Seeds of Hope in Ukraine
by Jamie Dean, OPC Communications Coordinator
When an Armenian living in Ukraine decided to practice his English on a couple of Americans he heard speaking on a street corner years ago, he had no idea the encounter would change the course of his life. He discovered his conversational English was awkward, but the Americans invited him to keep practicing in a class that used the Bible as a textbook. The Americans were missionaries, and the Lord used the class to draw George to saving faith in Christ.
George recently recalled those early days of faith from the upstairs room of a house in the southern port city of Odessa, where he serves his congregation as a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ukraine (EPCU).
The denomination of twelve churches is the fruit of decades of missionary and Ukrainian efforts that often began with simple, evangelistic conversations with men like George in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
OPC missionary Heero Hacquebord arrived in Ukraine nearly three decades ago, and he still serves alongside several of the original members of the MTW team in the country. (MTW is the missionary agency of the Presbyterian Church in America.) The team evangelized, discipled, worked to plant churches, and helped lay the groundwork for a seminary and the EPCU, a denomination now led almost entirely by Ukrainian pastors.
In March, a small contingent from the OPC visited the work in Ukraine, a year after Russia’s invasion of the Eastern European nation sparked the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II and upended life for millions in the country.
We saw firsthand how EPCU churches have distributed diaconal relief through the Crates for Ukraine project that many OPC congregations have contributed to over the last year. And we heard about Hacquebord’s bigger hopes for the effort: He’s praying the simple crates might become seeds for planting churches, as they build contacts across the country for the denomination.
The denomination that began with the seeds of street evangelism and outreach classes is now full of first-generation Christians and pastors like George. As those believers raise a new generation of covenant children, they also continue to reach out to others still hungry for the good news of Christ in a sinful and weary world.
The Kindness of God
George doesn’t have to go far to reach the weary. On the first floor of his home in Odessa, a sitting room is filled with supplies of medicine and hygiene products the pastor helps distribute through the church. On the morning we visited, George had just returned from a short trip to nearby hot zones, where he had been translating for a Christian paramedic training churches on how to administer first aid.
Upstairs, George’s wife sat with two women as they recounted their plight as refugees of war. One of the women fled to Odessa last year when Russian strikes hit her hometown and occupation seemed likely. She longs to return but doesn’t know if it will be possible.
The other woman fled her home during a Russian incursion in eastern Ukraine nearly ten years ago. After weeks of sheltering, she escaped on a train, without knowing where the train was headed. She found herself in Odessa, and she’s stayed ever since, including during the threats to the city over the last year.
The young woman teared up when she recounted her mother’s death, her father’s abandonment, her war experience, and her struggles as a single mother. She doesn’t have a church home, but George’s wife has been reaching out to her and other single moms in the area. “I can’t go back home,” she said. “But I have found some kind people here.”
For both George and his wife, the kindness of missionaries and church members led to their own introduction to the gospel in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and it still informs their approach to ministry in the church George pastors.
These days, pastoring in war zones requires a mixture of the regular duties of preaching, teaching, and counseling, while also tackling unexpected tasks like making sure elderly congregants have clean drinking water and the medicines they need when supplies run scarce.
It’s a routine that’s become familiar to another pastor from a town nearby.
Grace Under Fire
Andre is a Ukrainian pastor from Mykolaiv, a city a couple of hours east of Odessa. The city suffered heavy bombardment at the outbreak of the war, and Russian missile strikes destroyed major pipelines for drinking water. At one point, the town’s mayor urged everyone who wanted to survive to leave. Pastor Andre stayed.
He recounted the early days of the war during our visit to Pastor George’s church in Odessa, where he also picked up medical supplies to take back to a city still struggling under the weight of wartime conditions.
When Mykolaiv came under attack, Andre and his brother raced to evacuate his wife, children, and other members of the church seeking to escape. But not everyone fled. Some were determined not to leave their homes. Others felt like they couldn’t: Many elderly Ukrainians remained in their villages and towns, unable to imagine piecing together lives as refugees somewhere else.
While Ukrainian laws prohibit most men ages eighteen to sixty from leaving the country during this war, Andre fell under an exception: he and his wife have four children. Any Ukrainian man with three or more children is allowed to travel abroad. Still, Andre stayed. He gives a simple reason: “I am a pastor.”
These days, he and his brother still make the rounds in a large passenger van, checking on church members and making trips to villages where little relief has arrived from the outside.
The pastor talks about the Lord with those he visits and says he encourages them with the ministry of the church: “I specifically tell the people that the church from all over the world is helping you right now.”
Thirty years ago, he couldn’t have imagined a life as a pastor. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Andre searched for something to believe. He read portions of the New Testament, and he tried in vain to keep the Ten Commandments on his own.
When he met members of the MTW team through an English club, he began learning about a concept he didn’t understand: Grace. Andre said the elders in the Presbyterian church he attended pressed him with the truth of repentance and faith in Christ. Over time he realized the good news of the gospel. “It’s a gift,” he said. “It’s a gift.”
Andre holds out that gift to others through his ministry to his own congregation now, preaching on Sundays to those who remain, and holding online prayer meetings with members taking refuge in other cities or countries.
He grows quiet for a few moments when he considers what the Lord has taught him over the last year. “In times like these, you realize what’s important,” he says. “It’s not your house. It’s not your money. It’s not your documents. . . . It’s the people God has called you to. It’s your family and it’s your church.”
Pastor George nods in agreement and says he’s also been freshly reminded of the urgency of sharing the gospel, whatever the circumstances. “It’s so important to bring the gospel and to do what Jesus said . . . to make disciples and build God’s kingdom,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
After a prayer and a warm farewell, Pastor Andre and his brother head downstairs and climb back into their van to reach Mykolaiv before dark.
Light in the Darkness
First-generation Christians aren’t a thing of the distant past. In L’viv, the western Ukrainian city where OP missionary Heero Hacquebord pastors Holy Trinity Reformed Church (another EPCU congregation), a young man named Ruslan is the point man for the Crates for Ukraine project.
He grew up in a Greek Catholic church, but he met an MTW missionary through campus ministry and started attending the L’viv church a couple of years ago. “It changed my life,” he says.
Ruslan now aspires to ministry himself and said he’s deeply encouraged by how many gospel conversations he’s had with people on the receiving end of the Crates for Ukraine. They keep calling him back, and he joins Hacquebord in hoping these new contacts might lead to more conversions—and more churches across Ukraine.
“It’s incredible to see how God uses such an evil thing as war to build his church, to prepare soil for his seeds,” Ruslan said. “And it’s not the end yet—He’ll work more.”
The author is communications coordinator for the OPC.
This article was originally published in the June 2023 edition of New Horizons.