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The Ominous Threat Surrounding Missionaries in Ukraine

As I walk the one kilometer from our apartment to Kyiv Theological Seminary, on a typically overcast and snowy January morning in Kyiv, Ukraine, road traffic is noticeably lighter. Neighbors in our apartment are returning from the grocery store with several five-liter bottles of water and extra canned goods. The mood in the city is quieter. The brothers at the seminary want to know if our family is leaving as so many other expats have. This is due to the 130,000 Russian troops—with thousands of tanks and artillery—poised ominously along Ukraine’s northern, eastern, southeastern, and southwestern borders.

Russia and Vladimir Putin are desperate to keep this country in their sphere of influence. They don’t want Ukraine to enter NATO or the European Union. And the only diplomacy they understand is threats and disruption.

In February 2014, while Russia hosted the Winter Olympics, they invaded and “annexed” Crimea, the southernmost region of Ukraine. This would be comparable to a country stealing Florida, Georgia, and Alabama from the USA. Since then, Russia has waged a slow-burning war in the Donbas (southeastern) region of Ukraine, where over 14,000 Ukrainians have died. Part of Russia’s success in Donbas is the high percentage of Russian language speakers there. Many transplanted to the region after Russia’s “successful” Holodomor—a genocide by famine—that killed millions of Ukrainians from Donbas in the early 1930s. Suffice it to say, Ukrainians realize they may need to prepare for the worst.

Response by Believers and Churches

Ukrainians in general are peace loving. That is certainly true of the evangelicals here, many whose roots go back to pacifistic Mennonite Anabaptists. But Russian aggression by invasion, bomb threats in malls and subway stations, hacking and disrupting of state government web sites, brown outs around the city, and the most recent buildup of troops around Ukraine that suggest an all-out war is imminent has had the opposite effect from what Russia expected. Ukrainian solidarity is growing. Surprisingly, even Christian babushkas are expressing their plans to stand and fight against this oppression. Though this might be futile against a far stronger enemy, it encourages me. Believers here are beginning to engage with and transform the surrounding culture rather than merely trying to remain separated from it.

What keeps my wife and me here in Ukraine? We’re staying for the sake of the little band of believers in our church whom we love. We’re walking together with them in good times and in bad. And what keeps me coming to the seminary? It’s the Ukrainian students who hunger to study and put into practice Bible exposition and Christ-saturated biblical theology—even in these uncertain times.

What keeps my wife and me here in Ukraine? We’re staying for the sake of the little band of believers in our church whom we love.

One of my new master’s students, Andrii, is helping to develop a multidenominational missionary sending agency in Ukraine. This is huge! When we arrived in 2001, one deacon in the Ukrainian church where we served described my hope for Ukrainian evangelical churches to become sending churches as a “grandiose American dream.” But that vision is becoming a reality. Another of my students, Oleh, is the director of the chaplaincy bachelor’s program at our seminary. Dozens of our graduates now minister God’s Word to troops—troops staring conflict in the face. Several have lost their lives in the Donbas region. A third student, Serhii, in three months will be sent to Greece to plant a church. The work of the gospel continues despite war and rumors of war.

When Russia’s war in Donbas began in April 2014, church buildings (except Russian Orthodox Church buildings) were systematically closed or destroyed. The airport was ruined. An evangelical seminary in Donetsk was commandeered. Many Ukrainian citizens in the Donbas region, including believers, lost everything. One of our graduates, Timofie, a church planter from there, moved his entire family with not much more than the clothes on their backs to Kyiv, where he planted a new church. It now primarily serves refugees from Donbas. This week, we are hearing of churches in western Ukraine opening their buildings and homes to refugees from other parts of Ukraine who hope to find solace there.

Hope in Times of Uncertainty

But the reality is that this nation has rarely been a place of solace. Ukraine, which means borderland, has been conquered or overrun many times across many centuries: by Tibetan Khans, Poles, Lithuanians, Ottomans, Austrians, Germans, and Russians. Ukrainians almost consider crisis normal. Yet this disruptive normalcy has also opened the eyes of many to see that God is their only refuge—a very present help in trouble (Ps. 46:1). Only Yahweh is our strength and security. Everything else is shaky and uncertain, including nations that make treaties with you only to then rage to destroy you.

Our family has known for years that the window of opportunity for missionary training in Ukraine might someday close. That day could be right around the corner.

We Americans have little tolerance for insecurity. We can’t imagine living with so much risk. Yet in the absence of comfort, safety, or even basic health insurance or life insurance, Ukrainian believers rally together in the church and support one another in times of sickness, sorrow, and death. It truly is a beautiful family.

Our family has known for years that the window of opportunity for missionary training in Ukraine might someday close. That day could be right around the corner. But our Ukrainian brothers and sisters have shown us how to continue in faith and hope in times of great uncertainty. Surrounded by such a cloud of living witnesses makes us want to stay as long as we can in a land surrounded and threatened by Russian armies.

Editors’ note: 

Names of local believers mentioned in this article have been changed for their security.