Samuel Hughes joined the OM Ukraine team in January this year, after three short-term outreach visits during 2016 and 2017. Here he writes about his work with at risk children and the Crossroads church plant in the neighbourhood of Luzanovka in Odessa.
“I praise God that he brought me here to Ukraine. I love it here. It feels like home. But it’s also really challenging. Confronted by the brokenness and distress of the lives I encounter and their need for Jesus, combined with the constant and daily battle to understand and communicate in a language still very alien to me, often leaves me feeling physically and emotionally shattered. It is my genuine privilege and delight to serve these children. I know that Jesus wants me here. But following Jesus is really difficult.
Daily, I try to partner with Jesus and his church to minister to children who have been profoundly wounded and let down by the world, society and the adults in their lives. Their hearts have been so entwined and distorted by the lies their experiences and world have spoken over them, they lack the most basic of abilities. They don’t know how to give or receive love. They don’t dream for the future. They don’t respect. They don’t trust. They can’t exercise restraint, and they don’t recognise their immeasurable value and worth. The harsh reality of their everyday lives has produced children who are fractured, fragile and volatile. Like little walking explosives, they’re easily triggered, and a danger to themselves and those around them.
Let me tell you about a boy I know. Let’s call him James.
I first met James last year. He was nine years old. His mum had recently died, his father had left when he was younger, and he lived with a grandma who, we had good reason to believe, drinks. James’s childhood had been anything but a smooth ride, and his methods for coping were often distressing and disturbing.
One of my earliest memories of this boy was when, one Friday, he rocked up to youth group (still aged nine at this point) and slowly – knowingly – pulled back his sleeve to reveal an unforgettable horror. His arm was freshly carved, sliced and engraved; the worse instance of self-harm I’d seen. Angry lines and an unknown word were etched into skin; his arm still red and tender. My heart broke for this boy.
A few days later, I was playing badminton outside with the children. James suddenly tripped over and hurt his head,and the other children started laughing at him. I instinctively leaped over to defend and protect him from the taunts of the other children. I barely got close to him before he let out an unnatural scream. Overwhelmed by numerous emotions he didn’t understand and couldn’t control, he ran away, only to return with small sharp stone. He pulled back his sleeve and dealt with the situation in the only way he best knew how to. Right in front of me. I desperately begged him to give up the stone and to let me shield him from the other children. He did eventually give up the stone, but ran off, instead of letting me help him.
He’s still as unpredictable and inconsistent, as I anticipate his home life is. At times he is that sweet, kind and considerate boy who has been deeply wounded by life and is just desperately looking for affirmation that he is loved and accepted. And, at other times, he is the violent, risk-taking, self-destructive, violent mirror-image of those in his world who have let him down and failed to give him a hope and future. Granted, the self-harm appears to have stopped, but only to be replaced with a new smoking habit. The trajectory of his life is hugely concerning.
The following Sunday, James was like a completely different child. He came to church himself and was the sweetest, kindest, gentle boy you could imagine. He sang the songs, eagerly hugged the people he knew. And quietly sat through two sermons.
And then two days later, we found him playing with a cigarette lighter. I, perhaps rashly, snatched the lighter from him. To which his reaction was to scream again, only this time he picked up a much larger stone and chased one of the other missionaries, swearing at them threatening to kill them. The missionary he chased is probably one of the few people who genuinely loves him.
The first time I had to return to England and leave this boy was one of the most significant challenges I have faced.
A year on, he’s still here. God has given me some miraculous opportunities to minister to this boy and his family.
Sadly, this child is not just a special case, instead his life simply epitomises the lives of countless other children in this world, and many with whom we work in Ukraine.”