LINCOLN (SNR) - Three 2011 graduates of Pius X High School in Lincoln went on a mission trip to Ukraine in May that bolstered their faith in unexpected ways.
Zach Birkel, Lily Kennett and Brett Jamrog signed up for one of the 15 summer mission trips organized by FOCUS (the Fellowship Of Catholic University Students). The three latched on to the Ukraine trip, a first for FOCUS.
"Lily heard about it from the website," said Birkel, son of Michelle and Paul Birkel of St. Peter Parish. "I looked into it and thought it would be a great experience working with kids in an orphanage."
All three were selected for the Ukraine mission trip, which required raising $2,500 each to cover expenses. The team totaled 15 students and four FOCUS missionaries, including Misio Wynar of Colorado, who has family in Ukraine, and his wife Mariana, who is Ukrainian by birth.
The mission trip was planned to include hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, sharing the journey – and their faith – with Ukrainian atheists who were about the same ages.
There is a rather substantial percentage of atheists in that part of the world, due to Soviet rule. With only one Catholic priest for approximately 800,000 people in the region, Christians had to practice their faith in secret…or not at all.
Alas, trip organizers were not able to interest any atheist youth into strapping on 30-pound backpacks for a three-day hike side-by-side with Catholics who were happy to talk about Jesus. However, several Catholic Ukrainian college students signed on, and the students enjoyed an interesting exchange of Catholic ideas that fueled each participant’s devotion.
"That was kind of a neat experience," Birkel said.
Each day, the group experienced Eastern-rite Divine Liturgy (Mass) and holy hours in beautiful, historic churches and monasteries scattered along the trail.
"The churches are so beautiful," said Jamrog, the son of Connie and Jeff Jamrog of St. Peter Parish. "You walk in and feel a real spiritual presence."
While slogging through cold, rainy weather, mud and other discomforts from site to site, the hike felt significantly like carrying their individual crosses.
"It got us out of our comfort zone," noted Kennett, who is the daughter of Tim and Stephanie Kennett of St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln.
She continued, "Being disconnected from technology and society, being in the mountains, you really get to experience the beauty of creation and the landscape and everything around you."
By the time the team headed back to the city of Lviv, the young people had thoroughly bonded. For the next six days, the U.S. students stayed at a monastery run by Polish religious, where they worked with kids aged about 3 to 8 years old.
"There are five orphanages in Lviv," Miss Kennett explained. "This was one of the nicer ones, conditions-wise."
With one worker for every 15 or 20 children, the orphanage is only able to provide minimal personal attention for each child. So the FOCUS team’s main purpose was to interact with the children, even though they knew little or no Ukrainian, and the children didn’t speak English.
This didn’t stop the team from developing connections with the kids.
"They would cling to you and follow you," Jamrog said. "I don’t know what it was — the trouble-makers always clung to me!"
"A lot of them do not have a father figure," Birkel said. "There were some children calling me ‘Dad.’"
By the end of the visit, Kennett resolved that someday she would adopt a child, whether from Ukraine or somewhere else in the world. And that’s just one way this mission trip impacted the three young adults.
"Learning more about my faith and how it works in different countries really struck me," said Birkel. "I always knew other countries have it more difficult. But being physically present and experiencing it is so much more impactful."
Jamrog said the trip enabled him to see how his Catholic faith affects himself and others.
"I want to make more of an impact to help others embrace their faith more," he said. "I’ve never felt this joyful, peaceful and happy in my life."
"I realized that I can be a light and share Jesus and show his love," Kennett said. "Going all the way to Ukraine taught me that I can do this in other countries, but there are people on our own campus and we need to share the light of Christ with everyone."
Now back in the states, the trio has found themselves eschewing technology and spending more time going to daily Mass and Adoration.
"In the U.S. there is a lot of distraction," Birkel said. "In the Ukraine, we couldn’t speak the language, they didn’t have all the technology, so it was more like ‘me and the Church.’ It was easier to go deep in thought and prayer."
Kennett laughed that she’s so unplugged these days, "My mom can’t even get a hold of me."
All three agreed that they would love to have this experience again.
"I think everyone should do a mission trip," Birkel said. "A lot of us say, ‘Oh, I don’t have time,’ but really we have plenty of time."
Sophia Werning also contributed to this story.