DONETSK, UKRAINE — Based on the way she relates to the locals, one would think that Sarita Ladios has been living in Donetsk in the east of Ukraine for many years now. She speaks Russian with ease – even cracks jokes in this language – and travels around Ukraine on night trains unchaperoned. But the 37-year-old missions school graduate is only on her third year now in the former Soviet republic, where she mainly trains leaders of a 50-member church using the so-called “G-12 System,” a small group system based on the concept of discipling 12 people who will later on do the same thing.
“They are like my family,” quips Sarita, referring to her warm yet rather rowdy G-12 group from God’s Gift Church which meets thrice a week in her apartment for their regular Tuesday Bible Study discussions and weekend “food fellowships.”
To them, she is like their “mother hen,” a person they can completely rely on in both spiritual and practical terms. Not only do they learn a lot of Bible-based leadership insights from her; they also get to enjoy the Filipino food she serves during their meetings.
“I learned how to cook only here,” Sarita says in between laughs. “In the Philippines, somebody else would cook for me. Or I would just eat out in fastfood restaurants. But here (Ukraine), I have to cook because I need to. My place is open to everyone, and I’m happy that people who come here feel at home.”
Indeed, Sarita’s one-bedroom apartment with a large living room and medium-sized kitchen can aptly be called “Home of Refuge.” It’s here where people come in and out, feeling refreshed every time they leave – and almost always, with packed goodies to take home with them.
Sarita claims she draws strength and wisdom from the Almighty God without whom she cannot do anything.
“I’m alone here. That’s why it’s important that I take some time out to have fellowship with the Lord to be spiritually revitalized. If there’s output, there should also be input,” she confides, adding that Monday is her official Sabbath Day when she unplugs the phone line in order to have her time of peace and quiet.
Aside from the leadership trainings and discipleship programs she conducts, Sarita also spearheads the Saturday Kids’ Church program, a similar ministry she did in her home church in the Philippines, the Lighthouse Christian Community in Muntinlupa City. Here, they share Bible stories to Ukrainian children in poverty-stricken areas and feed them with nourishing food like hot porridge.
“The children in these depressed areas eat only once a day, if at all,” says Sarita. “And many of them can’t concentrate in school because of that.”
In August, Sarita’s church was able to organize for the first time a summer kids’ camp without any foreign aid for some 100 Ukrainian children, 60 of whom committed themselves to Jesus Christ. Because of this overwhelming result, a Sunday School was suddenly born the same month. Sarita, for her part, started making plans to train a Ukrainian Sunday School director.
“Equipping the local believers is really a top priority. I always tell them (the core group) that I will not always be here to help them; that they should learn to do things on their own and be able to lead others soon,” explains Sarita who established a prayer walk ministry with her team after God revealed it to her in 2004.
While she is miles away from home, she has never felt like a stranger in a foreign land, thanks to the special bond she shares with her G-12 members. She attends special occasions like birthdays and weddings, and because of her gift in digital photography, she is often asked to be the official photographer — albeit on a “gratis” basis. She doesn’t mind, though.
“It was fairly easy for me to assimilate in Ukraine. God has blessed me with a second family here,” says Sarita who, incidentally, lost her mom while she was neck-deep in ministry work in Donetsk.
Community-wise, the Ukrainian clamor for free English lessons is something that Sarita has not ignored. She holds summer English classes for kids every summer, and English classes for adults during regular school terms.
“It’s a fun experience!” exclaims happy camper Sarita who seems to be an expert in friendship evangelism. Ukrainians, who are otherwise stiff and formal, easily warm up to her whether they meet her in outdoor markets called “rynoks” or in commuter vans called “mashrutkas.” Some of them attend her English classes.
It is probably her deep faith in the Lord and her positive outlook in life that enables her to cope with the usual struggles of a career missionary – that is, language barrier, homesickness, and financial instability.
For now, Sarita sees the ministries she helped start with the local believers growing and expanding. She and her core group are currently mapping out plans to have a daily feeding program for the malnourished kids who attended the church’s past summer camps.
“They (the children) live in the most neglected part of Donetsk. There, they have poor housing facilities and an unreliable water system. They also don’t have a heating system which explains why most of the residents there are always sick, especially during winter time,” she says.
These days, Sarita sees with her own eyes and feels with her own heart that the harvest is big, yet the workers are few. Funds can also be scarce sometimes. There is a real need to have more Christian sponsors to help fund her church’s feeding program and to provide ministry training materials in Russian to equip the cash-strapped church leaders and members.
The challenges are there, but Sarita is not the type of missionary to say “No” to them. After all, she has experienced how God has seen her through culture shock, financial woes, and yes, even through harsh Ukrainian winters.