A little over a year ago, I was packing to return to the United States after living in Ukraine for two years. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long since I was frantically filling my suitcases and trying to wedge in last-minute gifts from my Ukrainian friends and neighbors, including a large wooden mace and multiple bottles of flavored vodka.
I had come to Ukraine to teach English as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. I spent two years living in a small town called Bratslav, teaching English to fifth- through 11th-graders and working on grants and other projects with the community. When I came home, my gifts and souvenirs filled an entire room. I made Ukrainian dumplings and borscht for my welcome-back party.
Now that I’m in the U.S. again, I’m always excited to meet people who have a connection to my former home. A few weeks ago, I was working on a story about medical translators for the Spanish radio program "Radio Adelante." When I mentioned that learning Ukrainian had taken a toll on my Spanish, I was told that there was a Ukrainian community not far from Columbia, in Sedalia. I decided to go visit.
After calling all around town, I finally tracked down a member of a large Ukrainian congregation, the Word of Life Evangelical Christian Church. When I arrived in the parking lot and saw women getting out of their cars wearing head scarves and pointy stiletto shoes – a footwear preference even on the bumpy, unpaved roads of Bratslav – I felt oddly at home.
The pastor greeted me in Russian; I responded in Ukrainian. The confusing mix of languages was as familiar to me as the fashion statements. Both Russian and Ukrainian are spoken in Ukraine — generally the former in the east, the latter in the west. A mix was the norm in my town in central Ukraine.
Although many in the congregation were first-generation Ukrainians and Russians, I noticed the younger generation favored speaking English. I had always suspected that if I were to watch a movie of my time in Ukraine, with English subtitles, I would see my time there in a whole new light. The young people at the church looked and dressed very much like my former students: I wondered if the whispered conversations I heard during the service were anything like the conversations my students had between classes.
While speaking to the congregants, I learned a lot I hadn’t previously known about Ukraine. For instance, I had assumed that Pentecostal churches had come to Ukraine after the 1991 independence, with the influx of other missionaries. But many people told me their families had attended Pentecostal churches for generations, just as many other Ukrainians quietly attended Orthodox and Catholic churches under the Soviet regime.
Several members of the congregation spoke to me about how the church is their link to their homeland, and how the rural farming country in Missouri reminds them of the Ukrainian countryside. I see their point: After both of my visits to Sedalia, I felt as if I had spent the day in a foreign country.
In the Peace Corps, there are three main goals. The first and second goals of Peace Corps service are helping a community and promoting better understanding of America there. The third is to come home and promote better understanding of that community. Now that I’m home, I find that reminders of Ukraine and that goal are never far away, no matter how unlikely the place.