As John Solovei, a chaplain with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team (RRT), conversed with two Russian-speaking Ukrainian patients inside a Samaritan’s Purse Emergency Field Hospital tent in Lviv, he realized that God had prepared him for such a time as this.
Four years earlier, at the age of 70, John began studying Russian—determined to read a journal written in the Slavic language by his grandfather, who had immigrated to the United States from Belarus.
“My thought has always been that the Lord prompted me to study Russian for the purpose of reuniting our family,” said the retired high school French teacher and insurance agency owner from southeastern Connecticut. “Perhaps God had a larger, more Kingdom-worthy purpose in mind. Perhaps the Lord prompted me to study Russian so that I could minister more effectively to a people who need encouragement, who need to be given a reason to hope, who need to hear that they are not alone, that God has not abandoned them.”
John’s developing Russian dialect was a welcome sound to Vadim and Aleksei. Both men had fled from predominantly Russian-speaking cities in eastern Ukraine to the Samaritan’s Purse Emergency Field Hospital situated in an underground parking garage beneath a sprawling shopping mall in Lviv, just 45 miles from Poland’s border.
About halfway into Vadim’s 10-day stay at the underground hospital in April, his stoic countenance slowly softened as medical staff lovingly treated the infected wounds on his legs and feet, day and night. In the evenings, chaplains and medical staff would encircle Vadim and Aleksei’s beds and read Scripture and sing hymns such as “The Steadfast Love of the Lord.”
As John talked and prayed in Russian with the men several times a day, he watched as smiles broke across their solemn faces. Within a few days, both men voiced repentant prayers and professed Jesus as their Lord and Savior. While hospitalized, they began reading a Russian Bible—a rare find in Lviv, the heart of Ukrainian culture and the nation’s seventh most populated city. Emboldened by the Scripture’s implications for their lives, the men began volunteering to lead group prayer times.
Anna Karavska, a 21-year-old Ukrainian nurse, medical student and Samaritan’s Purse volunteer, regularly joined in the worship services around Vadim and Aleksei’s hospital beds. And she could often be found listening attentively when John and Ukrainian RRT Chaplain Vitaly Tkachuk were answering the men’s questions about the Bible. A few days after Vadim and Aleksei committed their lives to Christ, Anna prayed with Vitaly and placed her faith in Jesus, too.
Anna said that when she becomes a doctor, she wants to introduce her patients to Jesus like she was introduced to Him by the Samaritan’s Purse medical staff and RRT chaplains. “They teach me to open my heart for patients,” she said. “It’s not a very peaceful place [in my country]. But in my heart and in my soul, I’m feeling comfortable and very peaceful.”
Vitaly, 36, said serving as an RRT chaplain has been an answer to his prayer to bring God glory amid widespread devastation across regions outside the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv and territories bordering Russia to the south and east.
In early March, he fled his hometown of Irpin, near Kyiv, with his wife and two young daughters. Once he got his family safely evacuated to western Ukraine, he returned to Irpin and helped many of his neighbors flee before the Russian military destroyed all the bridges along the evacuation routes and occupied the town. Several of his friends and neighbors died from the bombings and mortar shelling that rained down on his city.
Once in Lviv, Vitaly, an auto engineer, volunteered to help Samaritan’s Purse erect its Emergency Field Hospital and tent community to house and feed dozens of volunteers supporting the medical mission. He also served as a driver and translator for the influx of English-speaking volunteers serving with Samaritan’s Purse relief efforts. But it was when Vitaly helped translate a Gospel presentation for an RRT chaplain coordinator that he was quickly invited to join the ranks of the red-coat-clad chaplains.
A graduate of Kyiv Christian University, with a bachelor’s degree in missiology, Vitaly was a quick study of the RRT’s “Sharing Hope in Crisis” training curriculum. “For two months, I led more people to Christ than in all my life,” Vitaly said. “It is a blessing for me to be a chaplain with BGEA and to do this ministry.”
And when he was not serving at the underground Emergency Field Hospital in Lviv, Vitaly was sharing Christ and praying with many of the Internally Displaced People (IDP) taking refuge at Disciples Church, where he sheltered with about 75 others who had fled their hometowns under duress.
One of Vitaly’s roommates at the church, Igor, 57, had fled the port city of Mariupol after his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were killed by the Russian military and another daughter hospitalized with severe burns. Having wept repeatedly for several weeks while sheltering at the church, Igor finally asked Vitaly late one night about the God to whom he prays. After sharing the Gospel with Igor, Vitaly led him in a prayer for salvation. “When we finished, Igor told me he felt God filling his heart with love and hope,” Vitaly said.
Disciples Church, pastored by Elisey Pronin, who also directs the church planting department at the Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary in Lviv, has provided temporary housing and meals for more than 1,000 IDPs since Ukrainians in the east and south began fleeing the bombings and shelling attacks in late February.
In addition to the nearly 6 million Ukrainians who are now refugees in border countries and across Europe, another 6.5 million residents have been displaced inside Ukraine. Thousands of churches throughout central and western Ukraine are sheltering dozens of displaced nationals fleeing for their lives, and many Christians are hosting the IDPs in their homes as well.
Amid the unfathomable loss and suffering, RRT chaplains recorded more than 175 decisions for Christ during the first 10 weeks of deployment to Ukraine.
“They need to hear the Good News of a Savior who yearns to have a personal relationship with them, who knows what it means to suffer, who willingly forgives their sins and who promises eternal life in Jesus Christ,” said John, who graduated from Bethel Seminary at age 69.
One of John’s most gratifying moments during his monthlong deployment occurred at a train station in Lviv. There to greet him with a hug and his Russian Bible in hand, stood Vadim. Since being discharged from the underground hospital, Vadim had been sharing the Gospel and directing people to the Samaritan’s Purse medical tent, before it was closed due to a shelling attack at the train station.
“For us chaplains, that’s an incredible story because it’s tangible evidence, visual evidence, of the proof of the power of God’s Word to transform lives,” John said. “So, for us, I tell you, that was a joyous moment.”
And it all began with a moment of curiosity about a grandfather’s journal from a distant land.
“No, there was nothing out of the ordinary in Grandpa’s journal,” John said. “But it did start one of his grandchildren on a life-changing journey and pointed the way for that grandchild to serve the Lord in a most amazing way. … And there I was, in Ukraine, just 450 miles from Grandpa’s city. He left his country to find hope. And I came to Ukraine to give hope.”
Above: BG-RRT chaplains Victoria Vinogradova and John Solovei pray with a patient and his family in the Samaritan’s Purse Emergency Field Hospital in Lviv.
Photo: Ron Nickel/©2022 BGEA