‘We would sing louder than the shelling’
SOPOT, Poland — “Keep praying, Sasha!” Huddled in a hallway…
The question caught Sorina Vintila off guard: “Does God love Russians?”
A 5-year-old named Zahar asked it at the end of a Bible lesson about a boy named Samuel — about the importance of listening to God.
Zahar was living in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv when Russia invaded his homeland. His house was destroyed. He and his twin brother, along with their mother and grandmother, fled to Romania while their father stayed behind to fight in the Ukrainian army.
Thankfully, Vintila has gotten used to being off guard. Eight months ago she and her husband, Dragos, quickly transformed their church’s meeting place into a relief center for the thousands of Ukrainians who arrived at their doorstep.
Now the Cluj-Napoca Church of Christ, where Dragos Vintila serves as minister, houses and feeds refugees. Church members operate a free grocery store for their city’s guests — and teach Bible to those interested.
Yes, God loves Russians, Sorina Vintila told Zahar and his classmates. But “God doesn’t like when we are doing bad things. It makes him sad. God wants us to listen and obey him, just as Samuel did.”
Five-year-olds aren’t the only ones asking that question, said Fedya Chernichkin. The Ukrainian minister recently traveled to Izium, a city reclaimed from Russian forces by Ukraine’s army. Chernichkin serves with a ministry called Volunteer Brothers that transports food and medical supplies east, near the front lines, and ferries women and children west.
In addition to remnants of Russian tank treads, discarded land mines and burned-out buildings, Chernichkin and his cohorts saw insatiable need among those living in Izium. The 1,800 loaves of bread they brought went quickly. Power is out, and winter is coming.
“God loves everyone, but not everyone loves God. The first commandment (‘love the Lord your God with all your heart’) can be fulfilled only when you fulfill the second — love your neighbor.”
“God loves everyone, but not everyone loves God,” Chernichkin told an adult who asked a question similar to Zahar’s. “The first commandment (‘love the Lord your God with all your heart’) can be fulfilled only when you fulfill the second — love your neighbor.”
“The question hurts,” said a missionary who has worked with Churches of Christ in western Siberia.
But for a child such as Zahar, who sees Russians only as the people who drove him from his home, the question also is understandable, the church member said.
The Christian Chronicle reached out to missionaries and former missionaries to Russia and to Russians who worship among the 40 to 50 Churches of Christ spread across the vast nation of 144 million souls.
Russian Christians shared their views through text and voice messages sent across encrypted mobile phone apps. Russia’s government inflicts severe penalties on those who spread what it deems as false news, so the Chronicle is withholding their names.
“The attitude toward the conflict among church members here varies. I wish I could say something different,” said a church leader in St. Petersburg.
Some see Russia’s actions as defensive — an effort to stop Ukrainian forces from killing people in Donbas, a region in eastern Ukraine where groups of pro-Russian separatists seized power in 2014. They also express concerns about NATO’s expansion eastward.
“This is all politics — political games. We are one nation, and we should not fight each other.”
“This is all politics — political games,” said a church member in Russia’s capital, Moscow. “We are one nation, and we should not fight each other.”
Others see the Donbas situation as “just an excuse for aggression,” the church leader in St. Petersburg said. They believe “there is no justification for Russian troops being in Ukraine.”
Discussions about the conflict became heated and “destructive,” the church leader said. The same happened in churches across Russia. When Christians from multiple congregations gathered for a recent summer camp in Russia, organizers decided that the topic was off limits, said the missionary to Siberia.
“Generally, and this is not just my opinion, we think that we need to focus our eyes on eternal things that unite us,” the leader in St. Petersburg said. Christians should “abstain from cursing each other, so that after (the conflict) is over we can still restore what was damaged.”
Another church member in St. Petersburg disagrees with the notion that “this is all politics, and the church is outside politics.
“This is a very convenient position for compromise and uncertainty,” he said.
The church member, who opposes the war, laments the support for Russian aggression that he hears from leaders in the Russian Orthodox church — and the relative silence of his country’s evangelical churches.
His views have alienated him from other Russian Christians, he said. Now, “I receive very great support from my Ukrainian brothers and sisters. They continue to love us, despite everything that Russia has done and what we Christians have not done.”
As the Chronicle began contacting Christians in Russia, President Vladimir Putin announced a call-up of Russian men with military service records to serve in the escalating Ukraine conflict.
That could include the St. Petersburg church member. He served in the Soviet army and has the rank of officer.
“I think sooner or later I will also receive an order to report to the assembly point,” he told the Chronicle. Without giving specifics, he added, “I know what I will do in this situation.”
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More than 194,000 Russians have fled to neighboring countries, including a few leaders among Churches of Christ. One minister contacted the Chronicle after he and one of his relatives safely crossed the border into Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. Traveling by bus, he passed a miles-long line of cars waiting at the border. Some had been there for days.
“We are against any support of this war in Ukraine,” he said. The decision was painful, but he and his family decided that “the most effective way to avoid support of the war is by going away from the country.”
Recently, as Putin announced the annexation of four territories in Ukraine, including parts of the Donbas, he decried the actions of “Western elites” whom he accused of supporting a “complete renunciation of what it means to be human.”
“The overthrow of faith and traditional values and the suppression of freedom are coming to resemble a ‘religion in reverse’ — pure Satanism,” Putin said.
Russia recently amended its constitution to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, and in December Putin voiced support for “the traditional approach that a woman is a woman, a man is a man, a mother is a mother and a father is a father.”
Many Russian Christians agree with these sentiments, but “this cannot justify any of the things he is doing in Ukraine!” a church member in southern Russia told the Chronicle.
Putin’s statement on the annexation is “just another reason why it’s important to study your Bible, to learn and live out good theology,” said a missionary to western Russia. “It is easier to recognize lies when you know the truth. Dictators come and go. The true faith stands forever.”
“It is easier to recognize lies when you know the truth. Dictators come and go. The true faith stands forever.”
In Moscow the conflict has raised questions among church members about why God allows evil in the world, the church member there said.
Despite differing views on the conflict, “we all agreed that Scripture says that we must bring the light and do good in this world,” he said. “That’s the most important thing we can do and the real way we can help. This world, especially now, needs God’s light.”
Several Russian Christians, including the Moscow member, said that they participate in virtual Bible classes and worship services via Zoom with fellow Christians in Ukraine and the U.S.
That kind of interaction happens in person in Tuscumbia, Ala., where a Church of Christ has taken in nearly 20 Ukrainian refugees since the war began. Minister Jeff Abrams has made dozens of mission trips to Ukraine and coordinates an annual “Camp Amerikraine” there. When the conflicts began in 2014, he hosted unity meetings with Russian and Ukrainian Christians.
“Here in our community they coexist,” he told the Chronicle by cell phone as he shuttled a group of his church’s Ukrainian guests to Walmart. On Friday nights the Ukrainians and a few Americans gather for a devotional and fellowship. A Russian Christian couple joins them from nearby Florence.
“They have a lot of simple questions: how to get stuff done, how to buy things. Recently they asked me about bandages for wounds — where do you get them here?” said one of the Russians, Eugene, who came to Alabama about four years ago on a student visa. Now he’s helping the Ukrainians get their driver’s licenses. His wife teaches them English.
In one sense, Putin is right, Eugene said. The Russian president insists that Russians and Ukrainians are one nation.
In Christ, they are.
“I feel like I’m back home in Russia,” Eugene said of the Friday night meetings. “Maybe it’s the language. Maybe it’s the jokes. It’s hard for me to understand some American jokes; it’s still foreign for me. With the Ukrainian people. I don’t feel any barriers.”
“Does God love Russians?”
Back in Romania, Sorina Vintila worried about her answer to Zohar’s question. Did he understand?
Two days later, Zohar handed her a drawing that said “I love you.” He had another one for her translator.
“My heart was full of joy,” she said. “Although he might have not fully understood my explanation, he did understand I am on their side, and he is safe with us.”
Workers with Healing Hands International, a Tennessee-based relief and development ministry supported by Churches of Christ, were visiting the church’s relief center in Cluj-Napoca and heard Zohar ask the question.
“It just really hit me how much trauma these children are under,” said one of the workers, Cindy Herring. “We can’t forget them. This is long from over.”
Reflecting on Sorina Vintila’s response, Herring said, “God gave her just the right words to say.”
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