No longer does it feature in Western news bulletins, or confront us on the front pages of our newspapers. Indeed it hardly rates a mention in any page of our tabloids or broad-sheets. The shock that many felt when Crimea was annexed by Russia, and the subsequent turmoil inflicted upon the eastern parts of Ukraine by the violence of war, has all but faded from our memories. Yet the shelling and shooting and killing continue, bringing pain and hurt and loss to many thousands of citizens on both sides of the war front.
Believers and refugees
SGA’s General Director, Derek Maxwell, recently had the opportunity to visit and see for himself the devastation resulting from the internal war in Ukraine. Since the outbreak of hostilities and the forced exodus of many thousands of Ukrainians from the eastern region, SGA[UK] has been providing financial aid to churches and believers to enable them to help and provide for the refugees. Evangelical believers were at the forefront of the relief effort, a fact recognised at the highest political levels in Ukraine, resulting in a mandate drawn up and signed by the country’s President to permit believers officially to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation across the country. Derek’s report is both challenging and encouraging:
In the war zone
A recent visit to the Donetsk war zone region in Ukraine brought home to us the stark reality of the effects of that war. Deep and indelible physical, psychological, and emotional scars have been inflicted on the population in the war zone. Shelled buildings, ruined properties and devastated landscapes all serve as a tragic reminder of the utterly destructive consequences of war. We were constantly confronted with the horrendous conditions in which people are trying to survive. During a short stop at Mariinka Baptist church our movements were restricted. On the previous day shelling had destroyed eight houses in the immediate vicinity. A broken church window was a reminder of the dangers associated with attending church. One woman had been injured right beside that very window. The school situated a short distance away has its windows protected by built-up sandbags to protect children from the shelling.
Normal life impossible
Along the roadsides were ominous warning signs indicating the threat from land-mines. A ‘normal’ way of life is an impossibility in the circumstances. This front line area has suffered destruction and devastation on a frightening scale.
Yet, in the bleakness of a seemingly impossible situation, God’s people are far from despondent. Their hearts ache for their country and its people. They weep at the tragedies of the war. But by God’s grace they are proving to be resilient and they are experiencing his blessing as they persist in their witness and worship their Lord. The church at Mariinka, on the war front line, has seen its membership increase from just 12 to 120 during this period of conflict and 100 children receive regular meals at the church.
Brother Vasile, who coordinates the aid programme in the Donetsk region, commented: ‘The war has been a blessing for the church. Missionaries had worked for years, but now there are results.’ This statement was borne out when we attended a special meeting for gospel workers in the Donetsk region. One pastor shared that on the previous day ten people had repented. Another told of a couple who had been living immorally coming to the Saturday night meeting to inform the church that they wanted to get married. That evening they were converted along with ten others. Two others had come to faith in another church. We heard reports of churches doubling in number. Now, despite continuing hostilities, churches are being planted in the grey zone area close to the front line. Others are experiencing revival and special times of blessing. In one community a lady was converted. Following her conversion she requested that a bus be sent to her village to bring all the people who wanted to attend the evangelical services. Now they plan to start a church in that village. There is a great need for workers in the whole area.
Vasile is heavily involved in providing for the essential needs. Every week he supplies 900 loaves of bread to people on the front line. In an area where there were no believers, people began to receive bread from Vasile. They stated: ‘We would not listen to you under different circumstances.’ Now, through this expression of Christian love, they are listening. People have been converted and have bought a house in which to hold meetings. The genuineness of believers’ love and care for their fellow-citizens has been clearly evident.
The huge need for basic food such as bread has motivated Vasile to open a bakery. Equipment has been purchased, renovation work is at present continuing on a building, and SGA has provided the funds to complete this renovation. Some of these ‘Loaves of Peace’ will be delivered to the front line free of charge. It is hoped that 1,200 loaves will be produced each day. Profits from sales to those who can afford to buy will cover the costs of providing free bread to those in greatest need. Vasile’s desire is that through it all, many people will taste of the true Bread of Life.
Spiritual blessings are flowing, but material needs are growing! Winter has now come and displaced people will suffer. Heating in the home is vital as the cold weather sets in. The provision of one efficient panelled heater per household, costing £25, will help to relieve some of the hardship. Families will be able to live and sleep in what may be their one and only heated room during the winter. The provision of children’s thermal clothing at £10 per set will offer much-needed comfort. Food packages, at £25 each, contain good-quality protein food for families. SGA is continuing to send out funds as God makes them available, to help with this relief effort.
While Ukraine is still struggling politically and economically, the church is visionary and optimistic. Believers are praying and trusting God for their nation. A wonderful event took place on 17 September, when 250,000 – 300,000 gathered in the central square of Kiev to celebrate the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary and to thank God for his faithfulness in their country (some estimates put the figure as high as 500,000). This was the result of the signed order by Ukraine’s President to officially allow this special anniversary to be celebrated across the nation. In an area of the city often used for mass demonstrations, the church organized a mass celebration!
The Lord has honoured the faithful and deeply sacrificial ministry of humanitarian relief on the part of thousands of God’s children who demonstrated Christlike love to the war refugees by opening their homes, their church buildings and halls, and even campsites, to house the homeless and feed the hungry.
It will take billions of pounds to rebuild the infrastructure of this war-torn country and create a strong economy, but we can praise the Lord that he continues to build his church.
www.sga.org.uk 01788 220699