On March 25 I had the privilege of speaking with Vyacheslav Nesteruk, president of the Baptist Union of Ukraine. A fellow Baptist who works in Ukraine helped facilitate the phone call and served as our translator. Vyacheslav is a faithful servant of Christ. It was a wonderful conversation between brothers in the Lord.
During our conversation, I expressed my prayerful support for pastor Nesteruk and let him know that I would be calling on all Southern Baptists to pray for our Baptist brothers and sisters in Ukraine as they minister in the midst of a national crisis. Russia’s seizure of Crimea and subsequent military build-up on the border of Eastern Ukraine has serious implications beyond just the politics of the moment. This is a spiritual crisis of the highest order.
After speaking on a number of points of mutual interest, we discussed specific prayer requests. Brother Nesteruk specifically asked Southern Baptists to pray for the following:
- That there would be no war in Ukraine, but peace.
- That there would be a sense of peace in the hearts of Ukrainian people, rather than a sense of unrest or anxiety.
- For the economic situation, as sanctions imposed by Russia have already begun making life difficult in Ukraine.
- Most of all, that people would be open to the gospel and actively seek the gospel during these troubled times.
These prayer requests take on special meaning when we think about Ukraine’s history.
Ukraine suffered horrific deprivation, starvation and oppression throughout most of the twentieth century. Lenin’s harsh rule of the early 1920s was followed by Stalin’s reign of terror in pre-WWII Ukraine. Beginning in 1929, thousands of Ukrainian scholars, scientists, cultural and religious leaders were falsely accused of plotting insurrection against Russia and were either shot without a trial or deported to prison camps in remote areas of Russia.
The following year, when private property was seized and farms “collectivized,” about 10 million Ukrainians were forcibly removed from their homes. Many were put on railroad cars and deported to the wilderness of Siberia. Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukraine in 1932-1933 resulted in as many as 7 million Ukrainian deaths. Our Ukrainian Baptist brothers and sisters were not exempt from these horrible events. Churches were destroyed and entire congregations perished from the face of the earth.
When Germany invaded Ukraine during World War II, things went from terrible to even worse. The German army drove the Russians inch by bloody inch across the countryside. Hundreds of thousands of noncombatants were killed or left homeless. A few years later, Russia fought to regain its lost territory. The retreating German army wreaked even more havoc, destroying every standing structure – homes, churches, businesses – in every village.
Those Baptists who managed to survive the war continued to experience persecution during 45 more years of Communist rule.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, a new wave of spiritual hope flooded the land. Despite continuing economic struggles, Baptists have seen family and friends come to faith in Christ, have rebuilt churches all across the country, and experienced a rising tide of religious liberty. The heart-rending hymns of suffering and persecution that dominated the 20th century churches have been replaced with vibrant songs of joy and deliverance during these 25 years.
The spiritual significance and importance of the Baptist ideal of a free church in a free state cannot be overstated!
The Baptist worker who translated our conversation told me this is indeed a special spiritual time. Almost all of the Ukrainian Baptist churches have been joining in special prayer for the nation during this current crisis. In fact, many have begun gathering in their city squares, hundreds at a time, for a concentrated time of prayer. In one city in Eastern Ukraine, more than 100 men have begun gathering for prayer every morning at 7 a.m. The same thing is happening in other parts of the country as well. For the first time since the early 1990s when restrictions against evangelism were eased, people are again very open to a gospel witness.
These are days of spiritual receptivity in the Ukraine. Pray for the people there. Pray for our Baptist brothers and sisters as they share the gospel and minister to hurting people in this time of national crisis.
And, as we pray, join me in praying for our own country, that people in the United States will also be open to a gospel witness and that it will not take a crisis of this magnitude to bring us to our realization of our need for the Lord.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Frank S. Page is president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.)