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PC(USA) pastor brings stories from Ukraine to a US audience

The Rev. Dr. Robert Gamble, executive director of This Child Here, visits the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

This Child Here is an organization that ministers to families impacted by the war in Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of This Child Here)

LOUISVILLE — In a presentation that featured a Zoom conversation with three people on the ground in Ukraine, the Rev. Dr. Robert Gamble, executive director of This Child Here, spoke on the topic “The Lamentations of Ukraine” with clergy and members of churches in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery last week. Gamble and others illustrated ways that This Child Here, a ministry validated by the Presbytery of Western North Carolina, works with families, mostly women and children, displaced by the war in Ukraine.

Near the end of Gamble’s talk, an app on his smartphone sounded, indicating another Russian drone attack on Izmail, where This Child Here operates in southwest Ukraine near the Black Sea. Among the warnings the app issues during a drone attack: “Overconfidence is your greatest enemy.”

This Child Here offers youth in Ukraine access to summer camps and workshops, including learning to paint. (Photo courtesy of This Child Here)

After three visits to Ukraine, Gamble established This Child Here in 2006. Eighteen years later, “after working with street kids, working in orphanages, training foster families and teaching peacemaking techniques to teens, Ukraine is at war,” he told people gathered for his talk and for lunch at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Louisville, “and we now work with families displaced by this war.”

“Everyone I meet has a story of pain, loss and lament,” Gamble said, citing these passages in the Book of Lamentations: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she,” followed later by, “Young and old lie together in the dust of the streets.”

“This is Ukraine,” he said. “Bodies in the dust of the streets.”

The ministry of This Child Here began by, among other services, meeting families in grocery stores and contributing to their needs. (Photo courtesy of This Child Here)

Gamble said This Child Here “just started with what we knew to be the right thing: meeting families at grocery stores, paying for what they needed, gathering a list of names and faces.” Then, “we organized a summer camp at a retreat center near the beaches of Bulgaria. People bonded. We rented buildings and opened centers for sports and creative activity. … I did not know that so much care could be given without words. I didn’t know there is a therapy of belonging, a therapy of place, a therapy of recreation which could also be worded ‘re-creation,’ and a therapy of lament.”

Participants heard from three people at This Child Here’s facility in Izmail, including Olya Balaban, the ministry’s program manager. A recorded clip showed Balaban and Gamble enduring a drone attack together.

Olya Balaban hugs a child in Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of This Child Here)

“It’ll take some victories on the battlefield before Ukraine can prevail,” Gamble said of the war now in its 28th month. “Families come to us with their lamentations. Each story I hear is its own howl of pain, often unbearably beautiful in language and honest, brutal in detail. We get the whole searing account of the siege and destruction of Ukraine.” Gamble borrowed from the book “A is for Alabaster: 52 Reflections on the Stories of Scriptures,” written by his friend, Anna Carter Florence.

Asked how youth served by This Child Here make their plans for the future, Balaban replied, “It’s hard to plan even for today. We try to support mothers and children every day” and plan camps “on the sea every summer.”

It can be difficult, Balaban said, for staff and others to find out what’s going on in other regions of Ukraine. “We get our information from our president [Volodymyr Zelenskyy], from the government and from people who write about it,” Balaban said.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Gamble

Operating This Child Here since the war began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, is “our evidence of grace and power,” according to Gamble.

“Surrounding these families and their stories, holding each lightly yet firmly, is a structure I can only define as a healing community of love and trust. It is our life together,” Gamble said, quoting Florence’s book. “It allows the words to pour out without bleeding out.”

“There is a rhythm we enter into each day and week, in our gatherings in Izmail, Ukraine, in our talk, and in our play, by which, with our vessel — namely, the community itself — we gently guide these families toward speech and hope when the wilderness of grief has taken both,” Gamble said, again referencing “A is for Alabaster.”

Click here to learn more about This Child Here.

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