Collaboration and communion are part of the vision of the Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great, an international order of Eastern Catholic women consecrated to God. Our communion with each other and with our church is a reflection of our life in the Trinity, which is diverse in its unity.
I recently experienced this collaboration and communion and its effects on our ministry on our latest mission trip to Ukraine. Annually for the past five years. Sister Joann and I have collaborated with our sisters and friends in Ukraine to coordinate English catechetical camps for the children in different regions of western and eastern Ukraine.
While we were there, we also visited orphanages, psychiatric institutions, a halfway house and other organizations, to bring humanitarian aid to orphans and the needy of Ukraine.
Our Basilian Volunteers program has grown over the years. This year's Basilian mission trip included the largest number of volunteers ever. The 16 volunteers were diverse, coming from various parts of the USA: all ages, young and mature adults, married couples and single persons; all with different talents, personalities and life experiences; all total strangers gathered in God's name to serve the needy.
Busy with the organizational work of managing the group's transportation, room and board, testing and grouping for English proficiency, and scheduling team teaching, I was exhausted by the second week, much less the third week, and I had sprained my knee two days before we left for Ukraine!
Unlike Germany, Ukraine's national gift is not efficiency — rather it is art, music and beauty — so there were a few "bumps" in my planning. We had been promised a van that could accommodate 12 people plus a stool for one person, with plenty of space for some 28 pieces of luggage. But on the day of our journey to the next camp, a 10-passenger van arrived, with a driver looking surprised at all the luggage. It all worked out eventually when he called for another 10-seater van.
But reflecting back on our whole experience, I now see God's hand in every step of the whole mission. Where I fumbled and failed to foresee problems or needs, someone else on the team pitched in. When frustration might have set in, someone came up with welcome comic relief or a sign of affection.
Despite the inconveniences of sharing rooms, different tastes in cuisine, different personalities and behaviors, the volunteers bonded not only with the children but also with each other. Zoryanna, the director of the first retreat center, was so anxious that we have enough to eat, she would usually empty the homestyle platters onto people's dishes and say: "Eat, eat." One day when she came late, everyone piled her dish with all the leftovers. Everyone had a good laugh — even Zoryanna.
We built community and friendship while learning, having fun, playing games, praying (in addition to our morning and evening prayers, we had Divine Liturgy in English each day, offered for our donors), and sharing fellowship. It truly was a grace-filled time in building up the kingdom of God.
One of my local coordinators who runs the retreat house camps later wrote: "These days we have another camp where there are a lot of children from your camp. They remember all the songs, all the prayers!!! We are so happy! They ask when will you come again! They miss you! We do too! Hope to see you soon!"
Another coordinator wrote: "Thank you very much to our Basilian sisters from America and volunteers ... Your presence was an incredible experience for the children: they could communicate with you in English and learn some American culture. The most inspirational thing for the children was your volunteering. You came for free, taught for free and spent your time with them. This example is most memorable to them and it impressed them."
The one emotion that prevailed over the exhaustion throughout was gratitude. Gratitude to all our benefactors who donated toward this work, gratitude to the volunteers who sacrificed their time and talents (besides paying for their own airfare), gratitude for the work of my local coordinators who arranged the sites and provided for our needs, gratitude to the children who enthusiastically embraced us and our teaching, gratitude for the people who cared for the orphans and the disabled that we visited, and gratitude to God for a safe trip.
St. Basil, the founder of monasticism, said: "Come spread your wealth around; be generous; give splendidly to those in need." All of us were generous with our time, talent and resources; we gave generously but we reaped a hundredfold in return.
One of the volunteers reflected:
Our recent mission to Ukraine was one of the most meaningful and spiritually enriching experiences in our lives ... The beauty and splendor of the country provided a magnificent backdrop to our primary mission, namely to help our youth in Ukraine learn more about and become more comfortable with the English language, as well as to provide love and companionship to orphans and the needy. We accomplished that mission, and feel truly blessed to have been part of this significant journey. It was an enlightening, rewarding and inspiring trip.Basilian Sr. Ann Laszok visits a bedridden child in the Bukovo Psychiatric Institution in Drohobych, Ukraine. (Dennis Drost)
For me, this experience was vital, fun, and long lasting ... ! Vital because as Americans, Ukrainian Catholics, and adults, we were role models and example setters. Fun because in addition to the task we were undertaking, we had loads of laughs, sang plenty of songs, and ultimately bonded deeply in ways that don't happen in just serious situations ... and the more fun we had, the more, I believe was internalized of what we were there for! And finally, long lasting in the sense that even after we left, relationships had been initiated and memories had been formed that transcend time/space and will last forever.
I was especially touched by the maturity of some of the children who returned for the second or third year of English camp. One of the little boys who really struggled last year in reading in the elementary group came back this year and proudly passed into an intermediate group. He spoke English well and helped the newcomers understand what we were teaching or saying. He told me he worked especially hard during the year to improve his English so he could speak to us this year.
The relationships we developed and the beautiful memories definitely inspired me to continue our ministry and collaboration with Ukraine. My heart soars when I remember how joyfully we sang the Divine Liturgy in English.
Truly, everyone was thankful for the experience, grateful for the wonderful hospitality and blessed in serving Christ. Collaboration with the local coordinators and our volunteers proved to be a real communion in the Spirit.
[Ann Laszok is a Sister of St. Basil from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. She is director of religious education of the Eparchy of St. Josaphat in Parma, a member of the Patriarchal Catechetical Commission of Ukraine, and provincial councillor of her community.]