From Conflict-Hit Ukraine, Adventists Tell Stories of Hope
No church members have been killed or injured in the three months of violence in eastern Ukraine.
Adventist believers in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine can recount stories of horror and brushes with death, but more importantly, they say, their faith has grown as they lean on Jesus and share His peace with neighbors.
Hundreds of Adventists have fled the violence that is thought to have killed more than 1,000 people since pro-Russia rebels seized parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions in April.
Still, Adventist pastors and many other members have stayed in their communities, caring for neighbors, sharing religious literature, and even baptizing new believers.
None of the 3,500 Adventists who live in eastern Ukraine has been killed or injured in the violence, and no church building or Adventist home is known to have sustained major damage — even as neighboring buildings have been destroyed, church leaders said.
“Thanks to the Lord, we have not received reports of any Adventist church members dying in the conflict,” said Guillermo Biaggi, president of the church’s Euro-Asia Division, which includes Ukraine and many other countries of the former Soviet Union.
“Yet we mourn with families who have lost their loved ones,” Biaggi said. “And we continue to do our best to help people in eastern Ukraine and to pray for a peaceful solution to the conflict.”
It is unclear how many Adventists have fled eastern Ukraine. But the church’s Eastern Ukrainian Mission has evacuated about 180 people who asked for assistance.
In recent days, the Mission has started evacuating Adventists from Donetsk, the regional capital with 1.01 million people, as well as from Luhansk and Horlivka as violence has flared in those cities. At least 30 believers have asked the church for help, and the Mission has provided them with tickets on public transportation and other moving assistance, Mission leaders said.
Earlier, about 150 Adventists were evacuated from Kramatorsk (population 181,025) and Sloviansk (population 129,600) at a cost of 50,000 Ukrainian hryvnia ($4,250), the leaders said. Fifty-four of the people — 45 children and nine adults — were sent to an Adventist sanatorium in the Dnipropetrovsk region, where they were put up for 20 days at a cost of 56,000 hryvnia ($4,765).
Other believers were given shelter in churches or with families elsewhere in Ukraine and in Russia.
Scores of Russian Adventists have also fled eastern Ukraine and received sanctuary across the border in Russia. The Euro-Asia Division, working with the local branch of ADRA, the Adventist relief agency, has earmarked 800,000 rubles ($22,800) to meet the needs of the Russian refugees.
Despite the hostilities, 34 people have been baptized in eastern Ukraine in the past six months, including three men in Luhansk on July 13.
Armed men stopped the Adventists after the July 13 baptism and demanded to see their documents, church leaders said. After questioning, the Adventists were allowed to leave.
Finding Goodness in Strife
While many people might consider the circumstances to be horrific in eastern Ukraine, Adventist pastors and other members said they have witnessed much good.
“Attitudes are changing toward the church, God and ministry. Many people have begun to look at faith differently,” the Eastern Ukrainian Mission said in an e-mailed statement.
“Churches are holding prayer meetings, sometimes daily,” it said. “Church members have become more sympathetic to the needs and concerns of others. They support and encourage one another. They have become more open to God and receptive to His truth.”
In addition, people who had stopped attending church have returned to worship, and new people are showing up for Sabbath services.
The Mission lacks the income to cover its ballooning conflict-time expenses, but church members have become more generous despite their meager resources, it said. Offerings have increased during every surge in fighting, just when the Mission needed extra funds to assist affected members, it said.
Unexpected expenditures have included an outlay of 100,000 hryvnia ($8,500) to cover the basic needs of Adventist retirees in Kramatorsk and Sloviansk when their government pensions didn’t arrive.
“All this time, church members have not stopped distributing the sharing newspaper, and inviting people to turn to God and to attend church,” the Mission said.
The response to the outreach has surprised church leaders.
The sharing newspaper, called Eternal Treasure, includes a contact phone number that used to average one call per month. Since the unrest started, six to eight people have been calling every week, with many requesting leaflets with the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 91, which describes the safety of abiding in God’s presence.
In Mariupol, a city of half a million people, so many people are now attending worship services that church leaders are seeking additional seating. The church is also caring for 11 people who fled fighting in other cities.
Church members themselves spoke of how their faith has grown.
Olga, who attended the Kramatorsk church with about 25 people every Sabbath before the city returned to the control of Ukraine's central government recently, told one worship service: “I thought about not coming to church after the shelling last night, but my husband, who is not an Adventist, said: ‘You’ve been praying to God. What are you afraid of?’”
Even on the darkest Sabbath, nine people managed to make their way to the church.
"We felt the power of prayer, understood the importance of repentance, and prayed every day with our brothers and sisters as well as with our neighbors in the basement during the shelling,” said Tamara, a church member.
Praying for Peace
Life is returning to normal in Kramatorsk and Sloviansk after the central government regained control in recent days. But church members won’t soon forget their nightmarish existence of living in basements and cellars, sometimes for days without electricity, gas and water.
One church member in Sloviansk told of how he went into his vegetable garden shortly before Ukrainian forces recaptured his city and heard the buzz of a flying projectile. He quickly hid behind a shed and saw a blinding explosion decimate the spot where he had stood moments earlier.
The church building in Sloviansk also survived the violence, although the thunder of bombshells made it impossible for members to hear the sermon one Sabbath. So the believers knelt and prayed for the remainder of the worship service, Pastor Andrew V. Orlovsky said.
The only damage to the church occurred in late May when unknown assailants broke in through a window and stole satellite equipment and kitchen appliances. They fled by breaking down a door.
No Adventist churches have sustained damage other than broken windows, church leaders said. In some cities, entire apartment blocks have been destroyed and the only building left standing is the Adventist church minus its window frames.
A similar scene has played out at apartment buildings and private houses where Adventists live. Nearby structures are shattered, but the Adventists’ homes stand intact, the leaders said.
Biaggi, the Euro-Asia Division president, said the extent of the damages in the Eastern Ukrainian Mission, which has a total of 72 churches, remained unclear and he was waiting for a final report.
“We also are making plans to search for financial support to help them repair those damaged chapels,” he said.
The division’s Executive Committee, working together with ADRA, recently approved an action plan for eastern Ukraine.
In addition, staff at the Moscow-based division office are remembering eastern Ukraine daily during morning worship and a special 15-minute prayer session before lunch, Biaggi said.
“We are praying earnestly for peace in the region, and for the Lord to comfort with His infinite mercy and compassion those families who have lost dear ones, especially with the news in recent days of the many who died in the Malaysia Airlines plane crash,” he said.
Stories From the Conflict
Everyone in eastern Ukraine has been affected by the three months of unrest, and pastors have found it especially difficult to meet with their congregations.
Lev P. Vertylo, president of the Eastern Ukrainian Mission, had to drive through a total of 16 manned checkpoints during a recent trip to check on local churches. Armed men at 10 of the checkpoints pointed guns at his chest — and once at his head — and demanded money and weapons.
Ruslan M. Demchun, pastor of two churches in the towns of Kreminna and Rubizhne, came under gunfire as he walked through a forest to reach a worship service in Rubizhne. Demchun, who decided to walk after learning he couldn’t travel by car, escaped the attack unharmed.
“Arriving in Rubizhne, he stayed with the members for three days, encouraging, exhorting and praying with the church,” the Mission statement said.
Over the past three months, three other pastors have been briefly detained and questioned by armed men before being released, local leaders said.
Adventist car owners have faced especially serious restrictions on their freedom of movement.
Armed men attempted to seize the car belonging to a pastor in the city of Donetsk and were in the process of removing the car’s license plates when several passersby intervened and demanded that the assailants back off, the local leaders said. The men reluctantly left.
Another group of armed men tried to confiscate a minivan belonging to a Luhansk pastor but then inexplicably changed their minds.
However, an Adventist member in Kramatorsk lost her 32-year-old nephew when armed men attempted to take his car one night, said the pastor of the local church. The nephew resisted and was shot in the chest and both legs. With no working ambulances in the city, the man bled to death, leaving a wife and a child.
Since the conflict began, all church services in eastern Ukraine begin and end with prayers for a return to peace, for the families of those killed and injured, and for the salvation of loved ones, the Eastern Ukrainian Mission said.
Some church members have remarkable stories to tell.
A retired pastor, Ivan Gaina, was sleeping in the basement of his apartment building in downtown Kramatorsk one night when an explosion blew out all the windows in his fifth-floor apartment. About the same time, three artillery shells landed in the nearby apartment belonging to his Adventist daughter and her husband, breaking the windows and damaging the walls. Three days later, Gaina and his family left the city.
Also in Kramatorsk, a retired couple living in a private house emerged from their cellar hideout one morning to find five large craters caused by BM-21 rockets in what was once their vegetable garden. The house’s windows also were broken, and the roof was damaged. But the damage was relatively minor. Several of their neighbors’ houses had burned to the ground.
While Adventist church members said they were thanking God for His mercy, they underscored that they also were actively assisting those who were suffering and were praying more than ever, including for the armed men who still control parts of eastern Ukraine.
“As Adventist leaders, pastors and church members,” Biaggi said, “we want to follow Christ's advice and the wonderful appeal found in His famous speech from the side of the mountain: ‘You have heard that it was said: “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.’"
Contact Adventist Review news editor Andrew McChesney at email@example.com. Twitter: @ARMcChesney
Adventist Review, June 26, 2014: “Adventists Urged to Pray for Peace in Ukraine”
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