This post is the 2nd of a two-part post about a CHBC family member, Betsy Riggan. I’m sure you’ve seen her at CHBC where she so graciously contributes to the Kids Ministry. Through many years of teaching Sunday School and KidsFest and loving to help kids understand the love of God for them, God prepared Betsy to pour her life into one child and beyond. If you would like to read PART 1, click here. Here’s THE REST of her story:
Natasha and her young son, Sasha, returned to Kiev to be with Sasha’s father.
By God’s grace, I was able to return to Ukraine nine more times either with the summer camp ministry, for a VBS in a local village, or for training as we began to turn the ministry over Ukrainian Christians. With each trip, I was always able to see Natasha and Sasha. We would spend a day together visiting, going to a park and eating together. We would laugh and cry together as life had been hard for them both. Sasha’s father had left. Natasha now had another little boy, Danik. However, through all this she kept seeking God, and she made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. I was overjoyed that Natasha had begun a personal relationship with Christ. Now I was able to speak of God’s unfailing love for her, and the Holy Spirit could affirm that truth in her inmost being.
Due to a new job situation, I was not able to go to Ukraine regularly in the summer, but Natasha and I kept in touch. On a visit to check in on other ministry projects, we visited Natasha and her family. Sasha was 16 and about to graduate high school. He asked Michael and me if he could come, live with us, and try to make a “go” of it in America. We were dumbfounded by the request.
We tried hard to say no. We were in a much different place in our lives than 18 years previously when we asked his mom into our home. We were empty-nesters and preparing to move closer to our grandkids, to enjoy them and life. We had raised 2 girls. I knew, all too well, that boys are different. The lists in our heads went on and on. We offered to help him with his college expenses there. We clicked off lots of other options for him to remain in Ukraine. He explained the difficult situation with so many refugees from eastern Ukraine coming to Kiev. The Russians had just taken over Crimea and were moving into eastern Ukraine. Job opportunities were diminishing by the day for everyone.
Natasha had remarried and had a little girl with autism who required all her time and attention. Natasha trusted us and wanted Sasha to have the opportunity that life in America could offer him. Our friends who knew Ukraine well said the same. Natasha was confident that, with lots of effort and many prayers, the possibilities were much greater for him in America. Because of all she and Sasha had been through together, they were very close. It was a huge sacrifice for her, but she was willing to let her son go with the slight hope that she might someday see him again. In June of 2015, Sasha came into our home. After many conversations with God, we began to be hopeful for him and his future. We knew it would be difficult. After all, we were “parents” again of a teenager and a teenager that we hardly knew. We quickly made plans and moved to Chapel Hill. Sasha started as a junior in a Christian high school in the area.
Our experiences with Sasha were similar to what we experienced with his mom 18 years prior. There were so many more challenges! He was miserable away from his family, his friends, his freedom and all his soccer games. Sasha loved his soccer. He knew he was good at it. It gave him some constancy with so much different now in his life. At least the game of soccer hadn’t changed, and he knew exactly how to handle a soccer ball.
However, the English he thought he knew from his classes in high school was minimal at best. My Russian, through a lack of practice, was now down to 10 words max. We had all kinds of misunderstandings. Sasha was convinced he understood us, and all of us were miserably wrong! He was also very upset and resentful because rather than going to college as he planned, we sent him back to high school! After 2 months it was obvious he needed some maturing before hitting the difficult cultural world of college. His English just wasn’t ready for an English college class!
More significantly, God knew Sasha needed a stronger faith. The time he would spend in this Christian school would be time well spent. Sasha’s faith was not on a sure foundation. The refining work began for all of us once again! It was much more difficult this time! Recently Pastor Jay challenged us with the question: “Do you believe Jesus is serving your best interest, nano-second by nano-second?” I questioned Jesus’ best for me so many times the first 2 years Sasha was with us. But God had me hold on to His hope which is like an anchor for our souls, firm and secure (Hebrews 6:19).
With your own child you know the things you want to teach them about God, about salvation, about living for others and not yourself, about perseverance, responsibility, honesty, kindness, etc. You prayerfully teach them moment by moment, in stops and starts, and in the rhythm of your days and years. We were now challenged to teach Sasha all of these principles at once! For him to understand would make our life so much easier. But easy isn’t what God wants for us. His desire is for us to rely on Him rather than relying on ourselves. Sasha’s pride also kept him from accepting our help to learn how to navigate life God’s way. He thought he could do this all on his own.
Then he was kicked off the soccer team. He thought he knew more than anyone including the coach about how to play soccer. God does use all sorts of ways to chip off those pieces of pride that cripple us. Losing his place as a star on the soccer team seemed to be a turning point for Sasha. Slowly he began to listen and show some respect and cooperation. He began to get up on time rather than leave Michael waiting in the morning. He became more disciplined about not spending all his chore money on Bojangles; began to sit at the dinner table with us each night, and asked how to use a planner so he wasn’t late for every assignment.
The core issue for us was that we didn’t have a trusting relationship with Sasha. A relationship built on trust takes time, patience and intention. We were trying to reflect the grace and truth of Christ, but I think we were more like strangers to him, just enforcing rules. God was faithful. He continued to “instruct us in the way we should go” and give us His grace a day at a time.
As before, God also sent faithful people to surround us. Hospitality often becomes a team sport! Sasha volunteered as a teen helper in 3rd grade Sunday school. The teacher was a young man who immediately recognized that Sasha needed his attention just like those 3rd grade boys. Taylor mentored him and encouraged him in the faith and in his character. His ESOL teacher was Vicky Stelling. She helped him with his English, challenged him in his faith, and loved him despite his prideful attitude. It was hard for him to admit that he truly did not understand English. Vicky cheered Sasha on with his schoolwork. He listened to her when he was determined not to listen to us. Vicky and others showed him the love of Christ, but also were honest with him when he needed accountability and discipline. Having other people re-enforce to your kids what you are saying is a benefit of being a part of the body of Christ. I praise God for Taylor and Vicky and the many others who found space in their busy lives to show Sasha what it means to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
Sasha has grown in his walk with the Lord since he has been at Liberty University. Yes, he did graduate high school and was accepted at LU. He is about to finish up his sophomore year and hopes to go into their nursing program. He skypes with his mom and encourages her. Even though she misses him terribly, she remains hopeful for his future. I have asked so many people to pray for him over the past 4 years. When they ask me how he is doing, I take a deep breath and encourage them to keep praying, God is still writing his story. Just as he is still writing mine.