I grew up in the Ukraine in a family of nine children. We survived on rice and potatoes and, as the third from the youngest, I wore the clothes passed down to me from my older siblings—including tennis shoes. We took turns wearing them outside to play. We also shared a toothbrush.
My mom, Lubov, was very resourceful and made all of our clothes. She also did the laundry for all nine of us without a washer or dryer. She worked so hard, scrubbing with a large block of Russian soap, that her hands would crack and bleed.
My dad, Viktor, was the pastor of an underground church and had a factory job since he wasn’t paid for his pastoral work. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, we were persecuted heavily for our faith in Christ. It was not popular to be a Christian. We were definitely looked down upon and laughed at. But even after the fall, the persecution continued.
Our church had to depend heavily on the Holy Spirit’s direction for the tiniest of details because of the danger we were in. They would pray and ask God to show them places where they could safely gather for church. God would show them these places, often in miraculous ways. Typically, they would meet in the woods or at various church members’ apartments or houses in the middle of the night.
When they gathered at apartment buildings, members were asked to not do anything that would draw any kind of attention to themselves. Because of that, they never used elevators. Sometimes the service would be on the ninth floor, but everyone, even the older people, would climb the stairs so they could be at church and hear more about God.
The church had somewhere between 40-60 members. At the time, it was hard to evangelize. It was more of a word-of-mouth, one-on-one kind of evangelism. Our church members would very cautiously go knock on doors and minister to people. They just wanted people to know who God was.
Aware of this, the government had a case against my father. The KGB tried to put him in jail and went as far as threatening to send him to Chernobyl to work on the nuclear reactor, which would have been a death sentence. But God didn’t allow it.
Our culture taught that if you believed in God, you were weak. My parents taught the opposite. They encouraged my siblings and me through their actions to stay faithful to Christ. Their consistent example of the difference the Gospel makes in one’s life was a towering influence to us.
We relied on God 110 percent. If God didn’t show up, we starved. We lived by faith; we weren’t weak—as we were accused of—because we believed in God. We were strong and taken care of because we put our faith in Him.
When I was 9 years old, we learned about a special event for low-income families. I’ll never forget riding the bus and the tram to this occasion. It was a harsh winter, and I didn’t have warm clothes, but I didn’t feel cold at all—only excited. As I sat looking outside the window, it was as though time stopped.
When we arrived, we found a lot of welcoming American smiles. They served us snacks, sang songs and showed us a cartoon that shared the Gospel. At the end of the cartoon, they opened big boxes that contained shoebox gifts from Operation Christmas Child. I had never received a gift before.
As my siblings and I opened our shoebox gifts, I was so excited to look at the brightly colored packages and toys—including a yo-yo! I thought this was so cool because it was bigger than the yo-yos that were popular in the Ukraine. The school supplies inside my shoebox also made me feel special because they were things my family couldn’t afford. For once, I had something that others in my class did not have.
My favorite thing in the box, though, was dental floss. I didn’t know what it was, so I licked it, thinking it was candy. Then I learned it was for brushing your teeth, so I rubbed the floss along the outside of my teeth. I thought Americans were interesting people if they brushed their teeth with a string, but I decided that since they have beautiful smiles, it must work for them. I wondered if it was an invention that hadn’t come to the Ukraine yet.
Once the wax wore off, I used the fancy string to tie sticks together to make toys that would float in water.
Inside my shoebox was also a note and a picture from a couple who lived in Colorado. Years later, it meant a lot to consider how they gave of their time and money to bless me.
My shoebox gift gave me an example of unconditional love. No strings were attached.
Bribery was commonplace in the Ukraine, so a gift was rarely a gift—something was always expected in return. Most people looked out only for themselves, but the shoebox gifts gave us hope that people can be loving and generous. Receiving something as a free gift was new to me—and it helped me better understand God’s free gift of salvation, which we can’t earn and can never repay.
Four years later, a relative of ours in the United States started lobbying for my family to immigrate to their city in Tennessee. Approvals came through, so in 2000, we sold our apartment in order to finance our journey. The local mafia, however, discovered that we had cash on hand. A friend of my sister Nadia told her that the mafia was planning to kidnap one of us for ransom.
With a chartered bus waiting on the street to take us to the airport, a group of friends came to our three-bedroom, fifth-floor apartment to escort us one by one to our transportation. Other friends waited with those who had made it to the bus. This ensured that no one was left alone and vulnerable to the mafia’s schemes. When we finally got on the airplane, we were relieved.
Today, I work for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as a web designer. I enjoy packing shoeboxes together with my wife and two boys. My favorite thing to include is a soccer ball, because it is often shared by the entire neighborhood. Playing soccer helped me avoid some of the common traps for youth in my culture, like drugs and alcohol.
I pray that the Operation Christmas Child gifts we send will bless each child and help them see God’s unconditional love—just as my shoebox blessed me.