I first met Joe Ragan in 1999, after my nine-year-old homeschooled daughter said she wanted to adopt some local grandparents.
After a few exploratory phone calls, we were invited to participate in a local ESL program. That’s how we started our seven-year relationship with Jewish Family Services, meeting in the two nearby synagogues, that welcomed Christian volunteers.
There was Joe, a valuable American translator who took the opportunity to practice his Ukrainian language skills while he attended Seminary. After college and a career in newspaper advertising, he decided to go in a completely different direction.
He completed a Masters of Divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in May 2001. Pastor Ragan admits that it took him awhile to answer God’s call to be a missionary, but his family and friends were very supportive of his aspirations.
At first, my daughter accompanied me at my lesson table for some of the recently immigrated, elderly Russians and Ukrainians. Initially, we had been surprised to learn that while Catholic Charities sponsored the ESL program for Jewish Family Services, they provided no curriculum or supplies. But, I was a homeschool teacher, right? I could do this. I found my husband’s 1950s era children’s dictionary and copied pages for our students, relying on its pictures and our rudimentary sign language to communicate the lessons.
Soon, Ellen had attracted her own group of students. She prepared her own lesson plans each week for almost seven years. Her student “grandparents” relished her visits and we were invited to every celebration at the synagogues. Once, my daughter was the only child at a daytime Seder, so the Rabbi asked her to play the part of the questioning child during the ceremonial feast.
A few years later, our new friend and fellow Texan departed for his assigned mission field in Ukraine. Joe admits that, as much as one can prepare for a mission, one must actually step out in faith, becoming immersed in a different language and culture to really understand it.
Joe found Ukrainians to be extremely open, loving and patient. Yet, he discovered that some of the men who thought they were ready to help him in leading the ministry were easily led astray by false doctrine, which tested his faith.
But he also found joy and encouragement as he watched young Christians walk in faith and grow in their relationship with the Lord.
Joe was serving in Kiev when the Orange Revolution broke out.
“Razom nas bahato! Nas ne podolaty!” The rhythmic chant spread through the crowd of hundreds of thousands that filled Kiev’s Independence Square on the evening of November 22. “Together, we are many! We cannot be defeated!”
Emerging from a sea of orange, the mantra signaled the rise of a powerful civic movement, a skilled political opposition group, and a determined middle class that had come together to stop the ruling elite from falsifying an election and hijacking Ukraine’s presidency.
Over the next 17 days, through harsh cold and sleet, millions of Ukrainians staged nationwide nonviolent protests that came to be known as the “orange revolution.” The entire world watched, riveted by this outpouring of the people’s will in a country whose international image had been warped by its corrupt rulers.
By the time victory was announced–in the form of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko’s electoral triumph–the orange revolution had set a major new landmark in the postcommunist history of eastern Europe, a seismic shift Westward in the geopolitics of the region. – from Foreign Affairs
Coincidentally, our family decided to reject the distractions of Christmas traditions. We had a yard sale to sell all of our holiday paraphernalia and sent the donation to our friend Joe, in Kiev.
He and other Christians were serving the needs of Ukrainian protesters as they camped out in the city square during challenging winter weather. Joe informed us that our donation had helped to purchase warm, sturdy boots worn by a security patrol.
When Ukrainian doctors discovered a spot on Joe’s pancreas, he was sent back to the U.S. for further examinations. Exploratory surgery followed an inconclusive MRI, and the biopsy was returned with the diagnosis of a malignant tumor.
Yet, Joe says that even before he was diagnosed, he had a peace that the Lord was in control. He willingly shared his diagnosis and cancer journey with all of his social media followers and missionary partners. His treatments are going well, in spite of the unpleasant side effects, and he hopes to return to Ukraine in September 2017.
Joe knows that it is not his privilege to pick and choose where he is led by God. He does know that he must trust him in all situations, both good and bad.
I know that Ukraine is not Joe’s only mission field. His helping spirit, sacrificial nature, humble humor and personal investment in God’s children are evident wherever he goes. Joe embodies the kind of faith that understands, on a spiritual level, that obedience to the Creator means nothing more than doing the next right thing, right where you stand.
Do you find yourself as a follower of Christ in a synagogue? Love your new Jewish friends.
Are you trying to build a fellowship of believers in a strange land? Pray. A lot.
Will you be thrust into the chaos of political revolution? Lace up those boots and let believers proclaim, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns!” – Isaiah 52:7
When faced with scary news, realize that the Lord is giving you a new mission field. Professionals and fellow patients you would not otherwise have met, need to hear the good news of a faith that sustains you.
Look around. You are right where you are supposed to be, doing the next right thing and giving God all the glory. “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” – John 4:35