But she began to notice some changes in her 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.
“They quit fighting and arguing so much. They became closer as brother and sister,” she said. “They were even treating us parents better.”
But when they brought a Bible into the house, her husband became concerned. Talk of faith had not featured much in Iryna’s world. Her parents had been atheists, and she remembers only one
family member ever speaking about God, a relative who baptized Iryna in the Orthodox Church when she was 3 years old.
When Iryna began teaching under Soviet Communism, speaking about faith was forbidden.
“It was a time when, if you said anything about God it would be persecuted on all levels, especially as a teacher,” Iryna said. “It might be a threat to your career or freedom.”
She and her husband discussed what to do with their children, reluctant to forbid them from attending the meetings.
“We decided that I would go to the meetings with them to see what they were doing,” she said.
To Iryna’s surprise, her children were thrilled when she said she would go to the meetings with them. Her surprise grew when they arrived at a church.
“This was something new, but at the same time, something that for most of my life I was secretly thinking and dreaming about,” she said.
The meetings turned out to be Sunday School at the Wesleyan Church of Holiness. There, Iryna was amazed by the young volunteers who led the sessions.
“Their love towards the children was superior,” she said.
Iryna began to attend the children’s Sunday School meetings regularly, then ventured into Sunday worship services. At home, she and her husband talked with their children at length, discussing how they felt about the church and how it was changing their lives.
“For me, my children were the first evangelists I met,” she said.
She was impressed by the relationships she witnessed between people at the church and felt her own heart responding to the worship services and children’s meetings. The Sunday School leaders made a lasting impression.
“The way they spoke about everything, you could feel that they lived through it,” Iryna said. “I felt the spirit of God through them. They were like a window showing the way into Heaven.”
Eventually, Iryna realized she had a choice to make: Was she just there to observe the children,
or would she join Christ on a journey of faith?
“It was a tough time,” she said. “But I choose to be with Jesus.”
When Iryna’s daughter was about 13, she was invited to be a co-leader at Sunday School, and Iryna began helping her to prepare her lessons.
Iryna remembers slicing apples and peaches for a lesson about creation, feeling this hands-on approach turning her training as a teacher upside down. The way she interacted with her own students during the week began to change.
“In Soviet school, you teach by power. You apply your authority,” Iryna said. “But I started to see individual people, not just a class. God was revealing to me the value and the needs of each child.”
A Future of Freedom
Iryna’s involvement with children at church grew over the years. Eventually, she and her children started attending the Kiev First Church of the Nazarene, where Iryna became the Sunday School director, then the coordinator for children’s ministries in Ukraine. She is now the Nazarene ompassionate Ministries child development coordinator for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Field.
When she was offered this role, Iryna didn’t hesitate. It seemed like everything in her life had brought her to this place. “I understood that this was how God was slowly making His work in my life,” she said. “He provided the desire, the training, and the education I needed, and He provided an opportunity. It seemed like it was His desire that was working in me.”
About 800 children now attend one of 26 Kids’ Clubs on the CIS Field. Half are supported through
the NCM Child Sponsorship program.
They meet at church buildings during the week for activities and teaching designed to help the children develop spiritually, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and socially.
“Even though the Soviet Union is long gone, not much has changed on the government or society level when it comes to education and raising of children,” Iryna said. “They are always the last priority.”
The education children receive has a spiritual foundation, and much like Iryna, a number of parents and grandparents are now attending church because of their children’s involvement in the Kids’ Clubs. Once they start, the adults don’t want to leave.
“Many of the parents who come to Kids’ Clubs behave as if they didn’t have their own childhood,
or as if their own was not as interesting or exciting,” Iryna said. “These are the same feelings I was going through when I came.”
The vision Iryna has for children’s ministry on the CIS Field is ambitious. She wants local congregations to prioritize their own ministries for children, becoming more involved as child sponsors and establishing children’s ministries as a launch pad for more child-focused social services in the wider society. And she wants to see children grow into local community
leaders when they graduate from Kids’ Clubs.
When she looks at the next generation, Iryna knows a greater sense of freedom than what she experienced is possible.
“They can become fully developed members of society,” she said, “because they will have skills and a sense of dignity.”