A dear friend has gone home to be with the Lord. Lela Steel died in early August. I met Lela in Odessa, Ukraine four years ago. When I came back to the States and began sharing some of my stories from the trip I realized that two people from my church had a connection with her. My associate pastor used to be a member of Lela’s son’s church and my good friend was best friends with her granddaughter! It really is a small world. It was fun to share stories with them. When she died, Lara my friend told me that Lela’s granddaughter was putting together a book to honor Lela and asked me if I had any memories I wanted to share. This is what I remember…
After an exhausting night in Kiev, we were headed to Odessa. This being my first trip to Ukraine (summer of 2006) I had no idea what to expect. And so far it hadn’t been the dream I had wanted it to be.
We started the trip already being nervous. My husband’s knee was infected and getting bigger and redder by the minute. But we decided to push forward, I mean, the plane was leaving! We got a late start and almost missed our international flight. When we got to the terminal I along with my brother found a wheel chair, threw Dustin in it and ran, pushing him through mobs of people to get to our gate. At that point I felt like I was training for a triathalon!
When we arrived in Kiev we had been en route for over 24hrs. No sleep, not much food, all of our luggage lost and feeling very fragile. The plan was to spend the night there and rest up before our flight the next morning to Odessa. But Dustin’s knee had other plans. We had to find a doctor. Thankfully my husband’s sister spoke Russian. Somehow we found a clinic – those details are a little fuzzy. Everything in me was screaming SLEEP! But how could I go to sleep when my husband and his sister were roaming around Kiev in the middle of the night? So I went. After meeting with the doctor, our next mission was to find a 24 hr pharmacy. We jumped in a taxi and off we went. We ended up switching taxi’s and in the process, my husband’s sister’s purse was stolen! Ugh!! We got back to the hotel, slept for two hours then headed to Odessa.
I was so tired. Dustin was still limping, Michelle was purse-less and we were all luggage-less! Surely things had to get better!
They did. As soon as we stepped foot in Odessa, we were greeted by an angel. Ms. Lela Steel was the sweetest woman I think I have ever been in the presence of. She grabbed each of us by the face and kissed us right on the mouth! I kept saying over in my head, ‘We are in Ukraine, we are in Ukraine’. And then I remembered, She’s American!! And it became even that more of a blessing. She was no longer Ms. Lela Steel, she was Babooshka Lela.
She took us to the market so we could have lunch and to get underwear! Then we went shopping for the orphans – her children. When we entered the orphanage, I will never forget this, it was like someone had blown a trumpet to announce her coming. No one did of course, the children just knew. Immediately this 5 foot flat woman was surrounded by children. I mean, surrounded, you couldn’t see her. You could only hear, “Slavic! Hello! I love you, Babooshka Lela loves you! Natasha, priviet! Babooshka Lela loves you. Serge, how are you! I love you….” What a privilege it was for the five of us to watch this remarkable woman love these children. And then we realized we weren’t the only ones she loved to kiss. She was planting kisses on every child who came close to her. I am embarrassed to say that I prayed God would protect her from disease.
Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Jesus with skin on’? It is a phrase I have used trying to express the fact that sometimes we as humans need to see/feel Jesus in a tangible way. I have never seen it manifested in the way I saw with Ms. Lela.
We left the orphanage after a few hrs. Victor, Lela’s driver took us to her house. She let us use her shower and crash in her bed for a while before we had to catch a night train to Vinnitsa. Her hospitality was just what we needed. She told us about her husband and that after he died God called her to Odessa to love the orphans. She was in her 80’s. I was so encouraged just by listening to her.
She then made us some tuna fish sandwiches (best ever!) to take with us. We gave hugs and kisses and then left. We had been in her presence all of 12 hrs. It is a 12 hrs. that I will always remember and look back on with sweet fondness. She was a remarkable woman with a remarkable love for people – no matter who they were. She ministered to those children in Orphanage #4 in ways that we will never fully understand. The way she loved them, touching them, hugging them, kissing them, calling them by name, was exactly how Christ ministered to those around Him while He was living on this earth. He loved the unlovable. He touched the untouchable. He knew their name, their deepest secrets, their pain. And He loved them. And because He loved them, they were changed. One of the members on our team had been to orphanages in Ukraine before. She said that she had never seen children so well behaved. She was convinced it was because of Lela.
Lela, you are deeply missed on this earth now that you are gone. I am so thankful I had the brief opportunity to know you and see first hand how God was using you in the lives of those children. You are now in the arms of Jesus, would you give Him a hug and kiss for me?