Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body. (Hebrews 13:3)
It is amazing to me, when I stop long enough to think about it, that we can live in a world with more than seven billion people and yet live as though our day to day lives are the only thing, or the only thing of any significance, really happening. We know that there are individuals and families in every corner of the earth living and working and often struggling for their survival, but we know it as we know history-facts that have very little impact on us and that we can do nothing to change. We are so busy fighting our own battles and maintaining our own life balance that we willingly remain detached from anything that may require deeper thought or unexpected effort. When I read the words of the verse above, I wonder if it was with these thoughts in mind that the instruction is given: “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” The author here reminds his readers that they need to allow the struggles of others to compel them to action as though they themselves were bound. These very strong words placed the responsibility for brothers and sisters who needed help squarely on the shoulders of those so consumed with their own lives that they have missed the greater need. When I reflect on our recent trip to support and encourage the military families of Ukraine, it is this verse and these truths that frame my thoughts.
Last year at the end of our first trip to Ukraine I wrote on the great need that exists and attempted to support that need with a review of recent history. I don’t want to cover the same things again, but so much of what has happened and is happening there needs to be repeated. In 2014 a series of events brought about a revolution in the country when those loyal to Russia were driven out of office by a nation of citizens demanding that they hang on to their independence. (Reading about the events that brought this revolution to pass and the actions of common people against and oppressive government causes one to reflect on the early days of our own American revolution.) This revolution served as a catalyst for actions by the nation of Russia who moved into the Donbass region of Ukraine and ceded the Crimean Peninsula. Russia then moved the border between their countries west effectively taking sovereign Ukrainian land. In response to this movement a citizen army gathered whatever weapons they could get a hold of, many just shotguns used for hunting, and moved as quickly as they could to the front. Without food or medical supplies or much in the way of basic military equipment they fought against Russia and held the line with many incredible acts of heroism to numerous to convey in the space that I have here. The embers of freedom in my heart are stoked just reading some of these stories. The war, however, is hardly over. Since it began more than 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed with several killed and even more injured in fighting just this last week. Since the border has been moved, many families who once lived in Ukraine now live in Russia dividing families in a way similar to what we have seen in North Korea or the former East Germany. The human toll has been incredible and, in terms of actual numbers, is largely unknown. How this will all end is still not clear and it looks like it will continue to get worse before it gets better. I take the time to remind you of this because so much of what is happening is largely unknown in the west. I could say much more here but one statement by a solider that we met sums it up. Before we left, he said this:
“Remind those in your country of all that is happening here. We are not in a border dispute. We are in a war.”
The need is great and continues to grow, but there are many working to provide help and hope. As citizen soldiers moved to confront a centuries old enemy, others filled the void at home and in many ways on the front. The first chaplains who moved to assist the soldiers were local church pastors taking supplies to their church members at the front. This grew into a corps of volunteer chaplains who pastor churches while taking time to support the soldiers and their families. Many of those who are fighting have been fighting since the beginning and it is the churches who have worked to support, encourage and equip them to remain strong and resilient. In the last few years several Christian organizations have also come to provide support. Our trip both this year and last was in partnership with Cru Military who have teams both in the United States and around the world. We worked with the U.S. and Ukrainian teams to connect with the families that we have been able to help and there are many organizations working to do the same. While the need is incredible, the people of God are working to bring both spiritual and physical help to “Those in bonds as bound with them.” When I have been asked why Mighty Oaks would work with military families in other countries I have to respond with, “How can we not?” Our priority will always be the United States Military, but as we have opportunity to share what we have learned about being spiritually resilient with those around the world, we have an obligation to do so.
It has taken me quite a few words to get here, but this is probably, at least to me, the most amazing part of this whole process. When I first started working with veterans I often had doubts about my own equipping. I know that God is the God of everyone, but I would question whether veterans would allow him to work in their lives the way others have. I would wonder if the war experience and the culture of the military would make it difficult to translate what it is to have hope and direction through Christ. While we do work very hard to provide context for those who have been in the military, what I have learned is that, on the inside, we are all just people. We all want hope and direction and authentic connection with others who are moving forward in their own lives. When we first came to Ukraine, some of my old doubts began to creep in. Not only are we dealing with the military culture but with a national and religious culture very different from our own. What I have learned, or re-learned though is this; we are all just people on the inside in need of hope, direction and authentic relationships.
This year, Branden and Jeanette Kunath opened by sharing their personal story and demonstrating the amazing truth that personal transparency tears down walls that have been built strong and high! We then taught many of the same lessons we teach in our programs and even broke up into discussion groups after each class. Even though this is a culture that pushes back on open conversation, the folks in those groups opened up immediately. One day it was time for me to stop the groups so that we could move on to the next thing, but as I looked across the room I saw ladies sharing and crying and men leaning in so they could hear each other talk. I let the groups go almost an hour long and only stopped them because we were out of time. Over the few days that we were with these wonderful families we spent many hours talking, much of it through Google Translate by the way, and developing deep relationships with folks that we met only a few days earlier. Military culture crosses other cultural bounds but transparency and connection crosses them all! As the camp came to a close, many tears were shed as we exchanged gifts and said our goodbyes. God will work if only we will let Him use the stories of our lives to connect with others.
One of the highlights of this time was re-connecting with families from last year. Seeing couples that one year ago did not know anything about God other than the religion of the Orthodox Church were now giving testimony of their relationship with Christ and his work in their lives. The church that hosts this family camp in partnership with Cru Military has been working to disciple and equip these families and their growth has been amazing! We had the opportunity after the family camp to travel to the city of Mykolaiv where this church serves military families and see what changed lives and changed eternities really looks like. We even worshiped together on Sunday where I had the opportunity to speak on the work of the Holy Spirit. It is difficult to describe the feeling of singing and praying and preaching in a room of mixed culture and language knowing that it is a relationship with Christ that unites us. We really are all the same.
A world where every Warrior and family has access to Christ-centered resiliency and recovery programs that restore their hope and create a new life purpose.
This is the vision statement of The Mighty Oaks Foundation and one that we, at least in a small way, are working to fulfill. As an organization we are committed to serving the service members and families of the United States Military. It is a call to serve those in our country that birthed Mighty Oaks and the one that will carry us forward. It is truly amazing, however, to know that when we take the lessons that God has taught us to effectively serve our own nations warriors, that we can provide hope, healing and direction to the warriors of others. God’s principles of spiritual growth and resiliency are not contained with the borders of one country and we have an incredible opportunity to share these principles with others who serve. I am grateful to be a part of an organization that understands the Great Commission of Christ to take the good news of a relationship with Him to every corner of the globe. We have the truth. What an honor to take that truth to military families around the world!