« Response Autumn 2015

The Outsider

Inspired by Immigrants, Tatyana Lats Crosses Cultural Borders

By Clint Kelly | Portraits by Garland Cary

30,000 Russian and Ukrainian immigrants live in King County

“Many of these immigrants have survived torture and seen things that no one should see. They are stressed out and need rest and normalcy.”

Tatyana Lats

Images she has never seen have indelibly shaped Tatyana Lats’ life.

Her maternal grandfather, the first to bring Protestant Christianity to his village in Ukraine, was jailed by the Soviets for his faith.

His mother — Lats’ great-grandmother — sometimes walked a three-day journey, nearly 75 miles, to bring him bread because his jailers refused to feed him enough.

Lats’ ancestors’ stand against religious tyranny lit a fire in her heart. Lats would be the first in her family to graduate from college. She would advocate for immigrant refugees fleeing intolerable conditions in their homelands.

And she would boldly and openly bring her Christian beliefs to bear in her life.

The path was not an easy one. The 2015 Seattle Pacific University graduate’s double major in psychology and sociology meant asking difficult questions and discussing things such as the sociology of evil. For a theory class, she read Karl Marx, whose philosophy she hated. But every academic exercise and class discussion became a building block to eventually fear no ideas and to learn to engage with intellectual dilemmas.

“The questions Tatyana asked were always penetrating and insightful,” says Associate Professor of Sociology David Diekema. “Whether the issue was crime control, Marx’s critique of capitalism, or the failure of the world to respond to the Rwandan genocide, she thought deeply about the issues and developed into a very mature Christian thinker.”

Lats was in University Scholars, SPU’s interdisciplinary honors program for highly motivated students. For her University Scholars honors thesis last year, she wrote about the role that religious support plays in the psychological well-being of Eastern European immigrants dealing with the acculturation process. She collected data from more than 200 recent immigrants from Eastern Europe in what Diekema calls “an extraordinary accomplishment for an undergraduate.”

Lats found that religious support positively predicted well-being and that higher levels of religious support moderated the negative effects caused by family distance (immigrants commonly distance themselves from their families when they move to new cultures). Lats is revising her thesis for submission to a professional journal in psychology.

That her faith has grown significantly in the process only strengthens Lats’ ability to defend her Christian values and bring them to bear in any situation.

“Whenever we read a book, Dr. Diekema required us to critique that author or challenge a particular idea as presented,” she says. “Then it gets easier to see the good and the flaws in the argument. Is it true or not? Does it align with my faith or not?”

Tatyana Lats

“At SPU, we are not left with just a PG version of Christianity. We learn that Christianity is both cultural and countercultural.”

Lats cultivates relationships with immigrants flowing into Seattle from around the world, especially the nearly 30,000 Russian and Ukrainian immigrants the U.S. Census Bureau says live in King County. “Jesus was a refugee,” she says without hesitation.

As a student, she continued to attend her Ukrainian immigrant church, the Church of Grace in Renton, Washington. In her senior year, she interned with the International Counseling and Community Services program of Lutheran Community Services.

“Many of these immigrants have survived torture and seen things that no one should see,” says Lats. “They are stressed out and need rest and normalcy.”

As a program evaluator, she listened to people’s stories, tracked their progress, and helped with case management.

And always, at the back of her mind, is the mental picture of an imprisoned grandfather waiting for bread from the hand of his mother.


During her quarter studying abroad, Lats visited Rwanda (top) where, with other students from Uganda Christian Unversity, she studied Rwanda's post-genocide reconciliation efforts. In Uganda, she went on a safari in Murchison Falls National Park (right) and interned with Retrak, a faith-based charity that houses homeless youth in the outskirts of Kampala.

Still, Lats is pragmatic about what God requires of her. “Christianity is so cross-cultural and radical in its message of grace,” she says. “At SPU, we are not left with just a PG version of Christianity. We learn that Christianity is both cultural and countercultural.”

A self-confessed nerd who loves to read, hike, and spend time with her parents and three younger siblings, Lats emigrated at the age of 5 with her family from Ukraine to Washington. She found encouraging teachers who told her that despite the fact she knew no one who had graduated from college, she could win scholarships and earn a degree.

Lats was an insatiable learner. When she received her first copy of etc, Seattle Pacific’s magazine for high school students, she was in awe, but wasn’t sure how she would pay tuition costs. She applied anyway, hoping for funding, and received a full scholarship.

Her reaction? “I was up and down screaming!”

SPU challenged Lats’ faith and her view of the world, especially interacting with professors from many different Christian denominations who were all committed to a shared faith. “It opened my eyes to engage people I would not normally have engaged. I was taught to step outside my culture — both my Ukrainian and Christian cultures — and to be more open-minded and exposed to new ideas,” she says.

... a leader “who gives voice to those who experience displacement and marginalization.”

In 2013, Lats spent a quarter studying abroad at Uganda Christian University, near Kampala, the country’s capital city. Some students opted for Oxford, but she wanted a different cross-cultural experience and hands-on work. She lived with host families and saw a very different life than her stateside experience. Ugandans made more time for each other and emphasized hospitality. “Some people see Uganda as so poor,” Lats observes, “but there’s so much more to it than that. People make much more time for hospitality, for one another.”

She helped at Open Door, a German mission to Ugandan street children. She taught English and Bible lessons at the mission’s residential school, and health, hygiene, and Bible lessons at homeless youth shelters and in Katanga, a Kampala slum.

Lats graduated from SPU and this fall started studying for a master’s degree in social work at the University of Washington. Paul Kim, Seattle Pacific associate professor of psychology and her undergraduate thesis advisor, says he saw “tremendous growth” not only in her research skills, but also in her vocational drive to work with immigrant and refugee populations. He calls her a leader “who gives voice to those who experience displacement and marginalization, using her scholarly and clinical skills obtained at SPU.” Grandfather would be proud.