We arrived in Kiev after a 15-hour drive from Warsaw. The war continues, the Ukrainian air space is closed, and the best way to get to Kiev is by land. The leaders of the Polish and Ukrainian Baptist Unions have provided us with their best drivers who became our companions during our week in Ukraine.
Our group consisted of seven people: Elijah Brown and Marsha Scipio from the Baptist World Alliance, Cecilie Larsen from the Uniting Church in Sweden, Morten Kofoed from the Baptist Union of Denmark, Jack Curham from World Relief, and Alan Donaldson and Helle Liht from the European Baptist Federation. We were invited to be part of the conference for the Ukrainian pastors, to hear their stories and experience some of the work done by the churches during the last 15 months under the conditions of the ongoing war.
Destruction in Irpin near Kiev is massive.
The country of Ukraine and its people are going through a valley of death. The amount of destruction we see when we visit Irpin and Bucha near Kiev, is heart-breaking. Many people have left the area, many buildings are in ruins and covered with soot. And Bucha has become a symbol of unimaginable violence against Ukrainian people. A temporary memorial in the church yard is dedicated to more than 400 people, including children, massacred by the Russian troops and buried in a mass grave right behind the church. The photographs published by international media and now displayed in the Bucha church are heavy with horror, yet they present only a fraction of the atrocities against the Ukrainian people.
Photo exhibition in Bucha church hall.
However, the Bucha government representative who showed us around the church yard, the memorial and the photo exhibition, finishes our visitation with a message of hope: “One day, this site will again be a place where the children can play in peace.” Local architects have already sketched a beautiful area with small waterbodies, sculptures, flower bushes and a playground for children. Hope for better future overcomes the destruction and gives strength to Ukrainian people.
The twenty five regional pastors at the conference shared with us the stories of their churches and their people. In many places in eastern Ukraine life is extremely difficult. In Zaporizhzhia region, about 60% of their 118 churches are still under occupation. Since December last year, it has not been possible to cross the frontline and to support the churches in the occupied territories. Other regions under occupation are Crimea, parts of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, Mykolayiv, and Zaporizhzhya oblasts. Restrictions on religious freedom make the life of the churches in these regions even harder. Requirements imposed by the Russian government officers threaten the continuation of the churches and their ministry to the surrounding communities. Some churches have been already closed by the Russian government and pastors imprisoned. 56 churches are destroyed.
President Valerii Antoniuk presents Elijah Brown (BWA) and Alan Donaldson (EBF) with a stone of a destroyed church in Borodianka.
Pastors conference at the Irpin Baptist Centre.
Yet despite all hardships, the pastors tell us how the war has opened up many new oportunities to serve and share the Gospel. Offering shelter, food, medical help and transport has brought thousands and thousands of people in contact with the churches. And together with aid the good news of Jesus Christ is shared too. Pastor Alxender from Poltava tells us that during the last year over 30,000 people have heard the good news of Jesus Christ. By now, there are many new churches planted, and the attendees of the many existing churches are mostly new believers.
Food distribution from a mobile kitchen.
Pastor Dmitro from Kherson region shared a personal story of his grandmother. She often told her grandson about people who shared with her some milk and bread when she was a refugee during the 2nd World War. As a child, he could not understand how she remembered such simple things. Yet today it has become his own experience and the aid he has received through the Ukrainian union from his global Baptist family brings tears to his eyes. At difficult times, people want to cling onto good things. He says, “This is the story I will share with my grandchildren.”
There is so much gratitude expressed to the global Baptist family as we talk to the the pastors, church members, volunteers and people whose lives have changed thanks to different church ministries. In the house of “Good Samaritan” near Lviv, we met Valentina, an elderly lady who had been hiding in her basement in Uman, Donetsk region for 8 months. She was rescued by the volunteers and brought to “Good Samaritan”. She cannot thank enough the “angels” – director Ljuba and her team – who now take care of her. She has no words to describe how good her life is in the house of “Good Samaritan”. Valentina is convinced, “it is heaven.”
Valentina together with her "angel" Ljuba.
We also witnessed a miracle that happened in Irpin a year ago when the frontline of the war was there, and heavy bombing destroyed much of the town and its infrastructure. One of the buildings that was badly damaged was the Irpin Bible Seminary. When Benjamin Brinza, the Vice President of the seminary showed us the building, he took us also to the library. While the rest of the building was in ruins and covered with soot from heavy burning, the library and every single book in it remained completely untouched. Another miracle is that now the ground floor is fully renovated and about 50 students graduated two weeks ago.
Our group in front of Irpin Bible Institue together with its Vice President Benjamin Brinza.
The war continues, and the hard times are far from being over. Yet among the Ukrainian Baptists, the hope in the risen Christ is far stronger. Together with their visionary leaders President Valerii Antoniuk, Vice President Igor Bandura and others, they are convinced that darkness can never overcome the light, and the experience of the extreme evil and dark months of occupation make them stronger Christians who shine brighter.
Please continue to pray for the Ukrainian Baptists, their leaders, pastors and their ministries for displaced peoples. Your prayers and giving make a great difference for their lives and bring glory to God.
For more information and to join us in prayer for Ukraine please register for our monthly prayer gathering.
Photos are provided by the group members.
Watch also related videos:
Elijah Brown, An Update from Bucha
Alan Donaldson and Helle Liht, Impressions from Ukraine