Why I’m Here

I’ve written quite a bit so far about my reflections on life in the Ukraine, but I’ve said little about what I’m here to do and my daily life here. Two years ago, I received a call from my long time friend Jeff Shelton who is the US director of a Christian university here in the Ukraine. It is a school associated with the Church of Christ, but it is much like Pepperdine in that its students come from a variety of Christian traditions and its students are not all Christians. That makes for a classroom environment that I very much enjoy and find stimulating. I told Jeff almost a decade ago about much I enjoyed the Wisdom Literature of the Bible based on a life changing class that I had at Princeton on the topic with Dr. Leon Seow. He remembered our conversation, and asked me to teach the same material here.

I initially agreed last year, but then I decided to resign my post at the church and teach summer school at Pepperdine. It just did not seem like the best time. But this year, God seemed to orchestrate events that made it impossible for me to say no. Pepperdine paid for me to come to Florence, but I still was going to need to raise funds to come to the Ukraine. But then I received the hotel consulting work from Starwood, and they paid for my ticket from London to the Ukraine. So I had no excuses, and God provided everything I needed to be here. I decided not to raise money but just to come on my own resources. I spend less here than I would in LA anyway. That turned out to be true. Very rarely do I spend over $5 for a meal, and I can buy a meal for myself and my translator for $10. My students are mostly poor, so they rarely are able to eat out in the city. I took them all to a restaurant today in the city for pizza, and 10 of us had 5 pizzas and drinks for $40. Even though this city is very cosmopolitan and fashionable, things are still much cheaper than in the US or western Europe.

The collge was established several years ago by more conservative members of the Churches of Christ, but most of the students and the workers there I’ve found to be more open minded and not too sectarian. They desire to create a university like Pepperdine, but they receive some pressure from some of their donors to only teach the Bible (don’t even get me started on that one). These students come to the college for four years to receive mostly training in Scripture and ministry, but the school is not accredited so they really have nothing more than just personal growth from the experience and some credibility that comes with the completion of a program. It kind of makes me sad because I see the great potential of some of these students, and I wish they could go to a university. Perhaps they will. WIth no offense to my wonderful and very intelligent Pepperdine students, I would say that my students on the whole here are more committed, more discplined, and in some cases even more intelligent than some of my students at a great university like Pepperdine. One student in my class who is 17 is an incredible thinker, and over half of my students made above a 95 on their exam today.

Most of all, they are grateful to have the opportunity to learn, and they beg me to keep the class going longer than 3 hours (that is unheard of at home). They are very funny, and they love to poke fun at me as well as to laugh at my jokes. None of them seem spoiled, none feel that they deserve something, and they are in good spirits when they come to class. I guess every teacher has their favorites, and three of my students are just absolutely fantastic. One is named Dima (I call him Demon), and he’s the son of the preacher here. He is a very trendy guy, wearing Diesel shirts and designer jeans, and he’s smart as a whip. He preaches some too, and he and I have become good friends because he speaks English. Another guy, the one who is 17, is probably my smartest student and an excellent thinker. Sasha is an orphan, and he has few clothes and few resources. He has worn the same shirt to class for four days in a row. Yet, he’s classy, dignified and a delight. I’m actually feeling a bit of a tug on my heart for him, so I am thinking of taking him to buy some clothes next week and maybe even supporting him a little every month. Maybe I’ll adopt him like Madonna. haha. And then another girl named Yaroslava is very beautiful, incredibly intelligent (she made 100 today), and has a quiet sweet demeanor. I took them all for pizza today then we took a long walk by the river Dnipor.

I’m also enjoying the administrators and faculty. I cannot read or speak Russian (well I;m working on it)so I am dependent on my translator Dennis. Dennis speaks almost perfect English, and so we also have become good buddies here. Another administrator is named Paul, and he graduated from Harding but is from here originally. Paul is very sharp, an excellent businness mind, and knows many of the same people as I do. I’m enjoying my time with him too.

Most of my days here are the same. I rise around 7 am at my flat and prepare for class which starts at 9:30 am. I take a train tram bus for a couple of miles to the college, and then I teach until 12:30 pm. Some days I eat with administrators, and other days I walk into the city and spend the day alone exploring the city and responding to emails at the Internet cafe. Most days I come to the mall here with a very contemporary Internet cafe, but some days I go to one in the ritzier part of town where this cool guy works who can speak English and who loves the gospel group Acappella. Yes, some one left the CD for him, and he plays it all the time in the cafe. The world is not only flat. So is the Church of Christ.

Yesterday I spent the whole afternoon exploring this beautiful city. I walked up the river to a great park and its island in the river called Monastic Island. It was developed by Byzantine monks, and it has a cute Byzantine chapel on the edge of the island. I spent the rest of the day sitting at at a bier garten in the park, reading a book, and then walking the 2 or 3 miles back home.

My flat is ok, but it’s not somewhere I like to spend much time. It’s a bit dark, and it has no internet connection or television. So I usually just go home to sleep or occassionally watch a DVD on my computer. It’s a wonderful way to spend a few days after an incredibly crazy semester in which I had no time for myself. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I also teach another two older students from 6 – 9 pm. So I am working, but just at a much more casual pace and with material that is new and stimulating for me and I hope for my students. The impression I get is that they are excited to have a younger teacher who is not as stuffy as some, and it seems they are enjoying the material as much as I am.

In some ways, it feels that I’ve been here for a month. The first few days were a challenge. But I’m learning to love it, and in fact, it scares me that I’m loving it too much. I feel appreciated and loved, and I’m enjoying the relaxed pace and the time to think, walk, read and just “be”. I have a week left. I miss LA, I miss my friends, but really … life doesn’t get much better. I’m glad I came.

Pictured above: My “flat” on Lenin Street (at the corner of Karl Marx Blvd.), the college building, and my morning students.


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