By Gina Grate Pottenger on Apr 5, 2011
Crippled and partially blind, the little girl was crying. In Ukrainian orphanages – and elsewhere – children sometimes compete with each other for attention. The girl found she got it when she stole toys from the others.
Katherine Whiting picked up the girl, praying, “Lord, what can I do to help this child?” The song, “Jesus Loves Me” came to her mind. Whiting knew the song in Ukrainian because her parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine when they were young.
Whiting sang “Jesus Loves Me” in the child’s native tongue. Soon, the girl calmed and went to sleep.
“I hope these words that Jesus loves her just linger with her and she finds her way to Christ,” Whiting said later.
That hope forms the basis for Operation Mary.
Children in crisis
Whiting is among the women – and sometimes men – of Operation Mary who travel to former Soviet Union orphanages each year. They refer to their grassroots ministry as “hold and witness.” The descriptor is a nod to its older cousin, Work & Witness, a similar grassroots ministry in which local churches form teams of people to share Christ’s love during overseas construction projects.
“There are a lot of orphanages as a result of addictions, parents who are incarcerated, AIDS,” said Josh Allen, a former missionary to the Ukraine who, in 2010, helped to coordinate the Operation Mary team’s visit. “There are handicapped children and people in general in this part of the world who hold no value.”
Many times the children are not prepared for the day when they turn 18 and are sent from the orphanages. Cliff Wright, a missionary in Ukraine, said that only about 10 percent of these children will be able to get jobs and function in society once they leave. Too many end up on the streets, involved in prostitution and substance abuse. The cycle continues when they are unable to care for their own children, who end up in group homes.
In response to this social crisis, Operation Mary got its start in 2002 with three mothers from the Southern Florida District – Cindy Todd and Tami Reichhart, of Margate Church of the Nazarene, and Vicki Jones, of Sebring Church of the Nazarene. The women felt compelled to follow the Scriptural mandate to care for orphans and widows, said Becky Gritton, ministry director of Operation Mary for the past five years.
Operation Mary began with enthusiastic support from the Southern Florida District. Today, the district is joined by a much larger network of Nazarenes, mostly along the U.S. East Coast, supporting the ministry’s objective to hold, play with and show Christ’s love to the many children in the former Soviet Union who live without nuclear families.
For every trip, a year is spent gathering donations of badly needed items for the homes, such as clothes and linens, toys and school supplies. In 2010, Operation Mary purchased a washing machine for one home. Prior to its upcoming September trip, Operation Mary has shipped 18 large parcels weighing 890 pounds. More boxes will be sent in June, Gritton said.
Operation Mary teams range from three to nine people. In coordination with Nazarene leaders in the CIS Field (Commonwealth of Independent States), the team visits a variety of orphanages or homes during their two-week trip. Some of the homes are run by Nazarenes, some by other organizations and some by the government.
For the children’s safety, no team member is left alone with any child, and each carries a doctor’s statement that assures they are free from contagious diseases.
Local leadership ensures that the team visits orphanages near existing Nazarene work. This creates an opportunity for members of the nearest local church to continue ministering to the children between Operation Mary’s annual visits, Wright said.
A ministry of touch
Most important is the time they spend holding, hugging, singing to and playing with the children, telling them God loves them.
“Many of them do not want us to put them down,” Gritton said. “We hold out our arms and they literally run into them. I’ve had three little ones at one time trying to sit on my legs.”
In Strizhavka, at an orphanage for mentally and physically challenged children, the Operation Mary team members told Bible stories, then played a beach ball game with the kids that reinforced the themes of the story.
At a poor orphanage in Chernovtski, “you could have heard a pin drop on the floor” as the women told stories about Jesus, Gritton said. One-hundred and twenty of the children indicated decisions to invite Jesus into their lives.
Many of the children aren’t actually orphans. Some have one struggling parent. The Operation Mary team spent time with many single-parent families on their last trip.
In one home, the single mother was raising four children after their alcoholic father left, taking the family’s heater with him. The team paid off a loan the mother had taken out to purchase things her children needed.
At the Boyarka Baby Orphanage, the team also funded some renovations, including new windows, carpet, wall paneling, and baby cribs.
“They come with no demands; they don’t want to be entertained; they just want to come and minister,” Allen said. “It gives the Ukrainians a positive outlook on the Church of the Nazarene.”
Talk about it
- What are some of the Scripture passages that refer to orphans and widows, or serving those who are disadvantaged by circumstances or society?
- What are some of the social cycles at work in Ukraine that may also be at work in your country or city?
- Could you conduct a ministry similar to Operation Mary, but in your local community?
- Why is it important to spend time playing or singing with and listening to children?
- How could transforming the lives of children also transform a society or culture?
- Why might the missionaries in Ukraine intentionally send Operation Mary teams only to orphanages near Nazarene churches?
- How can you pray for the children of Ukraine?