Local family gets ready to move to Ukraine
By Shayla Ashmore
“We want to go and work where God wants us to work,” said Mike Cornelison, the family life pastor of Susanville Church of the Nazarene.
Cornelison, his wife Tamara, and their three children, Josh, 17, Matthew, 11, and Sara, 9, will leave for Ukraine next year.
Nuclear radiation is a real concern. The Cornelisons may be based in Kiev, located just over 60 miles south of the Chernobyl nuclear power station. In April 1986, the Chernobyl reactor exploded after automatic shutdown failed during a test.
The Web site chernobyl.info stated some fear up to 8,000 people who were children in the area at the time of the accident will develop cancer. The continuing effects are still being debated.
Residents of Kiev warn visitors not to drink the water and joke that visitors only need to worry if they start to glow when they get home.
“The largest nuclear reactor in all of Europe is in Zaporzhe, in the western part of Ukraine,” Cornelison said, adding he won’t find out where the family is going to live until he arrives for one-month, total emersion language training in January.
“Even with language training, Russian is so difficult,” he said. “There’s a local saying, ‘Russian will be the only language spoken in heaven because it takes an eternity to understand it.’”
After two JESUS Film mission trips to Ukraine in the summers of 2005 and 2006, Cornelison said, “We know so many people in Kiev” it would be nice to live there. “But we’re not going there to be with friends and family, we’re going to work where God wants us to work.”
The family may set up its base in southern Ukraine, where there are more Nazarene churches. At those churches, Cornelison will help new pastors, who have little training, learn how to prepare sermons and lead Bible studies.
Cornelison agreed to a two-year, renewable term.
“I feel our ministry in Ukraine will last four to six years, but I don’t want to put any kind of hamper on what God wants us to do.”
As a tent-maker missionary, his retirement pay from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will pay travel, rent and some food. The family will have to raise some money to buy a car in Ukraine and complete their needed income.
Cornelison said God has used his state retirement, paid after he was forced to retire due to an on-the-job back injury in 1999, to send the family to places in ministry they would not be able to go without it. His first church in Grass Valley never had a full-time pastor until the Cornelisons arrived.
They came back to Susanville to help SuzNaz Senior Pastor Joe Sturgeon after his wife Janet died from breast cancer.
Now that the family is making another big move, Cornelison said his two younger kids are very excited about seeing a new country and learning a new language. But their teenager, Josh, 17, who planned to go to college in the fall, was not excited about the family leaving.
Cornelison said his oldest son was uncomfortable about going to college and having no family at home to fall back. Instead they would be 6,000 miles away in a foreign country.
But Josh went on the 2006 mission trip to Ukraine and did sports and friendship evangelism. He and Andrew Libke, of Janesville, played soccer in Bresniavola, the small village where the JESUS Film team stayed.
“The first day they were outcasts,” Cornelison said. “They played soccer and were picked last. By the end of the week they were the two team captains and all the kids would walk by and say, ‘Hey Josh, Hey Andrew.’ It was neat to see they could have such an impact and not preach or do Bible studies, just be Christian young men.”
After the mission trip, Josh’s outlook changed.
“God opened his heart to go with us for the first year and put college off for a year,” Mike Cornelison said.
Josh will work with youth groups in friendship and sports evangelism and be there as a friend for young men who have very few adult male role models. Eighty to 90 percent of the men in Ukraine are alcoholics or abuse drugs. Cornelison said the young men have no one to look up to.
After a year in Ukraine with his family, Josh may go to European Nazarene College in southern Germany for a one-year spiritual formation program and then transfer back to the U.S. to finish school. Cornelison said his son’s change of heart illustrates an important piece of advice Sturgeon gave him when Cornelison first felt called to the ministry.
“God will never call only you into the ministry; he will call your whole family. That’s how you know that He has called you.”
Just because the whole family is called, doesn’t mean the transition will be easy. The two youngest Cornelisons face a real change in schooling from their current Susanville School District classrooms. Since there are no English-speaking schools outside of Kiev, they may face home schooling or going to Ukrainian-language schools.
Cornelison said the challenge will be difficult, but he’s convinced his children will learn the language very quickly and make friends quicker if they attend Ukrainian schools.
They will also open the door to family friendships and opportunities for evangelism. If the family is based Zaporzhe, they will start a church in their home and Cornelison said not having a church family will be the most difficult thing.
“For us, the church has always been a refuge and a place of strength and friendships,” he said. “It’s different than any other place on earth. That will be taken away if you are the only members of your own church. We’ll have to build relationships and we won’t really have a church family until we develop it.”
But the Cornelisons won’t really be leaving their church family in Susanville. As senior pastor, Sturgeon took the position of blessing the Cornelison’s endeavor, sending them and making the Susanville Church of the Nazarene a partner in their mission.
“We’re not leaving the church to go to Ukraine, we’re taking the Susanville church with us,” Cornelison said. “We’re not cutting the ties here to go there; we’re just stretching the ties all the way across the ocean. Every time I share Gospel or teach a Bible study everyone here has a part of that.”
Cornelison said, “We will come back to give updates and reports. We love our family here.”
He may not have time for much of an update after the church’s third mission to Ukraine in July 2007. He’s leaving for Ukraine in July, will be back for two Sundays, during which time he will be in charge of the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the Susanville Ranch Park. Then, he’ll leave again at the end of August or the beginning of September to live in Ukraine.
During the July 2007 mission trip to Ukraine, a 20-member team will travel to southern Ukraine to do children’s ministry at a camp, where they will teach music, crafts and English. Ten counselors age 16 to college age will team up with Ukrainian leaders in each cabin.
Cornelison said he hopes the teens will form bonds of friendships that will last a lifetime.
“The lasting effects can be huge,” he said, adding he’s excited about the continued growth the teens may experience as a result.
The International Church of the Nazarene plans a missions book on the relationships that are being built through the whole process and may even do a video on the Susanville-Ukraine connection. Cornelison said he has faith that God has plans for the future.
“People ask all the time, ‘Are you coming back to Susanville?’ I can’t answer that question,” he said. “It would be a natural extension of our ministry to minister to Russian speaking people here in the U.S. when we get back.”
The family will be fluent in Ukrainian and Russian and experienced in teaching Bible studies in those languages.
“There’s a huge Ukrainian population in Sacramento, and more and more Russians and Ukrainians are moving to Susanville. Maybe God is preparing us now. Maybe it will be natural to return right here to Susanville. We’d be delighted to live here.”
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