Nearly a month into Russia’s war on Ukraine, Southern Baptist-trained church planter and educator Yarsolav “Slavik” Pyzh enjoyed a day of normalcy.
“This Sunday was probably one of my normal days for the last 29 days,” Pyzh, president of Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary (UBTS) and founding pastor of Journey Church in Lviv, told Baptist Press. On March 20, with 10 million Ukrainians displaced refugees of war, Vlad and Khrystyna Kryshchuk were married at Journey Church.
“The first thing is, this is not time for weddings, so it’s kind of difficult to do all these things. But they are from very, very small families. So we decided to help them,” Pyzh said. He, his wife Nadya and another pastor prepared food an entire day, he said, in preparation for the wedding and reception.
“I really enjoyed that day. That was such a nice day. It was like one day from that previous normal life.”
Weddings, baptisms and births are continuing in Ukraine as many flee the country and others remain. UBTS has suspended classes and is conducting humanitarian aid on its campus about an hour from the Polish border, and is planning to open a humanitarian and evangelistic site in Poland in April.
“In the areas that are not under direct threat and fire, they do have everything as usual,” Pyzh said. “This Sunday we’re going to have another wedding in our church, so people are getting baptized, they’re getting married, children are being born. Life is going on, in spite of all the evil in the world.”
Churches and other religious centers in the more-immediate war zone have been damaged, with churches in Mariupol heavily damaged, as well as Irpin Bible Seminary in Kyiv.
“Churches in those areas where the fighting is taking place,” Pyzh said, “they’re definitely damaged, because nothing survives Russian artillery.”
Journey Church baptized a new believer March 14.
“Last Monday we had baptism on the top floor of our roof, that was not really a logistic baptism because we didn’t have like … a thing to submerge a person,” Pyzh said. “So we just poured water on the top of that lady, because she was leaving.”
Zhenya, a new believer and mother of four young children, had completed the months-long discipleship training program Journey Church conducts with confessed believers before baptism.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to leave Ukraine without being baptized. Could you help?’” Pyzh said. “Usually we have baptisms on Sunday when you have service, but we performed this one on Monday, and it was kind of difficult to find a place where you could … a place with water, like all the Baptists do.”
Instead, one of Journey Church’s pastors performed the baptism by pouring a full bucket of water over Zhenya’s head.
“She left Ukraine with her four children and she left as a baptized person, so she was happy. The church was happy,” he said. “That was really improvising.”
Pyzh, who earned a doctorate from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, has led UBTS in responding to the war compassionately and courageously, and in praying for a multifaceted miracle.
Russia bombed Lviv’s airport a week ago, with missiles exploding just 30 miles from the UBTS campus.
“That was the first time in my life when I’ve seen cruise missiles exploding,” Pyzh has said. “I have to admit, that was strange and scary.”
After the explosion, the seminary evacuated a group of women and children who were sheltered there and has plans in place if more evacuations are needed. With monetary and prayer support of Southern Baptists and others, UBTS has helped thousands of refugees flee Ukraine and has sent supplies to points in central and eastern Ukraine, including the capital city of Kviv.
Lviv will be in more immediate danger if Belarus, a Russian ally on Ukraine’s northwest border, joins Russia in the fight, as many have speculated.
“That’s going to bring more escalation,” Pyzh said, “and the thing is, Lviv is not that far away from Belarus. That’s going to be a direct threat to us. We’ve developed evacuation plans. So we evacuated our women and children, but if the escalation’s going to come, well then, we’ll start evacuating our women staff. That’s going to be the direct implication of that escalation, to get women out of here.
“Sadly, soldiers, women and war (are) not a good combination.”
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ordered all Ukrainian men ages 18-60 to remain in the country to fight, Pyzh will likely be excluded from combat because he is conducting humanitarian aid.
“There’s probably an exemption for pastors. If I don’t want to fight with weapon, then I can do some other work,” he said. “But everyone will need to do something. … Yes I am under (Zelenskyy’s edict) so it could possibly happen.”
As the world watches and responds, Ukraine has held back for a month a military presence much larger than its own, preventing Russia from taking Kyiv and much of Ukraine.
“Here in Ukraine, we’ve had independence (from the former USSR) for 30 years, so we’ve got a pretty good taste of what freedom is, and we’re really enjoying freedom,” Pyzh said. “It’s better to be, I guess, dead, than live in Russia.
“Even with Russian propaganda, we haven’t seen a lot of Ukrainian soldiers giving up. … People are fighting until the last breath.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)