East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1993, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Woman With a Mission
Cheryl Warner shares experience and advice from Ukraine

How has life in Odessa been a challenge to you?
I first came to Odessa in the summer of 1991. We planned to be here for the summer, and then move in for good the next summer. I felt well prepared, with a master of arts in missions, four years of experience traveling back and forth between Western and Eastern Europe, an over-achiever's track record, and a sharp husband who already knew the ropes. How could I fail?

I fell flat on my face. And it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I couldn't handle the heat, living conditions, food, dirt, housecleaning, shopping, walking, and--the topper--a tough pregnancy. I was sick, angry, and determined to fulfill my duty to God and the U.S.S.R., no matter how miserable it made me.

I learned that God wants me to be obedient to His call, and He wants me to have joy in serving Him. The only way I could do both was to rely completely on Him.

What has been your greatest source of encouragement when things have gotten tough?
Scripture has spoken very meaningfully to me during some particularly rough patches. "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." (Psalm 73:26). God has also sent special "ministering angels" to me who brought just the right help at the right time. Once it was a girl who volunteered to hand wash our laundry before we had a washing machine. Another time a stranger in a Kiev airport, who turned out to be another missionary, helped me and my little ones during our flight and then got us on a train in Budapest.

What do women in ministry here struggle with most?
On the physical level, women here, both nationals and the rest of us, are just plain tired. The workload is immense. Simple tasks take much longer to complete here. If I can get three meals on the table and have a clean kitchen by 10 p.m., I've had a successful day. It takes time to peel potatoes and carrots, cut up and grind meat for hamburger, clean chickens, boil milk and water, and hunt for new recipes using cabbage.

In addition to dealing with fatigue, living here is an emotional roller coaster. Small victories and insignificant disappointments alike set off major fireworks, for good or bad. A routine trip to the market can leave one feeling exhilarated ("I found decent laundry detergent today!") or depressed ("I wouldn't mind having less mud, more courtesy, and meat that hasn't been handled by the general public"). When it takes so much energy just to live and maintain a household, there's not much left for family relationships, friendships, and ministry.

Then add the handicap of being a novice in the language. A limited ability to communicate limits everything--the depth of relationships with nationals, the ability to get simple things done, and the amount of independence we have. Many new missionaries here go nuts over having to depend on other people for help because people tend to be incredibly unreliable. Nationals don't like to say no, so they are quick to make promises they can't keep. Westerners like to get things done quickly, know what they can count on, and be in charge of their own affairs. It's a real cultural clash, undoubtedly frustrating on both sides.

Another cultural tension is between Russian communal thinking and Western independence. Russians not only feel it is their right to tell you what to do (or what you're doing wrong)--it is their responsibility. We don't like people telling us our children aren't dressed warmly enough or shouldn't suck their thumbs or shouldn't drink cold water.

How has your response to Odessa been different from your husband's?
We're both overloaded, but in different ways. Charley does a great job of teaching at the seminary, interpreting for visitors, analyzing the changing scene, and helping the rest of us adjust. A lot of people appreciate him and need him. He's stretched, but it's satisfying. In contrast, my day is spent changing diapers, wiping noses, spanking bottoms, and having my grammatical mistakes in Russian corrected. If my identity is wrapped up in what I achieve in a day, I'm left feeling a bit unappreciated. I am a typical mother of small children, experiencing predictable frustrations. They become amplified by the additional complications of living here. Now I'm working more on who I am than on what I do. Two books that helped me put some of these issues in perspective are Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome by Kent and Barbara Hughes (Tyndale, 1988) and These Strange Ashes by Elisabeth Elliot (Harper & Row, 1975).

Are you treated differently than Christian women native to Odessa?
Definitely. In the church, many people are frankly a bit afraid of us. They're afraid we might have liberal Western ideas, mess up their programs, and look down on their lifestyle. That's threatening. Behind the Iron Curtain, at least they were safe from intrusion. On the other hand, many people, especially unbelievers, are extremely curious about us and can't figure out why on earth we would choose to live here, when so many people emigrate to America. Because we are rich by comparison, we are seen as vehicles to help them get things. Sadly, that often goes for believers, too.

What has been the biggest surprise for you? Did you have any misconceptions about life here or your assignment?
During my first visit to the Soviet Union in 1988, I thought I was visiting a great superpower, but I found myself in a Third World country. I still don't like the general state of disrepair and inefficiency, but I'm getting used to it. Now I'm surprised that things which frustrated me a year ago don't bother me so much now. If I go to take a shower and there's no hot water, it's not a crisis.

Based on your experiences, what advice would you give to women preparing to move here?

  1. Make a trip first if at all possible, and stay with ordinary people in ordinary homes. It will help you plan what to bring. After our disastrous summer, we figured we needed a decent place to live, a car, and a house helper to survive. Someone else's list would be different. For someone with young children or a busy work week outside the home, my advice is to hire a helper and don't feel guilty about it. Women here have built-in help to run the household_grandmothers often live in the same apartment or close by. That includes child care, shopping, cooking, cleaning, canning, etc.

  3. Despite overblown news reports in the West, there really is plenty to eat here. But it's wise to bring certain food items that make meals more nutritious, easier to prepare, and more familiar (e.g. tuna, stock cubes for soup, peanut butter, and canned vegetables). There are more Western products in the stores and markets all the time. Find out what you can get in the city where you're going.

  5. Once you're here, take regular vacations. We find that we just need to get away more often. Someone here recently said the thing that gets to his family is that there's no relief. There's no McDonald's to drive through, no pizza to order, no nursery at church. We like to go to the beach and let the sun soak away some of the pressure, even it we can't swim in the contaminated sea.

  7. Make a commitment to learn the language, no matter how painful it might be. No one wants to take the time to learn the language and study the culture because ministry needs seem so urgent. But we will have a deeper and longer-lasting impact by taking the time to become equipped first. And in the final analysis, when you pour your life into something this demanding, it's worth giving it your best shot.
Cheryl Warner and her husband, Charles, serve as regional associates for Central and Eastern Europe with Barnabas International. Charles also teaches at the Odessa Theological Seminary (Ukraine). They live in Odessa with their two daughters, ages 3 and 1.

Cheryl Warner, "Woman With a Mission," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 1 (Summer 1993), 8-9.

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1993 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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