Much has been made about the strong morale of the Ukrainian army – and a Baptist pastor from Latvia has played a small but crucial role.
In organising the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the beleaguered Donbas region for several years, Elmārs Plavins also helped to shape the creation of a modern chaplaincy service for the Ukrainian army. And since February he has participated in his country’s response, including organising the shelter of families of Ukrainian soldiers in Latvia.
Elmārs has been a chaplain with the Latvian army since 1997, the last 15 years of which have been as chief chaplain. His association with Ukraine began during a tour to Iraq where he met some Ukrainian soldiers. When the war in the Donbas region began in 2014, he contacted his Ukrainian friends again – and realised they needed help.
Using contacts in Sweden, Germany, France and other western countries, he began to organise the delivery of humanitarian aid. Over time this has totalled more than 400 tonnes. Elmārs makes clear it has been a huge joint effort, but nevertheless, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy awarded him a medal of honour last year.
Since 2015 he visited Ukraine’s eastern front around four times a year, showing what it meant to be a chaplain, and giving useful advice to enable his Ukrainian counterparts to set up something similar.
In presenting Elmārs with the medal at the ceremony in November 2021, Olexandr Mischenko, the Ambassador of Ukraine to Latvia, emphasised how the Latvian Baptist pastor had made “a great personal contribution to the development of a modern chaplaincy service in the Ukrainian army.”
Naturally his involvement and relationship with Ukrainians has made him a key person in Latvia’s response since the war broke out. Elmārs has been arranging the humanitarian aid logistics for Ukraine as well as helping to shelter the families of Ukrainian soldiers in Latvia.
“I think God prepared me for this moment for the last eight years,” Elmārs reflected. “God always sees things forward. We must only obey God. When I got a call from Ukraine to help. I told them I will help you.”
As we visit the shelter provided by the local government in Latvia, Ukrainian families show deep appreciation to Elmārs. One of the women brought him her phone during a video call with her Kyiv-based husband, who wanted to directly thank Elmārs for his help.
Aside from his support of Ukraine, Elmārs ministers to his own people. Until the end of January 2022, Elmārs pastored a church in the capital Riga. He then received a call to plant a new Baptist church in the city of Ikšķile, which is funded by the Baptists from Norway via EBF Mission Partnerships. Life is busy, but he has the support of his family and others – and a desire for people to know God.
“We already have our goals: family focused, practice hospitality, service to neighbours. Here in Ikšķile, there are so many families with children.
“I could not do it if my family did not support me. My daughters told me that we will do it with you, daddy. My son said that he will help with youth and my wife, already started bible studies for women.
“And I have many teams, there are many volunteers who are helping with different things. I can say that, around me, I have many angels.”
He adds: “I would like to see people come to the Lord. I would like to see people free from their sins. I would like to see them have more friendship with God. That’s all. And other practical things, how we will do that, how we will do better.”
Elsewhere in Latvia, several Baptist churches are receiving refugees. Although Latvia does not share a border with Ukraine, many Ukrainian refugees have chosen to come there because of the language. Many still speak and understand Russian in Latvia.
Churches in Riga and Orge already are hosting families from Ukraine so it was not unusual to see some people interpreting into Russian for them in the church services. They even sang some worship songs in Russian to make them feel welcome.
“It is good to see that people are hosting families, especially kids and mothers from Ukraine here in Latvia,” said Kaspars Šterns, Bishop of the Baptist Union of Latvia. “I think we have around 400 people being hosted through our church in Latvia.
“We are also developing a centre in Riga, one church is opening to help with food and some psychological therapy and just to provide events and place them to be and connect with each other.
“We are collecting funds to help the Ukrainian family who are in need right now. There are also groups of people who are going to the Poland and Ukraine border bringing people to Latvia or some other countries to be safe and secure and to take care of them.
“We are glad that our people were quick to mobilise and respond to the situation.”
Story by Tim Solwoong Kim (EBF)
Written by Paul Hobson (Baptist Times)