News From Ukraine
News from Ukraine has gone from bad to worse over the last few months. Demonstrations against a corrupt government, internal divisions, intimidation on the part of Russia and separatist violence paint a very disturbing picture. But this is only part of the story. There is another story that we hear little of, the story of small, but dedicated churches across Ukraine seizing an opportunity to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God is at work in Ukraine.
American news articles often frame the situation in Ukraine in terms of ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. This is not an accurate representation of life in Ukraine. Our sister church in Poltava is a miniature image of Ukraine in this regard. Some people speak mostly Russian but understand Ukrainian, others speak mostly Ukrainian but understand Russian, and still others speak both with ease. Sermons, announcements and songs may be in either Ukrainian or Russian. During a baby dedication the father may pray in Russian, the mother in Ukrainian, and the child will grow up speaking both and deciding later in life which language she prefers. The true divide is between those who see their future in the democratic west and those (mostly Russian speaking) who admire the authoritarian east.
News reports have described recent events as paralyzing Ukraine, but that is an exaggeration. For most of this time, in most of Ukraine, people have continued going to work, going to school, and going about their daily lives. They are living their lives, but under increasingly threatening circumstances. A corrupt president fled the country. Russia annexed Crimea. A big part of the Russian army is camped on their eastern border. Russian television is filling the minds of their eastern neighbors with lies about Ukraine. Russian agitators are stirring up trouble in Russian-speaking provinces. Ukrainians are worried and are looking for hope.
The evangelical churches of Ukraine have not been slow to recognize the opportunity that God has given them. Starting from the time of the initial protests against Viktor Yanukovich, Christians have maintained a public witness to their countrymen: that the true source of hope is Jesus Christ. Many times Christian leaders, including our supported missionary, Valery Antonuk, have addressed the protesters from the main stage of Independence Square in Kiev.
In addition to proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ in the capitol, many local churches across Ukraine have maintained evangelistic outreaches in the central squares of their own cities. Salvation Church in Poltava, working together with other evangelical churches in Poltava, set up and staffed a literature table from which they distributed hundreds of tracts and New Testaments in Ukrainian and Russian. They estimate they have had around 2,000 visitors to their literature table. They have also organized regular morning prayer meetings in Victory Park in the center of the city.
Casual conversations with protesters have also resulted in decisions for Christ. A youth ministry leader of Salvation Church met an old friend at a protest meeting. By the time the friend left the protest, he had acquired dual citizenship; he had also become a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The annexation of Crimea by Russia and the increasingly violent clashes with separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk are creating a growing internal Ukrainian refugee problem. Here local churches are providing material as well as spiritual aid. Salvation Church is one of the local churches across Ukraine helping refugees find medical attention, places to live and other necessities of life.
Circumstances are also becoming more difficult for evangelical believers in Ukraine. In the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, some churches are not able to hold services because of intimidation from Russian-backed separatists. Evangelicals fear that Putin wants to reinstate the Soviet Union, which would be very bad for Christians. On a personal level, as Ukraine tries strengthen its military to answer the Russian threat, young men are receiving draft notices, including fathers with young families in Salvation Church.
Unfortunately, there are also divisions among believers: between Ukrainian and Russian believers, and even among Ukrainian believers. Some see the peaceful protests that led to the fall of Yanukovich as a failure to respect worldly authority and say that Ukrainian believers should have spoken out against those protests. Some Russian believers see Vladimir Putin as a strong leader who is defending Christian values against the corrupting influence of Western Europe and the United States.
We have all been taken by surprise by events in Ukraine, but God has not. He has known about this from the beginning. "Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?" Amos 3:6. These events are part of God's plan for this time, to draw more people to himself, and to use the sincere Christians of Ukraine as his messengers. "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." Ephesians 2:10.
That God's people in Ukraine will maintain their trust in God's provision and continue to take advantage of the opportunities He gives them.
That God's people in Russia and God's people in Ukraine will strive for mutual understanding and unity.
That national leaders will act with restraint and work to resolve the conflict.