Mariupol Twenty Years Ago

Me and my AIM team soon after arriving in Mariupol in May 2002.

Twenty years ago today, I first set foot in Mariupol, Ukraine.

I was nineteen. I was joined by my teammates Bobby and James. The three of us had flown into Kyiv the day before and met Tim Burow for the first time. That afternoon we took the overnight train to Donetsk and arrived in time to attend the chapel service for the Ukrainian Bible Institute. It was that day we met the Rogers and the Sneeds. It was that day I met Natasha Maliuga. I still remember sitting in the back of the room and listening to her translate for the first time.

After chapel we took a car to Mariupol. We met Mina, Elizabeth, and Alan for lunch at their apartment, then we took our bags to the apartment where we’d be living. The elevator wasn’t working, and so we made several trips to haul all our luggage up the eight floors to our new place. After we arrived, we learned the hot water wouldn’t be on for several weeks. (And later we learned that that was a lie.)

And so began my adventure in missions. Over the course of those first two years, I have a thousand memories from that city tied to a thousand physical locations. Moments of joy and heartbreak, adventure and boredom. There are parks and park benches with specific memories attached to them. In fact, so much of my Russian vocabulary is tied to locations around Mariupol. I remember exactly where I was when I first used the word можна all on my own. The words bucket, dentist, как называется?, dew drop, Lithuania, hose, pliers, beach, outside, and windows are just some of the words that are tied to specific geographical points in that city. I remember exactly where I was when I learned them, and who was with me when I did.

I tell people in Ukraine that Mariupol is my native Ukrainian city. I have swam in (and walked on!) the Azov Sea. I remember the smell of the Azovstal steel factory. I have been to performances in the drama theater. The soccer stadium, the basketball arena, the movie theaters, the celebrations on the square. For three years, Mariupol was my home.

Mariupol shaped my life in so many significant ways and it shaped the path my whole life has taken. It’s the place I fell in love with ministry and with Ukraine. A few weeks ago I met a Ukrainian refugee from Kramatorsk. When I told her how long I had lived in Ukraine and mentioned the years spent in Mariupol, she responded with, “Then you understand the pain we all feel.” Her recognition and inclusion of my own suffering was a special moment I hold in my heart.

Justus has been hearing about Mariupol his whole life. He’s also known so many people from there that it had almost become this mythical land of joy and wonder that we kept promising he would one day get to visit. I had in mind to make a family trip down there and celebrate this twenty-year milestone together with the church. I looked forward to introducing Justus to so many wonderful people and to show him the places that meant so much to me. Now these places will only exist in photographs and my memories.

I praise God that almost all those I know and love have made it safely out of Mariupol, but we still mourn the death of the city itself. I suppose it is a strange but significant consolation to know that the whole world mourns over the loss of Mariupol. This is not how I would have wanted Mariupol to be remembered, but I am thankful the whole world will remember it

I praise God for bringing me to Mariupol twenty years ago today. I praise him for what he’s done for me and for so many others through the work of His kingdom in that amazing city. 

Glory to the God of Ukraine.
Glory to the God of the heroes of faith of Mariupol.

After sharing this post on Facebook, a church member shared this photo of the building we first moved into.