Ukraine Up Close


I’ve just returned from a trip to Hungary, Moldova, and Ukraine– a trip to 3 countries for 3 different reasons. Each experience was remarkable to me in several ways. Let me say a brief word about Hungary and Moldova, and then a bit more about Ukraine which is experiencing a severe crisis at the hand of Russian aggressors and separatists.

In Budapest, Hungary, I was invited by Trans World Radio to give a seminar on story-telling and broadcast interviewing. I throughly enjoyed spending 2 days with TWR staff from several countries. TWR has a tremendous ministry in many parts of the world and it was a privilege to meet and spend time with a few from around both Western and Eastern Europe. It was actually a chance to renew a few friendships with some I had met previously.

In Moldova, I connected with our team from Mission Eurasia (the new name for Russian Ministries of Wheaton, IL on whose Board I sit). The School Without Walls project called together 500 young, Moldovan professionals for the purpose of encouraging them to live for Christ through their profession, whatever that might be. The event was a tremendous success. My appreciation for the scope of what Mission Eurasia does has expanded once again.

While in Chisinau, Moldova, I was able to also connect with the ministry Stella’s Voice whose story I told in an interview with Philip Cameron recently on FIRST PERSON. What a treat to see some of the young women again whom I met in the recording studio in Wheaton, not long ago. I won’t tell more of their story here, but it’s worth checking out:

From Moldova, the Mission Eurasia team and a few guests piled into vans for the long trip to Kiev in Ukraine, stopping in historic Odessa on the Black Sea on the way.  Mission Eurasia’s headquarters in this part of the world is located in Irpin, just outside of Kiev. From there, a side trip for 2 days on a high-speed train took us into Eastern Ukraine to the city of Slavyansk where Russian separatists first began the fight for control of Ukraine in February of 2014.

Slavyansk is now under the control of the Ukrainian army (such as it is– the country is broke after the former Pres left and emptied the treasury of $70 billion; the separatists control the rest of the Donetsk region, mainly in Donetsk and Luhansk. It is a very severe situation with many killed and refugees streaming away (about 1/3 of the population remains in those places). We heard many stories of how people had to leave with just what they could fit into a car. Pastors we spoke with would be killed if they tried to return.
IMG_4880 12.15.15 PMSlavyansk is completely battle scarred, looking like a town from a WWII movie. However, they are rebuilding and it is amazing how much progress they have made even though the government is completely broke and does practically nothing. The big story is how the church (we visited evangelical churches mainly) are stepping in. They are repairing homes all over town with new roofs, walls, etc. which were shelled. Every home in the neighborhoods had hundreds of bullet holes. We saw two hospitals shelled into rubble. One church had an orphanage caught in the crossfire and it was destroyed, but now nearly rebuilt with the church, assisted by Mission Eurasia.
Good News Church has about 1000 members. It’s property was confiscated by the separatists (Russian mercenaries, many from Chechnya) and it was used as a barracks and ammunition storage facility during the months of the battle. They also used the church property as a staging area for tanks to fire upon Ukrainian army positions on the heights above the city, drawing fire upon the church in return. I have seen video of Russian Orthodox priests standing on the corner of the building praying that the shells would hit their mark against the Ukrainian army.
The most amazing thing we saw was how Good News Church is rebuilding trust by loving and serving their neighbors. This battle pit neighbor against neighbor and caused everyone to distrust even their closest friends who may be sympathetic to the other side. Well, the church moves in and repairs homes, without asking where their loyalties lie. It’s incredible– loving their enemies.
Most inspiring is the work the church is doing to rush medicine and food (again with Mission Eurasia help) into the areas where the fighting is still intense. The pastor, Peter Dudnik, is a true hero who personally drove carloads of people to safety during the fighting and now heads the humanitarian efforts. He was honored by President Petro Poroschenko for his actions, but again, the Ukrainian government is able to do little to nothing. The church is the first line of help. I talked with one young man in Peter’s church who was taken by the separatists for several days, had his eyes duct-taped, and a gun put on his temple with the trigger clicked as psychological intimidation. He was released in some confusion that he attributes to a miracle of God.
Now, I come to the refugees (technically displaced persons). We visited several camps. One was a summer kids camp in under-heated buildings where over 100 people are living with the threat of winter close at hand. The church is frantically retrofitting a large, run-down building to house them, but they have a long way to go before it is habitable.  Church volunteers from all over Western Ukraine are coming to help (I stood in a circle with them and recorded the Lord’s Prayer as they started their day reciting it.)  About 60 kilometers away, we visited another small church’s efforts to turn a run down, former school into a facility for refugees near Dobropillia.  Heartbreaking. I wept as I talked with a grandmother holding a 5 year old on her lap in a room with peeling paint (probably lead-based) and drafty windows. She cannot explain to her grandchildren why they can’t go home.
This area is about 100 kilometers from where the Malaysian plane was shot down.
Back in Kiev, we visited another refugee center run by a dedicated Orthodox priest (ironically of the Moscow Orthodox persuasion).  The Ukrainian Orthodox church broke from the Moscow church over this crisis. We actually had a private, 90 minute sit down with the Ukrainian Orthodox Patriarch Filaret who was extremely bold and outspoken. He called Putin a liar and in the control of Satan. He warned the U.S. and Europe to wake up before WWIII breaks out.
It has been an incredibly eye-opening trip. Another organization close to my heart, Far East Broadcasting Company has a radio station in Slavyansk which is in Transformation Church, and operated by a friend, Victor Kurilenko, who is blind. During the battle for Slavyansk, the separatists broke into a church service and took four young men out. After the city was regained by the Ukrainian army, they found their bodies in a common grave. The radio station’s tower was toppled, taking them off the air.  They are now working to get back on the air soon.
The bottom line in all of this for me is to see the church revealing it’s true calling in loving it’s neighbors. These people who have so little are putting us to shame.
Mission Eurasia is doing everything it can to provide assistance with it’s I-CARE program. If you would like to offer financial assistance to Mission Eurasia, click here. Thank you!
UPDATE: Listen to my FIRST PERSON broadcast from Ukraine by clicking here.