On the last Wednesday in Krivoy Rog, we were supposed to visit another village church.
But on Monday, Tanya informed us with a twinkle in her eye that the plans had changed.
"Please ... you must dress warmly," she said. "I will bring fur coats if you need them. Wear layers. We are going to be outside. With fire-y meat."
"You mean spicy?" I asked.
She shook her head. The translator tried again. "Meat on a fire."
"Yes!" Tanya nodded happily. "With the 3 criminals!"
Which of course, demands explanation.
The week before, on one of our treks to various villages, three men came along. Formerly violent, drug-dealing, gang-leading criminals. And by formerly, I mean a year ago for one, and 4 months ago for another. The other guy was somewhere in between the first and the second.
God had found them, which of course is a story all on its own, but it starts with a friend of theirs a couple of years ago, who broke into Pastor Gregory's home while he and his wife were there, and instead of screaming or running or fighting back, they prayed - right then and there - for God to bless the man that was attacking and robbing them. He describes the experience as somehow being hypnotized or made powerless by something he couldn't see, and it changed his life. He told others, whose lives also were profoundly impacted, and thus - Andrei, Max and Timor joined our team on a trek to a village church.
It was the first time they had ever done such a thing.
It was the first time they had ever met followers of Jesus from Canada.
At lunchtime, as they sat quietly at the table with village pastors and our team, I leaned forward and started talking with them, asking their story, drawing them into the conversation.
And by the end of the day, unbeknownst to us, Max was asking Tanya if it would be at all possible for the Canadian team to come to his home for a BBQ before we went home.
Apparently, he was nervous, this former criminal, at having us in his home. He kept calling Tanya to check his plans with her, making sure it would be OK, that we would enjoy ourselves.
That still makes me laugh, on a lot of levels.
At one point during the BBQ, I suggested that we take a picture with me "helping". That's me there, in the smoke. Andrei is on the left of the picture ... Timor and Max are on the right. Timor never ever stops laughing, and it is the most contagious laugh I have ever heard. Max just smiles shyly while telling me about his friends who come to this very home every week, so he can help them learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
We washed our hands over an old bathtub, and all crowded around a table in his living room. Remember Tanya's admonition to dress warmly? She was slightly mistaken there. I wore two shirts, two sweaters and two pairs of pants. And we wedged into a warm and cozy room, where each of sat slightly sideways, because there wasn't quite enough space for all of us around the table.
We ate. Oh, did we eat. We laughed. We talked. We laughed. We ate. Not just the BBQ'd meat and potatoes. But borscht, garlic-canned tomatoes, bread, cheese blinchikin, and fruit compote made with apples, cherries and two other fruits. All made and preserved by Max's mama, from Max's mama's garden.
After lunch, we each talked about our new friendships, and how meaningful they were to each of us. We prayed and sang together. Tanya and Jenya sang a song to our team.
Then we took the Lord's Supper - Communion - the Eucharist - depending on what you might know it as. A slice of bread, torn into pieces. A cup of compote passed around, for each to take a sip. They asked me to lead it, and I choked up, leading this Christian tradition that has been passed on for over 2000 years, around the world. Leading this symbol of our faith in a tiny living room with 3 criminals, some Ukrainian Christians and our group, in a country that I knew only as "part of the USSR" when I was a child.
I used to picture this black mass on the globe, where fearful, unknown things happened.
Now it is home to some of my dearest friends.
And at the end - in two shirts, two sweaters, and two pairs of pants - I learned a gypsy dance.
As we left, Max quietly passed a Bible into my hand, a gift to take home.
And I knew that there would never be words enough.
There never are.