Serving God’s People in Ukraine
Joshua Searle of Spurgeon's College reports on a Mission/Humanitarian trip to Ukraine in February 2016
Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has been the major hub of evangelistic and humanitarian activity throughout Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. Ukraine is often referred to as the ‘Bible Belt’ of the Former Soviet Union. Despite strong resistance from entrenched Soviet mentalities and unfavourable legislation, Ukrainian Christians succeeded in establishing various NGOs, Christian missions, and centres of theological education.
The Ukrainian Baptist community has often been at the forefront of these initiatives. For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, the Holy Spirit has been active in various ways in Ukrainian society in the 25 years since the demise of the USSR. I have long been convinced that of all the nations in Eastern Europe, it is Ukraine which has the greatest potential to become a beacon of light and hope to the people of the Former Soviet Union.
My passion for Ukraine goes back many years. Between 2011 and 2013 I worked with my Ukrainian wife, Varduyi, as a missionary at Donetsk Christian University (DCU), which was a major centre of Baptist education in Eastern Ukraine. Sadly, in 2014, following the Russian-led uprising in Eastern Ukraine, DCU was forcibly seized by Russian special forces and has now been turned into a military base, home to around 400 militants.
Despite moving back to the UK in 2013, my passion for Ukraine and my sense of solidarity with its people has only increased. After witnessing for myself the suffering of so many vulnerable and needy people, I and a group of friends from Baptist churches and the Northumbria Community felt God’s call to organise a mission trip to Eastern Ukraine (pictured below). During the February half term break at Spurgeon’s College, where I am a tutor, we had an opportunity to see for ourselves the incredible things that God is doing in Ukraine.
The trip even exceeded my high expectations in terms of the impact and the encounters that we had with all kinds of people – some in really terrible situations of disease, disability and poverty. It was a privilege to have ministered to these people in Christ's name and to have seen God at work in Ukraine, especially among the sick, the disabled, the homeless and the refugees.
The trip was an entirely unofficial undertaking in so far as we went out as a group of friends, rather than as representatives of an organisation, and we relied on my friends and local contacts through Mission Eurasia and in various churches that we visited in Eastern Ukraine. Thankfully, owing to the generosity of friends and family, we raised enough money to purchase a considerable stock of essential medical supplies for a disabled home that we visited nearby my wife’s hometown. We were also able to buy food supplies for refugees we visited, whose houses had been destroyed as a result of the war in Donetsk.
Amazing ministry to the homeless - led by former addicts
There were so many moving experiences and profound impressions that it is difficult to select which ones to mention in this brief report. Let me recount a couple of stories of those we were able to serve during our trip.
On our first day in Eastern Ukraine we met two street pastors, Yuri and Vasya, who are linked to the ‘School Without Walls’ initiative of Mission Eurasia. These two men have an incredible ministry to the homeless people of the city of Zaporizhe. Vasya was a drug dealer who was a well-known figure in the criminal underworld of Zaporizhe. He was himself addicted to drugs and was so ill that at one stage he weighed just 40kg. Looking at Vasya now, with his tall, sturdy frame it was almost incredible to hear that only about three years ago he was, in his words, ‘nothing but skin and bones’.
While he was recovering in a rehabilitation clinic, Vasya had an incredible encounter with Christ, who called him to reach out and rescue the homeless of Zaporizhe. After he had recovered, he began to preach the gospel in the clinic to other addicts.
One man in particular caught his attention. His name was Yuri. Vasya felt God saying to him that he was calling Yuri to Himself and that He wanted Yuri to serve the homeless community in Zaporizhe. Vasya befriended Yuri and persisted in ministering to him, despite Yuri’s rude rebuffs and refusal to listen. Eventually, Vasya’s patience was rewarded and Yuri, too, was claimed by Christ. Yuri told us how the decisive moment came while he was watching Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. His wife, who was also addicted to drugs, was so impressed by Yuri’s transformation, that she too gave her life to Christ.
Ever since that moment, Yuri has pioneered an amazing ministry to the homeless people in the city. When we were invited to participate in one of the events organised by Yuri and Vasya in which we distributed food, clothing and Bibles to the homeless, we were amazed how these two men were able to communicate the gospel to the people in transformative yet simple ways that connected the gospel message of hope with the desperate circumstances in which these people found themselves – circumstances about which Yuri and Vasya knew all to well, since they had been there themselves.
'I just want to return home when the war is over' - Donetsk
Another moving experience was our visit to a group of refugees living in a run down ex-children’s camp from the war-torn Donetsk Region of Eastern Ukraine. One of the refugees, Natalya, told us that she and her husband, Nikolai, became frightened when when the bombing started. Their son, aged 26, was shot dead on his way back home from work. Natalya and Nikolai fled, leaving everything behind – their home, some land, a car and a vineyard. Nikolai recently had a stroke and can no longer speak.
We asked Natalya what were her hopes for the future. ‘I just want to return home when the war is over. My roots are there – my vineyard and my rose garden’. She was delighted when we gave her a Bible, saying, ‘I left my Bible behind when I fled – I’m so glad to have another one.’
'In an instant he had lost everything' - Dnipro
After sharing with the refugees and homeless in the city of Zaporizhe, we travelled to the neighbouring region of Dnipro. There we visited a disabled home that left a deep impression on the UK team. We witnessed a level of suffering, desolation and sadness that came as a shock even to those of us who have been working in Ukraine for many years.
One particularly moving encounter was with one of the residents, Sergey (pictured with Joshua). Having all but lost the ability to speak, the chaplain explained that Sergey was once happily married and that he had a good job and a house where he and his wife lived with their three young children.
In 2002, Sergey went on holiday with his family to Crimea and on their way home, Sergey stopped the car in a layby to get some food and drink from a nearby shop. While Sergey was away a lorry had collided into the back of the car where Sergey’s wife and children had remained behind. They were all killed instantly.
Seeing the mangled remains of his dead family in the wreck of the car, Sergey flew into a furious rage and went over to the driver of the lorry, who was lightly injured and whose vehicle had come to a stop a short distance down the road. Sergey discovered that the lorry driver was drunk and in that moment beat the driver to death in a fit of spontaneous rage. As a result, Sergey was sent to prison for ten years. In an instant he had lost everything: his wife and children, his job, his freedom and his faith in God.
Over time, Sergey also lost his health as he became depressed and began to develop an addiction to alcohol and drugs. He even lost the ability to speak. When he was released from prison, he was sent to the care home that we visited near Dnipro. The local Baptist pastor, who serves as part-time chaplain to the care home, took pity on Sergey and began to speak to him about the gospel.
In 2014 Sergey committed his life to Christ and was baptised in a local river. With his face beaming, he proudly showed us the photographs of his baptism, which depicted him entering the water in his white robes on a beautiful, sunny spring day. As we were viewing the photos, the pastor also explained that when Sergey emerged from the waters of baptism he began to speak words of praise and thanksgiving. This was the first time he had spoken for over ten years.
It was a privilege to meet Sergey, to pray for him and to bring him a large supply of essential Western-quality medicine, which will hopefully help him to recover further. There was something simple and Christlike in Sergey’s rugged appearance. He was clearly very ill, but beyond the emaciated appearance, it was almost as though we perceived the face of Christ in the countenance of this man who had suffered so much in life.
God is doing great things in Ukraine amid the tragedy and pain
As is often the case with these kinds of ventures, we ended up being served by those we met in Ukraine even more than we were able to serve them. I am also amazed at the impact we were able to have. I always take it as a sign that God was with us during the trip when the outcomes and the blessings that we were able to impart far exceed the effort and resources that went into the planning and organisation.
God is doing great things in Ukraine. The nation is suffering terribly, but there are signs of hope that can be perceived amid all the tragedy and pain. The anecdotes above offer just a tiny snapshot into what we experienced on the trip. I really hope that readers of this article will be able to visit Ukraine and see for themselves the great things God is doing among His people in this remarkable country.
Joshua Searle is Tutor in Theology and Public Thought; and Assistant Director of Postgraduate Research at Spurgeon's College. He is the author of the 2016 Whitley Lecture Church Without Walls - Post Soviet Baptists After the Ukrainian Revolution, 2013-14