‘We stay, pray and try to bring hope’
Christians across Ukraine woke to the sounds of explosions as…
The number of Churches of Christ in eastern Ukraine once rivaled the number in the rest of Europe combined.
Now congregations are scattered across the nation of 44 million souls. Some church members are internally displaced in their own nation. Some have started new lives in Europe and the U.S. Others live under Russian rule in the occupied Crimean Peninsula or under pro-Russian separatists in the self-declared republics of eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s latest incursions into Ukraine have caused additional disruptions and displacement among the nation’s Churches of Christ.
As Christians around the world — including church members in Russia — pray for the safety of their brothers and sisters in Ukraine, here’s some background gleaned from four reporting trips to Ukraine and dozens of interviews with Ukrainian believers during the past two decades.
The Eastern European nation, once part of the Soviet Union, has deep Christian roots, dating back to the Byzantine Empire in the 900s A.D. During the Soviet years, many Ukrainians remained loyal to the Ukrainian Orthodox church.
As communism began to collapse in the region in the late 1980s, Ukrainians already were familiar with the work of Churches of Christ through ministries including Eastern European Mission, which smuggled pocket-sized New Testaments and Christian literature under the Iron Curtain from its printing facility in Vienna, Austria. Ukrainian-born evangelists including Epi Stephan Bilak helped distribute the contraband. Bilak, who was supported by the Minter Lane Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, broadcast a radio program, “The Messenger of Truth,” into Eastern Europe from Switzerland.
Missionaries including Tim Johnson journeyed to the capital, then known by its Russian pronunciation, Kiev (“KEE-ev”), by most Americans. The missionaries worked with groups of believers who met in basements. Some had family members detained or killed by Soviet secret police, Johnson said.
Johnson and his wife, Darla, planted the Nivki Church of Christ in Kiev in the early 1990s. A year later, after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union, more missionaries came — including students from universities associated with Churches of Christ. Mission teams from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., worked with infant congregations, planted new ones and launched a campus ministry.
Bilak and his family returned to Ukraine and planted the Old Park Church of Christ in the western Ukrainian town of Ternopil.
At first, the novelty of American preachers — rarely seen in the Soviet world — drew big crowds across Eastern Europe. Evangelists from Churches of Christ found the eastern, Russian-speaking region of Ukraine to be particularly receptive.
The Soviet Union paved the way for this receptivity, said Evgen Sosnovsky, a miner from the eastern Ukrainian town of Dobropole. During the Cold War, those who disagreed with state-enforced communism were given two choices — exile in Siberia or labor in the coal mines of Ukraine’s Donbas region, Sosnovsky said. As a result, Donbas became the homeland of what he called “free thinkers.”
Sosnovsky became a Christian in 2002 and took the Gospel into the coal mines of Donbas. To reach the coal, miners had to squeeze into small elevators for descents that could take up to an hour. Sosnovsky used the time to conduct Bible studies. Soon, he was ministering for a church of 30.
In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, churches were planted and grew quickly. The Petrovsky Church of Christ in Donetsk had more than 400 members by the mid-2000s. Its minister, Sasha Prokopchuk, once served in the Red Army. He launched a television ministry and began conducting annual retreats in Crimea, Ukraine’s peninsula on the Black Sea.
In waters once patrolled by Soviet submarines, he baptized souls into Christ.
The awakening wasn’t limited to eastern Ukraine. Across the nation, Ukraine’s political leaders called for the teaching of religion as part of its ethics and morality curriculum. Eastern European Mission, which once smuggled Bibles into Ukraine, began printing colorful, hardcover children’s Bibles in former communist nations and distributing them in Ukraine’s public schools.
In 2011, The Christian Chronicle visited schools in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk with representatives of EEM. Workers with the nonprofit had heard rumors that the Bibles they supplied weren’t being used in the schools and were being sold. However, at each school the team visited, EEM’s Bibles were displayed prominently in libraries and were found in classrooms.
At Public School No. 11, school administrators rounded up students from its ethics team, which had just won a national competition based on the students’ knowledge of the Bible and Christian ethics.
“The morals of the stories (in Scripture) help us choose the right way in our lives,” said Viktoriya Kalynyuk, then 16. “These stories protect us from bad decisions.”
The students didn’t grow up under communism, but their parents and grandparents did. But throughout the Soviet years they had nurtured a love of church and the Bible and passed it on to their children.
Another student, Ihor Kozak, said, “We know that Christianity is the greatest treasure we have. Our country was part of the Soviet Union. Now the people of Ukraine can believe in the God they want. After 70 years, people want to believe in the Master who loves us.”
Nickoli Plaksin, a Ukrainian who worked with EEM at the time, beamed with pride as he listened to the students speak.
“That’s the future of my country,” he said.
Also in 2011, the Chronicle reported on Sasha Prokopchuk’s retreat on the Crimean Peninsula and traveled from there to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine to visit Churches of Christ in what was becoming known as the “Bible Belt” of Eastern Europe.
Three years later, both of those locales flew the Russian flag.
Throughout its brief history, independent Ukraine had experienced divided loyalties between Russia (favored by Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east) and the nations of western Europe (favored by Ukrainian speakers in the west). Presidents were elected, sometimes by narrow margins, who leaned toward one camp or the other.
Protests erupted in November 2013 when then-president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Yanikovych, who is from the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, was seen by many Ukrainians as pro-Russian. The rallies became violent in January 2014 after Ukraine’s parliament, which was dominated by Yanukovych’s supporters, passed laws to repress the protests. After the deaths of 130 Ukrainians, including 18 police officers, public opinion turned increasingly against Yanikovych, who fled the country ahead of an impeachment vote.
In Crimea, pro-Russian separatists began to form militias in opposition to Ukraine’s new, transitional government. Russia invaded and annexed the peninsula. Similar separatist groups formed in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and began a long conflict with the Ukrainian military, though Russia did not formally invade those regions.
Separatists in Donetsk seized church buildings, including the meeting place of the Petrovsky Church of Christ. Many church members fled westward to the capital, which is increasingly referred to by its Ukrainian pronunciation, Kyiv (“KEEV”).
Despite the hardships they endured, the refugees played a role in revitalizing Churches of Christ in central and western Ukraine, church members told the Chronicle. Christians launched ministries to serve the displaced, including Let’s Love Good News, a relief effort headed by Ukrainian minister Dmitriy Grischuk.
As Ukraine and Russia battle over political borders, “God is expanding the borders of his glory,” Grischuk said. As they serve, Christians have learned “what it means to trust God.”
Church members also have made efforts to maintain unity between Churches of Christ in Ukraine and Russia. Jeff Abrams, a minister for the Tuscumbia Church of Christ in Alabama, makes frequent trips to Ukraine. Abrams helped to organize a meeting of church members from both nations in the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk in 2014.
“Unity — this is our prayer, our dream,” Abrams told the 200 church members who gathered in for the meeting. “We shall not be judged by the color of our national flags but by the content of our character.
“When the devil seeks to divide us, I say ‘no.’ You say ‘nyet!’ … To God’s irresistible dream that we be one, united church … I say ‘yes.’ You say ‘da!’”
Now, as bombs explode in cities across Ukraine and Russian tanks move into the breakaway republics in the east, church members are taking shelter in basements.
A few hours after the bombardments began, church member Alexander Rodichev told the Chronicle that he and other Christians in eastern Ukraine are preparing to head toward the cities of the west.
“They are safer,” he said, “but not safe.”
Thousands of miles and an ocean away, Abrams posted a plea for believers worldwide to pray.
“Church, we have members of Christ’s Body in Ukraine under siege,” he said. “Some are crowded in underground subways, some are stuck in traffic jams, some are on trains, some are sheltered in basements. Some are unsure of the next step — or even the next breath.
“Focus, please. Their plight is our priority.”
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