As this issue of Decision went to press, Russian troops were nearing the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. And although a 40-mile long convoy of tanks and troops had basically stalled north of Kyiv for a week, observers warned that forces appeared to be encircling the city in preparation to lay siege to it, eventually toppling the government.
The United Nations estimated that as of March 15, more than 3 million people had fled Ukraine for safety in other countries, and more than 2 million others had been displaced from their homes and were seeking refuge within Ukraine.
Writing on The Gospel Coalition website Feb. 24 before the start of the conflict, pastor and seminary professor Vasyl Ostryi explained why he and his wife had decided to remain in the town of Irpin, adjacent to Kyiv, rather than flee: “I’m convinced that if the church is not relevant at a time of crisis, then it is not relevant in a time of peace.”
And the church of Christ is rising to the challenge, with members risking their lives as they have evacuated the most vulnerable.
A 26-year-old man named Anatoly Berezhnyi died while carrying the suitcase of a mother and her two children, 18 and 9, across a collapsed bridge in an attempt to help the family flee from shelling in Irpin. All four died when a bombshell exploded near them. Berezhnyi, a member of Irpin Bible Church, had already evacuated his wife and other family members to relative safety in western Ukraine and had returned to help others.
Facebook posts from evangelical churches and seminaries detailed how they are continuing to minister with courage and love—providing food and shelter, calling people to prayer and worship, and lifting up the Name of Jesus in the midst of the carnage.
Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary, in the western city of Lviv, posted: “We have over 1,200 students from all over Ukraine. But now, when the war in Ukraine is already on its fourth day, we have entirely reconfigured our work to help those people who are fleeing Ukrainian cities, who are under fire from Russian missiles. We take them in, house them, feed them, find an opportunity to send women and children abroad, and help with all their needs as soon as we can. 480 people have already passed through us in four days, and they continue to arrive.”
In Kyiv on Feb. 28, Ivan Bespalov, pastor of International Presbyterian Church, wrote: “For five days we have been hearing heavy shelling blasted not far from our apartment building. Major cities across the country had been attacked. We have decided to stay in Kyiv, both as a family and as a church. We want to reach out to those who did not flee from Kyiv. We will shelter those who need accommodation, serve the ones needing help and encourage the scared. And as we do this, we share with them our hope in Christ and in His Kingdom. Each day I spent a lot of time on the phone encouraging those who are scared and making sure they are in a safe place.”
And in the central Ukraine city of Poltava, Bread of Life Church posted: “Reminder that every morning prayer is held in the church building at 10:00. We pray for God’s protection for Ukraine. If you feel fear, there are internal worries, panic—we invite you to come together with us. Jesus can give you inner peace! We are waiting for you!”
Andrew Zigalenko, the dean of Kremenchug Evangelical Seminary in Poltava, braved the roads to Kharkiv, one of the cities that experienced heavy shelling, to deliver food and to help relocate vulnerable people.
“What I saw and heard from the people—it just broke my heart,” he posted on Facebook. “People sit in shelters or cellars all day long because there is almost constant air raids in the city. The stores in the center are closed. Groceries are almost impossible to get. People are in great need. Some of them cannot get out of the outlying areas because there is no one to take them out of there. Friends, I urge you not to be indifferent, but to be people who pray and act!”
Slavic Gospel Association (SGA), a U.S. based ministry that has strong partnerships with evangelical pastors and churches in both Ukraine and Russia, is providing food, winter clothing, blankets and medicines that local churches in Ukraine can distribute to those in need.
“While others are fleeing, local churches are engaging,” said Eric Mock, SGA’s vice president of ministry operations. “They’re bravely rushing to help those in need right now. They’re unstoppable in the face of this crisis.”
Mock noted that evangelical churches in Ukraine and Russia enjoy warm fellowship with one another.
“There are Russian pastors in Ukraine, and Ukrainian pastors in Russia,” he said. “It’s impossible to separate them.”
Many families are also interconnected, and pastors on both sides of the border talk to each other often.
SGA President Michael Johnson added: “There’s great unity and a strong bond between the Russian and Ukrainian pastors and their churches. It’s a picture of God’s perfect Kingdom versus man’s broken one.”
Above: Firefighters survey the damage to a residential building hit by shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images/Sipa USA