Photo: A Church of Christ in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 2003. Photo credit: Erik Tryggestad 

 

The Eastern European nation, now under siege by its Russian neighbours, has been fertile soil for the fellowship. As one young Ukrainian put it, ‘Christianity is the greatest treasure we have.’

Congregations related to FCC in Ukraine are scattered across the nation of 44 million souls. Some church members are internally displaced in their own nation. Some have started new lives in Europe and the U.S. Others live under Russian rule in the occupied Crimean Peninsula or under pro-Russian separatists in the self-declared republics of eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine 

Russia’s latest incursions into Ukraine have caused additional disruptions and displacement among the nation’s Churches of Christ. 

As Christians around the world — including church members in Russia — pray for the safety of their brothers and sisters in Ukraine, here’s some background gleaned from four reporting trips to Ukraine and dozens of interviews with Ukrainian believers during the past two decades.

How did Churches of Christ begin in Ukraine?

The Eastern European nation, once part of the Soviet Union, has deep Christian roots, dating back to the Byzantine Empire in the 900s A.D. During the Soviet years, many Ukrainians remained loyal to the Ukrainian Orthodox church.

As communism began to collapse in the region in the late 1980s, Ukrainians already were familiar with the work of Churches of Christ through ministries including Eastern European Mission, which smuggled pocket-sized New Testaments and Christian literature under the Iron Curtain from its printing facility in Vienna, Austria. Ukrainian-born evangelists including Epi Stephan Bilak helped distribute the contraband. Bilak, who was supported by the Minter Lane Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, broadcast a radio program, “The Messenger of Truth,” into Eastern Europe from Switzerland.

Missionaries including Tim Johnson journeyed to the capital, then known by its Russian pronunciation, Kiev (“KEE-ev”), by most Americans. The missionaries worked with groups of believers who met in basements. Some had family members detained or killed by Soviet secret police, Johnson said.

Johnson and his wife, Darla, planted the Nivki Church of Christ in Kiev in the early 1990s. A year later, after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union, more missionaries came — including students from universities associated with Churches of Christ. Mission teams from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., worked with infant congregations, planted new ones and launched a campus ministry. 

Bilak and his family returned to Ukraine and planted the Old Park Church of Christ in the western Ukrainian town of Ternopil.

Why was Ukraine so receptive to the Gospel?

At first, the novelty of American preachers — rarely seen in the Soviet world — drew big crowds across Eastern Europe. Evangelists from Churches of Christ found the eastern, Russian-speaking region of Ukraine to be particularly receptive.

The Soviet Union paved the way for this receptivity, said Evgen Sosnovsky, a miner from the eastern Ukrainian town of Dobropole. During the Cold War, those who disagreed with state-enforced communism were given two choices — exile in Siberia or labor in the coal mines of Ukraine’s Donbas region, Sosnovsky said. As a result, Donbas became the homeland of what he called “free thinkers.”

Sosnovsky became a Christian in 2002 and took the Gospel into the coal mines of Donbas. To reach the coal, miners had to squeeze into small elevators for descents that could take up to an hour. Sosnovsky used the time to conduct Bible studies. Soon, he was ministering for a church of 30.

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, churches were planted and grew quickly. The Petrovsky Church of Christ in Donetsk had more than 400 members by the mid-2000s. Its minister, Sasha Prokopchuk, once served in the Red Army. He launched a television ministry and began conducting annual retreats in Crimea, Ukraine’s peninsula on the Black Sea. In waters once patrolled by Soviet submarines, he baptized souls into Christ.

Sasha Prokpchuk baptises Roman Onischenko in the Black Sea during the annual Crimea conference in 2011.

‘Christianity is the greatest treasure we have’

The awakening wasn’t limited to eastern Ukraine. Across the nation, Ukraine’s political leaders called for the teaching of religion as part of its ethics and morality curriculum. Eastern European Mission, which once smuggled Bibles into Ukraine, began printing colorful, hardcover children’s Bibles in former communist nations and distributing them in Ukraine’s public schools.

In 2011, The Christian Chronicle visited schools in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk with representatives of EEM. Workers with the nonprofit had heard rumors that the Bibles they supplied weren’t being used in the schools and were being sold. However, at each school the team visited, EEM’s Bibles were displayed prominently in libraries and were found in classrooms.

Students in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, wave and hold some of the thousands of children’s and teen’s Bibles that Eastern European Mission provides for ethics and character education.

At Public School No. 11, school administrators rounded up students from its ethics team, which had just won a national competition based on the students’ knowledge of the Bible and Christian ethics.

“The morals of the stories (in Scripture) help us choose the right way in our lives,” said Viktoriya Kalynyuk, then 16. “These stories protect us from bad decisions.”

 

The students didn’t grow up under communism, but their parents and grandparents did. But throughout the Soviet years they had nurtured a love of church and the Bible and passed it on to their children.

Olesya Andrusyak, head librarian of Public School No. 11 in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, talks about the appeal of the illustrated children’s Bibles among elementary students.

The students didn’t grow up under communism, but their parents and grandparents did. But throughout the Soviet years they had nurtured a love of church and the Bible and passed it on to their children.

Another student, Ihor Kozak, said, “We know that Christianity is the greatest treasure we have. Our country was part of the Soviet Union. Now the people of Ukraine can believe in the God they want. After 70 years, people want to believe in the Master who loves us.”

Nickoli Plaksin, a Ukrainian who works with EEM, beamed with pride as he listened to the students speak.

“That’s the future of my country,” he said.

 

First published by the Christian Chronicle, a news service of Churches of Christ in the USA. All photos by Erik Tryggestad. To read more from the Christian Chronicle, click HERE.

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