Heero E. C. Hacquebord
New Horizons: May 2023
Ministry in Ukraine During War
Also in this issue
by Douglas Clawson
by a persecuted Christian
The sun had not yet risen on February 24, 2022, when Anya’s voice pierced the air in our apartment: “Putin has attacked us!” My head was groggy from a bout with COVID, but the meaning of her words was unmistakable. Several minutes later, the air-raid sirens in our city wailed the incredible news for all to hear: Russia had launched an unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and there were missiles flying in the direction of L’viv. Military and civilian buildings around the country were bursting into flames. The big war had begun.
Vika lived through the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. At that time, she fled Russia’s rule, which is especially oppressive to Protestants, to live in Kharkiv in far eastern Ukraine. Having experienced a Russian invasion before, Vika—along with her husband, Vasyl—were prepared this time around. They awoke on the twenty-fourth from the sound of thundering explosions in their neighborhood on the eastern side of Kharkiv, a mere fifteen miles from the Russian border. Their bags were packed. Everyone in their church already had an evacuation plan. Within minutes, they left their apartment, packed their car, and drove off. They collected the three people assigned to travel with them and started the slow journey across the country to L’viv. Kharkiv would never be the same, nor would Ukraine.
Those first, harrowing weeks brimmed with unanswered questions: Will Kyiv be taken? What about the south of Ukraine—Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odesa? What is happening in the east? Will L’viv become the new capital instead of Kyiv? Just how far will the Russian army go? People began to flee west by any means possible—cars, buses, trains. Some from the Kyiv area never made it, as Russian troops deliberately fired on convoys of evacuating families. Severe uncertainty and brutal attacks unleashed the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II. At least five million (out of forty million) Ukrainians left the country in the first few months of all-out war. Another eight million became internally displaced.
Members of Presbyterian churches around the country began to arrive in L’viv even before the twenty-fourth. Even though some of our L’viv members escaped to safety in the EU, our Sunday attendance still more than doubled. Our church’s newly formed crisis committee scrambled to find housing for everyone. Over the first three months, almost two hundred people found a temporary place to stay in our two recently outfitted shelters and our church members’ homes. We were joining the rest of the city, usually one million strong, in taking care of the two hundred thousand people who had moved to L’viv.
Not everyone who contacted us for help was from other churches in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ukraine. Some were like “Olga”—a soft-spoken, middle-aged, single mother from the southern city of Mykolaiv, which had become the next target city in the Russian army’s southern axis of advance. One of our church members and his parents took Olga into their three-room apartment, along with two other men from Kyiv. When she first came to one of our new dinner-and-
Bible-study nights, it was clear that Olga felt very out of place in a Protestant church. Nonetheless, she soon warmed to the love and care that she received. She also listened with great attention to those explaining and discussing central truths of Scripture. Olga resembled a crumbling, parched patch of earth that thirstily soaked in the summer rain. What a tremendous pleasure to see her grow and blossom with new life! It was with heartfelt tears that she continued her journey after spending many weeks in our church. She could not thank us enough for all she had received for her body and her soul.
A few weeks after Olga departed, a young family of four arrived from the southern Kherson region. They had managed to escape their village after Russian soldiers had entered it. Their long journey somehow brought them to one of our shelters, where they were welcomed and loved for several months. During that time, they became an active part of our congregation, attending worship services, Bible studies, and children’s events. The mother, “Ira,” was overwhelmed with joy when our church presented their family with a Bible. Several months after moving to L’viv, their village was liberated from occupation, but it is still unsafe to move back because of regular Russian artillery strikes in the region. They hope to join our (EPCU) Kherson church whenever they are finally able to move back home.
Soon after the outbreak of the full-scale war, humanitarian aid began to arrive on our church’s doorstep, sent by churches and organizations in Poland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, the United States, and even Singapore. Our crisis committee began to make connections with drivers and volunteers across the country as we worked hard to send food staples, clothes, and first-aid kits as quickly as possible to Ukrainians along the front lines of the war. As the needs and the incoming aid both continued to grow, it was clear that we had to amplify our diaconal efforts. And so Crates for Ukraine was born.
With churches in the United States taking responsibility for finding, buying, packing, and sending essential medical and personal hygiene items—many of which are by now unavailable or very difficult to find in Ukraine and even in the EU—our church has been able to focus its efforts on receiving, processing, and distributing the contents of hundreds of crates. This necessitated moving the humanitarian aid from our church building’s basement to a warehouse located, providentially, right across the street. It has also given our growing church community—living in the relative safety of L’viv—a tangible way to help people in those regions that suffer most from the brutality of this war.
After arriving in L’viv from their cross-country journey, Vika and Vasyl did not miss a beat in caring for others. For Vika, helping to provide physical aid to the neediest across the country was a way to deal with her own shock and pain. At first, she worked feverishly. Vika gave herself completely to organizing and assisting our aid distribution efforts in any way possible. She and Vasyl also helped to care for other shell-shocked members of their Kharkiv Presbyterian church.
As our humanitarian aid was forced to become increasingly organized, Vika began to share leadership in this area with one of our L’viv church members, Ruslan. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Ruslan was recovering from an operation on his foot. Were it not for that, he would have volunteered for the army right away. In God’s planning, though, Ruslan’s many gifts became essential to running our church’s humanitarian aid hub. It provided him with the opportunity to be instrumental in the saving of many lives and to provide a beautiful witness to the love of Christ.
By the end of last summer, our church had received and processed 1,315 crates. (Aid efforts this year have brought in hundreds more.) Since most Ukrainian men are not allowed to leave the country, a woman in our church quickly learned how to drive large vans, ferrying crates and navigating the tricky Polish and Ukrainian customs and passport controls. On Friday nights, at least twenty volunteers from our church (along with their acquaintances) gather in our warehouse to sort the contents of the crates. This aid is passed on to the eleven other Presbyterian churches in Ukraine. In addition, however, Ruslan and Vika have developed many crucial contacts throughout Ukraine, in particular along the front lines of the war. They have even managed to organize deliveries of essential aid to Ukrainians behind enemy lines. Each box sent out has two stickers—one with a Bible verse, the other with our church’s name and website.
The small city of Melitopol’ in southeastern Ukraine has been occupied by Russian forces since the first days of their full-scale invasion. One of the ladies who evacuated to L’viv comes from a small Presbyterian mission church in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia. She has a friend in that city who knows a volunteer who is experienced in crossing the Ukrainian and Russian lines in order to travel to Melitopol’ and other towns. In this roundabout way, Ruslan and Vika were able to organize a delivery of essential medicine. By the time the boxes finally reached Melitopol’, nobody knew their origin. But the aid was greatly needed and much appreciated. The women who had received and distributed the medicine eventually found it impossible to stay in occupied Melitopol’. They were able to leave the city and make their way across military lines to the area under Ukrainian control—always a perilous journey. They brought only the most essential items with them, including gift boxes of chocolate somehow still being produced in Melitopol’. These were set aside for “Holy Trinity Reformed Church of L’viv,” whose stickers they had found on the boxes of aid. Ruslan was deeply touched to meet these fleeing women in L’viv and receive their heartfelt gifts.
Many others have expressed their sincere thanks as our church has built a reputation for distributing essential aid. Several soldiers have relayed accounts of our excellent first-aid kits saving their lives. (Well over one thousand of these kits have been distributed so far.) One new field hospital in a war-torn region had a large portion of their supplies provided through Crates for Ukraine. Our boxes have become crucial to some of the foremost volunteers and organizations distributing aid along the war’s front lines. As a result, says Ruslan, he has witnessed a marked change in some volunteers’ attitudes toward our church and the Christian faith. One well-known volunteer from Kharkiv—who worked as a movie director before the war—was cold and skeptical toward Christianity when we first began to cooperate with her. Not anymore. Another volunteer—until last year a sound engineer in the movie business—has evidenced a similar change of heart. On a recent trip to L’viv, he made a point of finding and stopping by our church.
Before the war, the YouTube live broadcasts of our Sunday services averaged around fifty views. Now numbers are in the hundreds. We continue to pray that God will use this evil war to give many people faith in Christ and to “till the ground” for many more church plants all over Ukraine.
Vika’s mom was never excited about her daughter’s faith. But the war has given Vika new opportunities to make the love of Christ real to her mother. When Kherson was still occupied, Ruslan and Vika found a way to get much-needed medicine to her family behind enemy lines. Soon after Kherson was liberated, our church organized a small team to travel there—joining forces with the pastor of our EPCU church in Mykolaiv, near Kherson. They distributed carloads full of aid to bone-weary civilians, including remaining members of our Kherson church. They also evacuated Vika’s mom and grandmother, who were later joined by Vika’s cousin. In L’viv, we used available funds to provide housing for Vika’s relatives. Many Christians contributed funds to pay for Vika’s mom’s double knee replacement surgery. People from our church helped by providing meals during her recovery. All of this has completely changed her attitude toward Christ and his church, through which she has experienced his love. She never misses a Sunday service and shows heartfelt hospitality, regularly inviting church members over for hearty, southern-Ukrainian meals.
The despairing darkness of war sharply offsets the loving light of Christ. Through his church, Jesus’s hands are caring for thousands of destitute people. The message of purpose and hope is going forth and filling empty souls. Through the cooperation of many across the world, God is using this bloody war—the utter tragedy, terror, and tears—to fortify and build his church in Ukraine and beyond.
The author is an OP missionary in L’viv, Ukraine. New Horizons, May 2023.
New Horizons: May 2023
Ministry in Ukraine During War
Also in this issue
by Douglas Clawson
by a persecuted Christian
© 2023 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church