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When Passion Becomes a Calling (#ServeOrphansWell)
by Christine Bolaños
Posted on Tuesday, June 06, 2017
Christi and Dan Ucherek never imagined they would willingly leave their families, jobs, and friends in Illinois in favor of re-settling in Guatemala, where they juggle raising four children with full-time mission work for Orphan Outreach. Despite all the unique challenges that come with the lifestyle, the Uchereks wouldn’t have it any other way. However, they caution anyone considering missionary work to prayerfully weigh the pros and cons before making the life-altering decision.

Before Guatemala

dan and christi

The Uchereks had only been dating for a few months before mission work took center stage in their lives. Christi felt a pull toward the lifestyle. Dan did not. Growing in her faith as a new believer, Christi was discovering her calling in college. Dan had grown up in a Christian home, and was content serving the vulnerable in his own community. The idea of venturing to a developing country was not at all a part of his plan.

Christi’s first venture into mission work was during a month-long trip to the Dominican Republic. Dan offered to help raise funds and assist her in preparing for the trip.

“We served in a really remote area where there’s no electricity, surrounded by sugar cane fields,” Christi says. Women, who were often “rented” for the night by men, tried to flee at night.

“Men and women were products of that situation and could barely talk about it,” she recalls. She spent one month working alongside established missionaries who had built a foundation of trust with the people of the Dominican Republic. Christi was so moved by her experience she continued communicating with the missionaries upon returning to Illinois. Her desire for the missionary lifestyle was growing and, she says, she had never felt closer to God before.

“I grew up going to church, and for me missions was always something that wasn’t for me,” Dan explains. “I’m glad to help but I want to stay in my comfort zone.”

At that point, the couple began feeling conflicted about their passion and emotions. On one hand, they were both certain they had found their life partner. On the other, they both had different visions for their future. For the sake of their relationship, the couple agreed that Christi would go on as many short-term missionary trips as she desired, while Dan would support her from home.

The Uchereks began sharing their time, talent, money and passion with as many people as they could “A burning passion started growing in Dan too,” Christi says. “I prayed for how God would involve Dan. The couple was making a difference in local foster care children’s lives and Christi began working with an organization focused on orphan care.

Christi Guatemala

Political upheaval kept Christi from going on a short-term mission trip Honduras in 2009 --- a trip she felt she was meant to take---and she instead journeyed to Guatemala. Hers was the first team to serve at Little House of Refuge in Quetzaltenango.

Guatemala changes everything

Christi spent a week in Guatemala with a team working mostly in orphanages and transition homes. It was her first experience working with children aging out of the orphan care system and walking them thorough the process. But when it came time to leave Christi’s heart was crushed all over again.

“I’m feeling this same desire several years earlier when I left the Dominican Republic,” she says. She asked her fellow trip members to pray for her because she was starting to feel like she and Dan were in different places in life.

“I remember exactly where I stood in the Guatemala airport and they just prayed for us and asked for God to be super clear and that somehow my heart and his would be in the same place,” she recalls.

Dan remembers how Christi’s eye lit up when she returned home from that trip.

christi julisa

“She was excited and started sharing about everything they had done,” Dan reflects. A story about two orphan girls particularly struck him. He is convinced, “God used those two little girls to change my heart. Through that process, through the stories Christi told and the pictures she showed, God really grabbed my heart.”

The couple originally thought about adopting the girls but Guatemala had banned national adoptions. They were distraught but resilient. They searched for alternative ways to make a difference, and sponsored one of the girls through Orphan Outreach. Their desire to adopt remained strong, and soon they were welcoming son, Malakai, into their home from Ethiopia.

uchereks adoption

Dan and Christi felt more strongly drawn to missionary work than ever before. Typical American work lifestyle just wasn’t enough for them. When the couple broke the news to their parents, no one was surprised.

It was time for them to take the leap and try out full-time, long-term missionary work. They raised funds, packed up belongings, and moved south to Guatemala.

The beginning of a new lifestyle 

The first year of living in Central America was filled with opportunities and challenges. At times, both Dan and Christi felt they were in over their heads as they worked to establish both a home and a ministry. They not only had to be fully immersed in the country’s language, but they needed to fully understand its culture as well.

“We really had to start from the ground up. We made mistakes and we learned from those mistakes,” Christi says. “We were also face-to-face with extreme poverty.” Growth was hard and at times heartbreaking. But confidence in the Lord’s calling helped even the most difficult days.

With two more children joining their family (both biologically and through adoption), Dan and Christi returned to the United States for a short season of respite and conversation with Orphan Outreach. It finally seemed like all the pieces were falling together, both in personal and professional life. Dan and Christi said “yes” to joining Orphan Outreach’s work in Guatemala as the ministry’s first long-term missionaries. They returned to Central America with strengthened purpose and greater focus. Soon after, a fourth child was born – a spitfire named Isaias who adores his siblings.

Growing together

The Uchereks don’t hide the fact that the missionary lifestyle comes with great challenges and even greater rewards. One of the positive elements is how much they have grown as a couple and as individuals.

dan photo

Dan says when the couple first arrived in Guatemala they knew no one and had to start building relationships from scratch. This meant they had to rely and support each other more than ever before.

One of the greatest challenges was how immensely they missed their family and friends back home.

Christi was more of a social butterfly than Dan so the lack of friends or a close support group took a toll on her in the beginning. “The people you’re serving are your friends so 100 percent of your life is poured into your children and others you are serving,” Christi shares.

dan ministry

Dan says having to build a sense of community for themselves gave them an immense appreciation for the community they had back at home. He says the experience was completely different from spending week-long trips in a country. In those times, the couple could just visit a program, play with children, see them smile, and then return home. The long-term process was an entirely different one, that required the couple to completely pour themselves into their calling in a way they never had before. It mentally and emotionally tested them but they were determined to see their calling through, remembering the emptiness they felt when back at home.

“(Short-term) mission teams don’t always see the hard stuff. They don’t see the cultural barriers and where we’re trying to accomplish (a breakthrough),” Dan explains. “When on a mission trip, you’re on this high and you’re seeing the impact you can make in a short-term trip and you think, ‘Oh, I could do this.’”

But, he cautions, there is so much more to the missionary lifestyle.

“You have the blessing of dealing with amazing life change but also dealing with harder stuff that’s more deeply involved than just writing a check,” he says. “If you’re not eyes wide open you’re going to be super disappointed.” The couple says 60-70 percent of missionaries return home within five years, weary and disillusioned.

Prepare for the good and the bad

Christi cautions aspiring full-time missionaries to consider the good and the bad that comes with such a drastic change in lifestyle. She says as a multi-ethnic family in Guatemala there is nowhere they go where they are not stared at and there is also no respite because the job - and their calling - are never ending.

“It’s constantly feeling you’re under the microscope because of the color of your skin and the way you’ve learned to raise your kids,” she warns. “They are so, so different already. They are so much more independent than their peers.”

The long-term effects of picking up and moving kids to different places are palpable. The children also miss regularly bonding time with grandparents, cousins, and other family that they would experience in a traditional American lifestyle.

The quality and speed of technology is not of American caliber. At the same time, the children learn Spanish at school, surrounding by classmates who look different and are raised differently.

Inferior educational resources open the possibility of missionary parents being forced to homeschool their children. The medical care is also lacking and with Titus’ needs, Christi oftentimes finds herself having to split her family apart so that he can get quality care and treatment in the United States.

“Kids are going to act out because they’re saying ‘goodbye’ all the time,” Christi shares. “It’s really hard to see that as a parent. The oldest are 7 and 5 and they know how far their grandma and grandpa are. That stuff is really hard on them.”

Be willing to ask tough questions

Before deciding to pack bags and move to a developing country, the couple cautions aspiring long-term missionaries to reflect on themselves and the genuineness behind their desire for the change. Here are some recommended questions and thoughts to ponder.

  1. Do not base your idea of what missionary life would be on short-term missionary trips.
  2. Do not expect to walk into a new place and be automatically accepted into the culture and people’s homes. Relationships and trust are built and earned over time.
  3. Decide whether you have a personal agenda in mind or truly have a higher calling. A personal agenda, no matter how well intentioned, can lead to disappointment. Take time to pray, seek wise counsel, and listen to what God says to you.
  4. Do not expect to make an impact overnight. It is a process – and it can be disheartening even to those who have great confidence in what God is doing.
  5. Come alongside the locals. No one will trust if you walk in with an American agenda.
  6. It is crucial to have a support system whether at church, ex-American patriots, etc. These should usually be people outside family and employers who can objectively hear the truth about the “good, the bad and the straight-up ugly who you can cry with and tell your doubts and fears.”
  7. Learn to lean on others more than you have before, especially if you need someone to send medical supplies or other mail.
  8. Do not underestimate the importance of setting a timeline for yourself and use it to set realistic goals.

No regrets

Despite the challenges that come with their chosen lifestyle they feel privileged and honored, and do not envision a life of true purpose and fulfillment any other way.

“We’re nothing special. We’re just regular people,” Christi shares. “Our kids throw fits in the middle of restaurants and we still have struggles like other couples. And yet, we are fully aware of our purpose in serving in a foreign land. We all have a purpose – no matter where we are. If people remember only one thing, I’d want it to be this: ‘Follow God’s calling for your life.’”

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