As I (Rich) mentioned in the previous post, I have spent the week in Ukraine in ministry to IFES students. I was surprised, though I shouldn't have been, how heavily the war with Russia weighed on every person at the conference. We began the conference and every day with a time of worship, but the first song of every worship set was one of two different songs that were essentially prayers for God to bless and protect Ukraine.
I had lunch with a staff person, Sasha, who grew up in Crimea and was on staff with the IFES group there. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Sasha moved with his wife and young son to the city of Luhansk, out of a desire to remain in Ukraine rather than to work in Russian Crimea. But this stay in Luhansk was short, as over the next few months protests increased and pro-Russian forces sought to declare the Luhansk region's independence from Ukraine and loyalty to Russia. As fighting escalated near Sasha's home, they left Luhansk and moved to Odessa, where he now works with IFES at the universities there. His testimony, of having been displaced twice, from his home and his parents (who are now happily Russian citizens in their Crimean hometown), of the losses and gains they have experienced, and of the faithfulness and provision of God brought tears to his eyes as he told his story.
Last night I was speaking to my host, Tolyk, a former IFES staff who I first met 10 or 11 years ago when I was in Ukraine teaching the staff team here. Since then he has married and now has 4 children. We were just talking about our mutual interest in reading about news on-line. He admitted that the war in Ukraine dominates his spare time reading and that he is discouraged when he reads the news but is relatively powerless to stop doing so. He acknowledged that he prays for God to bring peace, but that he sees no progress in that direction, and things are getting worse. Tolyk served in the Ukrainian Army before, but because he has more than 2 children, he said it is unlikely that he will be called into service again, though if he were called he would be willing to go. We were talking about the need that Tolyk and his wife have to take time to talk as a couple, and he acknowledged that it is difficult to get that time because of the amount of time he spends reading about the war. Lesa commented that he spends so much time reading about a war he cannot impact that it costs him time with his family where he can make an impact. Now, I spent an evening and a Sunday afternoon with Tolyk, Lesa and their beautiful kids. They are well behaved, bright (the older two speaking to me in English freely) and loving, and their parents both clearly have led and loved them well. If the war here is impacting this Christian family around the edges, how much more to people who don't have the experience or resources they do?
Today at church prayers were offered for the war, for soldiers, for the wounded and those who have lost loved ones, and for those displaced by the war, some of whom are in the congregation. I spoke after the service with a young man studying law. He wanted to know how Americans viewed Ukraine and the events of the war. I said that I thought Americans had given a lot of thought to Ukraine during the early part of the war, after the Maidan, after the Crimean annexation, but that it is easy for it to drop out of the news and off of our consciousness. I said that, in my estimation, though the US has been at war almost continuously since the early 1990s, unless you know service members you don't really think about it unless there is big news. But here in Ukraine Ukrainians cannot go a day without thinking about and worrying about the war. It is a much different story: they are at war, on their own land, with their "big brother" neighbor that cannot decide just to leave them alone. My new friend said that the only solution to the conflict is political, but it is hard to know how the politics will align in such a way as to bring about peace, as both parties (Putin and Ukraine's President Poroshenko) in some ways benefit from the conflict. But the people of Ukraine, and specifically in the war-torn areas of the South and East, are weary, having been displaced, often without food and consistent energy. And everyone here is touched by the suffering of their countrymen.
My host said that most evangelicals in Ukraine used to be pacifists, but now are supporting Ukraine and the army. I kind of understand this, though I was sad to hear that they have left their pacifist convictions under the harsh reality of a proximate war. Evangelicals were pacifists when the government persecuted them and supported the Orthodox church. But Evangelical Christianity has taken its place in Ukraine at the table of national conversation, with prominent pastors frequent guests on nationally televised talk shows, and discussions touching on faith and community in the midst of suffering and struggle are becoming more prominent. I asked my host, "Is Ukraine in the midst of a renewal or revival?" He wouldn't claim that it was, but it is difficult at this point to say what God is doing, other than that he is clearly at work, and that faith is alive and God's people are active, proclaiming and demonstrating the power and goodness of God, inviting people to turn to him.
Of course, we can believe God is working out his purposes for his people in Ukraine and still be heartbroken at their suffering and loss. This is from the IFES Ukraine recent newsletter: "Hundreds of Ukrainain soldiers and thousand of civilians were killed during this armed conflict. And the situation on the East is only getting worse. This naturally changed an agenda for many of our friends and partners. Today many Ukrainians, including our donors, started giving their funds to support refugees, soldiers and victims of the new Ukrainian war. It has also brought an economic crisis to our country: our national currency has depreciated by half (the USD to UA hryvna exhange rate has changed from 1:8 in January 2014, to 1:21 in January 2015). As a result thousands of young professionals, the core of our donors in Ukraine, have lost their jobs." Please join me in praying for Ukraine, and especially for the church and the ministry of IFES here as they seek to disciple and develop the student servant leaders who will lead their churches and other institutions in their country in the coming years.
Rich and Lisa Lamb