In the first 10 days of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, people I know there tell me, almost 400 babies took their first breaths in the capital city of Kyiv. Grocery shelves are still being re-stocked. Food is not being hoarded. Neighbors are helping neighbors.
Behind the scenes of Ukrainian resistance stands the church as a small but potent force punching above its weight. The church in Ukraine has galvanized support for freedom and democracy for three decades. Now it is intimately involved in both war and humanitarian efforts across the country.
One example tells a story being repeated in many places in Ukraine. An IT professional named Anatoly also ran his church’s media ministry. After evacuating his wife and family members to a neighboring country, he returned to serve with the church in the heavily-bombed city of Irpin.
A week ago, Anatoly volunteered to carry the suitcases of a young mother and her two children across the bridge to safety. All four were reportedly killed by a Russian bomb as they tried to cross, in what is supposed to be a humanitarian corridor to safety.
The Church Is on the Front Lines, Too
Indeed, there is no part of the Ukrainian resistance where the church has not been a major catalyst of influence and support. Churches still gather weekly to worship and pray. After the service, they put together Molotov cocktails for civilian defense.
Still, church leaders admitted they were shocked when Vladimir Putin invaded the country on Feb. 24. The Russian army had been contained for years in Ukraine’s eastern sector, although every year Putin assembled soldiers rattling sabers in military exercises.
“The mask is off now,” explained Sasha M., who leads a ministry team near Kyiv, to me recently. “This is evil undisguised.” Some Christians in Ukraine view the struggle with Russia as a recreation of the epic story of David and Goliath. They believe this war is Ukraine’s last chance to get rid of Russian aggression. “Putin tries to bring us ‘Russian freedom,’ but no one wants it,” said a Baptist pastor in Bila.
When full-scale war broke out three weeks ago, Ukrainian pastors with connections in the West had the opportunity to take their families and evacuate. Nick and Maia Mikhaluk head a church-planting network throughout Ukraine. They encouraged each pastor to weigh carefully his decision to stay in-country. Only two of nearly 20 have left. “If I leave, this will be very demoralizing for my people,” one pastor explained.
Ukrainian pastors and church members are involved daily in meeting overwhelming humanitarian needs. The largest Protestant church south of Kyiv houses and feeds 30-50 refugees every night. Church members host refugees and “territorial defense units” in their homes throughout the country. They drive people hiding under bridges in heavily bombed places like Irpin to safety. As one female chaplain said, “I lost 11 people I knew personally in the last few days, but I had to move on, the needs are so great.”
The Church Is a Source of Strength
One fascinating piece of unpublicized history provides a few clues to the growth of Christianity and its outsized influence in the formerly atheist Soviet country. When the Soviet wall fell, the minister of Education invited Christian groups in the west to come and teach “Christian morality and ethics” in Russian and Ukrainian public schools.
So more than 1,800 Americans and Canadians spent a year teaching in public schools in all 68 Russian and Ukrainian oblasti (states), trained by groups like one my husband directed. Russians seemed acutely aware then that the cause of their suffering under Communism was accurately identified by the heroic Russian figure, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
When Putin became Russia’s prime minister in 1999, he quickly expelled western missionaries from Russia. He began to stifle Christianity again. In an ominous sign, a suspected ex-KGB crony of Putin was appointed the Moscow patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The handwriting was on the wall, so many Christian leaders migrated south to Ukraine.
When war broke out in 2014 in the eastern section of Ukraine, 55,000 men every three months were recruited to the front. They lacked ammunition, supplies, and even food and water. Jeff Laughlin, an American who organized training for Ukrainian chaplains for more than a decade, explained how vital the church has been to the war effort.
“The government was too poorly organized to keep up with the needs of these soldiers, so commanders of units would contact individual churches who raised the money to equip them,” he told me. Many pastors went to the front as chaplains for the army. A church that had been taught to be passive began to take great risks. As one pastor explained, “It’s better theology to defend the country. Either we do this together or we are history.”
Now that nightly bombing and shelling have made it nearly impossible to meet on Sundays in many cities, the church has been forced to go to the people. In the first days of the invasion, Archbishop Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church emphasized the church’s determination to bring the Mass to Ukrainians while they took shelter.
“Our priests will descend to the underground, they will descend to the bomb shelters, and there they will celebrate the Divine Liturgy,” he proclaimed in a video message. “The church is with its people!”
When The War Is Over
Ukrainian church leaders have few illusions that this war will be over soon. The Russian army appears to have outrun its initial supplies, and is now raiding the countryside. Many of Putin’s first recruits have reportedly been young conscripts, poorly motivated.
Ukrainians believe there is a massive assault coming. They also hope help of some sort will come from the West, and there’s anger that our response has been so weak. Our dependence on Russian oil is viewed as paying Russia to kill Ukrainians. Yet for good or for ill, Ukrainians have cast their lot with us.
One thing seven years of war in the eastern section of Ukraine have revealed is how important the church’s presence is. Church planter Maia Mikaluk insists the Slavic people are not impressed with ideology. “They need to see faith with feet and hands,” she said. “In hardship, this is when people turn their eyes to God.” Even if the war ended today, church leaders know there is a huge work of rebuilding ahead of them. More people will be destitute.
For now, their fight is one of survival. “At times, the fear just washes over you,” Maia said. People warn her that her name must be on a Russian “black list.” Her reply? I’ve been there for years. I’m certainly not going to stop now.
Every night Maia and her husband sleep in the hallway of a local bomb shelter with their son-in-law and daughter, who is 40 weeks pregnant with their first grandchild. They hope to make it to a hospital 10 minutes away when the baby begins to come. They hope the hospital will still be standing.