendship with Galina, and Galina was always available to assist with translation. As part of one such group I met Galina. My experience with short-term mission efforts was minimal as I was still trying to wrap my head around the great humanitarian and spiritual needs of those in Ukraine.
In 1996, I was invited to be a part of a multi-specialty medical group that was to lecture in the Kyiv region of Ukraine. Never having traveled abroad, I was both anxious and excited about the prospects of visiting a former Soviet Union country. Although I had heard of Ukraine, I had to consult a globe to find the location of the country. The trip was more than I expected. Yes, there were the expected culture shock issues: different language, customs, traditions, food, history, architecture and transportation. What I did not expect were the significant struggles of a newly independent Ukraine with regard to socioeconomic, political and religious transformation. As the lone ophthalmologist with the group, I was afforded the opportunity to interact with local eye surgeons. I found them quite knowledgeable as to the latest trends in our field but at least two decades behind in technology. Quick professional bonds were formed that through the years would grow into warm friendships. I left Ukraine in 1996 with promises to my Ukrainian colleagues and to myself to return and assist my new friends in their quest to advance their surgical skills with the latest technology and techniques. Everything accomplished in that one week trip was done through translators: a new adventure in itself as I learned to communicate with fewer words, smaller words, and more concise thoughts. I developed a rhythm in all the translated exchanges.
In the fall of 1997 God winked and Galina and I worked together for the first time. As our plane lifted off from Borispil Airport in Kyiv, I made another promise, a promise that I would be different from all the others. I would indeed stay in touch with Galina, pray for her, her family, and the small church in Bela Tserkva. The plan was simple. Each Tuesday Galina would translate for Betty’s ladies’ devotional and I would send a note of encouragement to Galina via e-mail to Betty’s computer. The notes were a combination of items from church bulletins, sermon quips, and occasionally something original. It was not so much the content of the notes that was important; it was the consistency. Each week there was a note telling Galina that she was not forgotten, encouraging her to continue her trust and faith in God. Not being computer-savvy in 1997, my notes were handwritten and had to be transcribed by one of two people at my office. The fall of 1998 – 52 notes later – I returned to Ukraine and once again the full schedule afforded time for talks with Galina. She quizzed me as to why I had written all those notes. My response was in the form of “The Starfish Story” – that I was trying to make a difference in just one person. Some moments you never forget. Galina stopped our walk, looked at me, and told me this had become her favorite story since she translated it for Harold Shank.
God continued to work in Galina’s life. She and her children were able to move to Kyiv where she initially worked with Canadian missionaries and continued to study and seek God’s will. On June 6, 1999, I was given the honor to escort Galina into the Dneiper River where I baptized her and she became my sister in Christ. She continues to work with the Lord’s church while translating for numerous short-term mission and medical teams that visit Ukraine. Galina is currently the Ukrainian liaison for the Christian Relief Fund and also serves as the coordinator for SeaStar Kids. Both organizations assist with underprivileged children in Ukrainian churches of Christ. Her responsibilities with these organizations allow her to interact with over 200 children and their families, evaluating their needs, providing financial aid, organizing camps and activities. More importantly, Galina shares with these families the love God has shown for her. She is their friend, laughing when they laugh, crying when they cry, providing encouragement and constantly reminding them of God’s love. Galina sees through Ukrainian eyes the sorrows and struggles of this world as they impact these Ukrainian children and their families. Although the task of making a difference looks overwhelming, even impossible, Galina is making a difference one child at a time.
It is amazing how God connects the dots. Who would have thought of connecting a retired church secretary/real estate agent turned missionary, a Ukrainian translator struggling with life, and an American ophthalmologist who kept his promise?