KIEV, Ukraine – Tensions rose to dangerous levels as Russian forces occupied Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in late February, but Ukrainian Baptists aren’t slowing down their ministry to a nation battered by months of internal crisis.
In fact, they’re picking up the pace.
The response from the churches has been fantastic,” said International Mission Board (IMB) worker Shannon Ford, who lives in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev, during a March 4 interview. “It really has been a time for prayer – not simply saying we’re going to pray, but actually going and being seen and guiding other people to pray,” even in the far east near the Russian border.
IMB personnel are serving right beside them.
“We’re able to do our ministry,” Ford insisted. “We have a family in [a Crimean city] right where the Russian fleet is parked. I talked to them this morning, and they were telling me all the different ministry things they did last week and what they’re planning this week. So despite all the uneasiness and the frightening pictures from the zoom lens of the media, our personnel and our national brothers and sisters are still doing their job, still having outreach groups, still holding services, still doing the things they do.”
IMB photo by Chris Carter
A Crimean Tatar pauses to pray. The man, who wished to remain unidentified, is a church planter to his own people in Crimea. The Autonomous Republic of Crimea is a small peninsula south of the Ukraine in the Black Sea, roughly the size of New Jersey. The Crimean Tatars have inhabited the Crimean peninsula, now a part of Ukraine, for more than seven centuries.
Ford doesn’t downplay the dangers facing Ukraine from both inside and out – or the agony the nation has experienced in recent months as protesters battled police and blood flowed before the government changed hands. He has served there for more than 15 years and feels the pain of Ukrainians more than most foreigners.
“The last couple of weeks in Kiev have been really tense,” he said, reflecting on the violent clashes in Kiev’s Independence Square. “The loss of life was just very hard to accept. The days after that turned into something more like an extended funeral period. I don’t know that I’ve seen a more grieving or sorrowful time in Ukraine.”
But Christians came alongside Ukrainians in the midst of their suffering and struggle, setting up tents in Independence Square to pray for people, provide medical aid, serve food and tea, distribute Bibles and share the gospel. In Ford’s view, it’s an outward sign of the maturing of evangelical work since Ukraine gained independence from the dissolving Soviet Union.
“For us it’s become a wonderful place for ministry because of our excellent partners, the Ukrainian Baptist Union,” he said. “Evangelistic efforts and church planting have borne lots of fruit. We’ve turned a page now from the pioneer work in the early ‘90s to looking toward missionary-sending from this country.”
At the moment, however, the crisis at home demands the full attention of Ukrainian Baptists. One of them is Oleksandr Turchynov, who was voted interim national president by the Ukrainian Parliament until new elections take place in May. He took office after President Viktor Yanukovych was removed Feb. 23 and later fled to Russia (Russia’s incursion into Crimea followed within a week).
Turchynov “has been a lay preacher in one of our Baptist churches, and he has brought a demeanor of trust and respect to the acting government,” Ford said. “So it’s really been a great time for the churches to be doing what we ought to be doing. They’ve not hidden. They’ve actually activated and gotten more visible during this time of stress and tension.”
Now, as divisions increase between ethnic Ukrainians in the western part of the country and ethnic Russians in the east, Christians are focusing on bringing people together.
“‘Unity’ is the word that keeps being used,” Ford reported. “The [Baptist] brothers and sisters in eastern Ukraine mostly use Russian. Many of them have Russian heritage. But they are the first ones to speak up and say, ‘There’s no tension between us and the Ukrainian speakers.’ Those in western Ukraine, even in a city that is very nationalistic and Ukrainian in language and culture, declared a ‘Russian language only’ day. They actually took to the streets and used Russian to show we’re one country. Language is not the thing that divides us.”
Unless circumstances force a change in plans, Baptists and mission workers anticipate a full schedule of summer camps, evangelistic outreach events and other ministries this year. In fact, Ford hopes Southern Baptist volunteers come to work alongside them.
“It may sound like a fool’s errand, but we still think you can come and serve, because we’re still here and we’d like you to come and join us,” he said. He also challenged Southern Baptists to use the current situation as a way to reach out to ethnic Ukrainians and Russians in American communities.
Ford said he and other IMB workers have been overwhelmed and greatly encouraged by the many emails and social media posts from Southern Baptists expressing concern and promising prayer.
“It’s kind of strange. We’re in a sense of alert, but we’re also very much at ease,” he said. “Our No. 1 prayer is not necessarily for our safety, even though we of course want that for ourselves and for our people. Our No. 1 prayer is that we make use of this opportunity to be purveyors of the gospel light. There’s just a lot of opportunity, and I’d hate for us to miss it.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is an International Mission Board global correspondent.)