I’m returning from this mission trip to Ukraine with an overwhelming number of impressions. I have gained a new appreciation for Eastern Ukraine as a land of heroes of the faith. There are heroic people doing essential gospel work in Ukraine. I was so impressed by the quiet and unassuming manner in which ordinary Christians go about their work on behalf of the gospel.
We never hear about these people in the news or read about them in the papers, but these are the people who are building God’s Kingdom of compassion in Ukraine. They are the faithful labourers who are planting gospel seeds of faith, hope and compassion in the way that they serve their communities. It was a privilege to serve alongside these faithful servants and to learn from them about what it means to minister in Christ’s name to the poorest and most marginalised people – the people that the world has forgotten about, but who are especially close to God’s heart.
God certainly hasn’t forgotten about these precious ones and it was a privilege to be able to remind people of this during our visit. The trip has therefore reinforced my conviction that the whole earth belongs to God and that He loves and cherishes every human being upon it. To have compassion, pity and mercy on those who suffer is an absolute, non-negotiable gospel imperative. It’s an integral part of our discipleship as followers of Jesus Christ. And we actually discover that in loving others we come face to face with God in the face of the other.
In Ukraine this kind of ministry is particularly essential. It is important to understand that Eastern Ukraine is quite a chaotic and lawless region at the best of times. At the present time, in the midst of a war following Russian army incursions into the Crimea and the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, the infrastructure of healthcare and social support has almost completely collapsed. Thousands of people have been left without any support from the state, which cannot cope with the overwhelming extent of human need. As a result, many people, particularly the elderly who cannot afford to pay their fuel bills, are literally freezing to death (in temperatures of -18 degrees) in their own homes.
I am convinced that were it not for the presence of heroic yet ordinary Christians in this region, the whole of Eastern Ukraine would descend into complete chaos. The work that Christians are doing, such as delivering insulin medicine for diabetics in war-torn regions of Eastern Ukraine, is literally saving lives, even while these Christians sometimes risk their own lives in the process. We were privileged to meet many of these Christians in Ukraine last week.
These people, by serving Christ, have become the salt and light of their communities. Their work is truly self-sacrificial and heroic, even when it goes completely unnoticed, not merely by us in the West, but sometimes even among the local population in Ukraine. Reflecting on their efforts, I recalled Hebrews 6:10: ‘God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.’ The Epistle to the Hebrews later refers the heroes of the faith, who made heroic sacrifices at personal cost in order to glorify God.
Our host in Ukraine, Pastor Sasha of Vasilkivka Baptist Church, is one of these unsung heroes. Under the most adverse circumstances of poverty and deprivation, he carries on his apostolic ministry with a skill, determination and single-minded devotion to Christ that reminds me of the Apostle Paul. Although based in his church in Vasilkivka, he has become something of a ‘roving pastor’, travelling throughout the region, offering prayer, material help and encouragement and support for the ‘forgotten people’, such as the disabled, the diseased, the elderly, the orphans and refugees, etc.
In recent years, Pastor Sasha has built up a relationship with the carers and residents in a disabled home in the town of Tsarichanka in the Dnipro region. Despite the extremely difficult conditions, it was a great privilege to have visited this community. The suffering of the residents was very tangible. Some people were visibly unwell. We heard tragic stories about how people lost their limbs or were paralysed as a result of disease or accidents. Thanks to the generosity of those who supported the DHM trip with donations, we were able to purchase thousands of pounds worth of medicines, mattresses, hearing aids, adult nappies, hygiene packs and other essential items of humanitarian aid for the residents of the disabled home.
At the disabled home I was delighted to see some familiar faces of those I had met during my visit last year. I was able to catch up briefly with Sergey, one of the residents whose tragic story I narrated in my previous post. He was doing quite well and was really pleased to see us. His beaming smile and open arms as he greeted us is one of my abiding memories from the trip. I asked him if he remembered me. “Da, Da! Konechno pomnyu tebya!” (“Yes, Yes! Of course, I remember you!”), he exclaimed.
While we were in Ukraine, we also received joyful news about Sasha’s wife, Irina. Two years ago, Irina was diagnosed with stomach cancer and was told by her doctor that she had ‘about 3 or 4 months’ to live. Remarkably and to the shock of her doctors, Irina responded very well to her treatment and was able to undergo a major operation a few months ago. While we were in Ukraine last week, Irina received the news from the hospital that she had been given the ‘all clear’ and that there was no cancer in her stomach. She is still weak as a result of a gruelling course of treatment and she will need to keep going to hospital for regular check-ups, but this was wonderful news for which we give thanks to God.
As leader of the trip, one other aspect of our visit which was a real blessing to me was the privilege of serving with group of such dedicated and compassionate people with servant hearts. All members of the group entered into all the activities with great enthusiasm and desire to give of their many gifts in order to serve and bless those we met.
There was a godliness and maturity in the group and also a great team spirit that was key to enabling us to work, serve and pray together, so that we could minister faithfully and effectively to those we met. Although there were many poignant moments as we ministered to people in desperate circumstances, we also laughed a lot and there was a great spirit of team work, collegiality within the group, which enabled us to minister effectively.
Foremost among these impressions is my sense of gratitude for the kindness of our Ukrainian hosts, who welcomed us with open hearts. I was particularly impressed by the hospitality of my wife’s mother, Sonya, and the wider family. They offered us the kind of hospitality that gave us a foretaste of the warmth of true koinonia-fellowship that awaits us in heaven. I was also grateful to my Ukrainian friends, Oksana, Andrei, Denys and Artur who accompanied us at different stages of the trip and were a great blessing to all of us.
As was the case last year, I’m sure that, on balance, we ended up being served by those we met in Ukraine even more than we were able to serve them. With the prayers and support of people back home, we felt the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit accompanying us throughout our trip. It is surely a sign that God was with us during the trip, considering that outcomes and the blessings that we were able to impart far exceeded our abilities and resources.
As the UK group said our farewells to Sasha and the others last week, we asked him how we could continue to support him in the months ahead. He asked us to continue praying for Irina and for his ministry. He also said that he was praying that God would provide him with the means to purchase a minibus, which would enable him to minister more effectively in the local region, reaching out to remote, cut-off villages that are inaccessible by public transport.
He would love to have a minibus so that he and Irina could arrange day trips for residents of the disabled home and local orphanages, and to bring some joy and fun to people who are forced to spend their whole time in the grim confines of run-down Soviet-style buildings. When we asked how much he’d need to buy a suitable minibus, Sasha thought that it would cost about £5,000 to buy a reliable one. I said that we’d do what we could to raise the funds through DHM. Please stay tuned for the fundraising appeal for a minibus for Sasha’s ministry!
Finally, I’d like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to all of you who have supported the work of Dnipro Hope Mission through your prayers and donations. We would not be able to do what we do without the support of people like you. We are very grateful to you for all your support and encouragement and we hope you will stay in contact with us.
Perhaps you’ll even consider joining us on one of our subsequent trips to Ukraine!