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The Gulf Between East & West


By Henri J.M. Nouwen | May 1994
The Rev. Henri J.M. Nouwen is a priest-in-residence at Daybreak in Toronto (a Catholic/ecumenical l'Arche community serving people with mental handicaps), a writer and lecturer, and a Contribut­ing Editor of the NOR. The first part of this two-part diary appeared in our April 1994 issue.

Ed. Note: Fr. Nouwen here continues the chronicle of the time he spent in Ukraine in 1993 with Nathan Ball, the Director of l’Arche Daybreak in Toronto, Borys Gudziak, who is doing research in Ukraine on the history of the underground Greco-Catholic Church (1946 to 1990), and Zenia Kushpeta, founder of the Faith and Light communities for people with handicaps in Ukraine.

L’viv — Wednesday, August 4

A visit to the little fruit and vegetable market in downtown L’viv gave Nathan and me an idea of the poverty of the people. At the entrance to the market­place, men and women were holding whatever they had to sell: a few potatoes, one or two cabbages, or some old kitchenware. Quite a few women were selling flowers and plastic shopping bags. As we entered the enclosed area with different stalls, more food was available: plums, blueberries, and peaches, but all of it in small amounts. Little was being sold. “For most people it is too expensive,” Borys said. “They can’t af­ford to come here and buy fruits and vegetables.” Most people only earn between 30 or 40 thousand coupons (the transitional “currency”) a month, which is between $10 and $15, and a pound of peaches costs 1,000 coupons! We also saw a few meat stalls. Borys continued: “Ten pounds of good meat would be a whole month’s salary. You can under­stand that few people can come here.”

To get some idea of the economic situation, I have to realize that one day of work in Canada yields the same buying power as 30 days in Ukraine.

As we walked through the stalls, Nathan and I were struck by the tired looking faces. Few smiles, few animated discussions. The general atmosphere was somber and heavy. Zenia said: “People look a lot older than they are. They work always. Many have come from their farms where they milk their cows and tend their little plots of land. They come far distances to sell their meager products. They grow old and tired very fast.”

As we talked, we became aware of how victim­ized most Ukrainian peasants feel. They were always oppressed and exploited by one invader or another. It seemed that many of the peasants we saw at the mar­ketplace lived with little hope for a better future. Inde­pendence has not brought them much progress. They are still very poor, hardly able to survive.

We keep wondering whether the future will be any different. With so many voices in Russia wanting to reclaim Ukraine as part of their territory, there is constant fear that independence might be a very frag­ile thing. The fact that the U.S. pays so much atten­tion to Russia and so little to Ukraine, except in pres­suring it to give up its nuclear arsenal, makes Ukrai­nians question how much international support their independence will get when push comes to shove. The somber faces of the peasants certainly are not full of expectation for a better future.

After leaving the marketplace, we hired a cab to visit two Faith and Light families. We first went to the Burdash family. Although we had not announced our coming, we found five family members home: Ivanka and Bohdan, the parents, their children Oleh and Igor, and Ivanka’s brother Myron. The little boy Oleh and his uncle Myron are both handicapped. The mother and her daughter Ivanka work in factories with a schedule that allows one of them to be home while the other works. Bohdan, the father, works in a television assembly factory, but now he was on vaca­tion. We were welcomed with open arms. On the walls were religious pictures.

Nathan asked Ivanka to tell us about Faith and Light. She said: “With Oleh and Myron we felt very isolated. We couldn’t go to church and had very few friends. But Zenia changed our life. She brought us in touch with other families with handicapped children and she even organized a Sunday each month when we all go together to church and have a meeting af­terwards. Now we are no longer isolated. Now we have friends, and now we go to different meetings and celebrations. Our lives certainly have changed.” As she spoke, she looked gratefully at Zenia.

Oleh cannot speak, and his uncle Myron can only say a few words. For them there are no schools, day programs, or workplaces. They are always home and need to be cared for there. Myron spends most of his time playing with the neighborhood children. Be­cause of his handicap he is often laughed at and made fun of. But he is such a gentle man, radiating good­ness and kindness. When I gave him a box of choco­lates, he immediately shared them with all the people in the house. Later, when we were visiting another family in the area, he came there to bring us beautiful roses from the little garden behind their house. Myron reminded me of the “fools for Christ,” who are men­tioned in many of the writings about the spiritual life of Eastern Christianity.

After our visit to the Burdash family we went to see Andriy, a 25-year-old man who was partially para­lyzed as the result of faulty injections received when he was three years old. He is confined to a wheelchair and lives with his mother in a small basement room. His father and sister, with her family, live in the up­stairs part of the little house. In order to reach the house, we had to go down quite a few steps from the main road. There, Andriy was sitting on a little ter­race. His mother was there with him. Nobody else was home.

Andriy was very excited to see us. His face was beaming. We heard his story: “For most of my life I have been confined to my room. I saw the outside world through my window. That’s all I could see. Nobody could take me out of here, up the steps to the road, and into the city. It is too difficult, too tiring, and too complicated. I had no friends who came to visit. I was very alone. My mother had to do everything for me. But Zenia made a person of me. She gave me friends, she helped me to get out of this place and meet other people. My life is so different now, thanks to God and thanks to Zenia.”

Zenia, who did the translation, undertranslated the praise Andriy gave her, but Borys made sure that we knew that he literally said: “She made a person of me.”

As we talked more with Andriy we became aware that he is a poet. We urged him to show us some of his work. His mother went into the room and re­turned with a notebook full of poems. Because of his speech impediment, Andriy couldn’t read his own work very well, so Zenia read aloud the poem called “The Wheelchair.” Borys translated the whole poem into English, a poem about suffering and hope, confinement and deep longing, limitations and possibili­ties. The final sentence was: “Will anyone ever ask me, ‘Father, how are you doing?'” It still resounds in me as a succinct expression of Andriy’s deep desire to live a fruitful life.

I asked: “Who wrote these poems in this note­book for you?” Andriy answered: “My 13-year-old nephew, Roman, takes dictation from me. He is able to understand me and write my poems for me. He is on vacation now, and my head is bursting with po­ems that I would like to dictate, but nobody else can do it as well as Roman.” Andriy then lifted up the hand he still could use and showed us how he would be able to type his own poems if he had a typewriter.

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