Hunger for the Gospel in Ukraine
Release International's associate ministry in Poland has been working with Christians in Ukraine who suffered persecution in the Donbas area under Russian occupation.
They have been helping Church leaders in newly liberated districts deliver relief aid and preach the gospel. And many Ukrainians are responding.
Release International's associate Maciej Wilkosz says, "I have never seen such a hunger for God in any other country."
The CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Poland spent almost three weeks close to Ukraine's frontline, visiting the east and south of the country, strengthening the church. This is his report:
I saw thousands of destroyed and burned houses and many deserted towns and villages. I met our brothers and sisters in Christ who had gone through persecution by the Russian occupiers. I served alongside those who, since the beginning of the war, had been risking their lives to preach the gospel, deliver essential humanitarian aid, and evacuate people from war-torn areas.
I witnessed many people opening their hearts to Christ virtually everywhere I preached the good news. I have never seen such a hunger for God in any other country before.
I was going to Donbas wearing a bulletproof vest that our Ukrainian associates told me to wear. A Ukrainian pastor was travelling with us. He had been almost beaten to death by the Russian occupiers just a few months earlier.
As soon as he recovered, he began serving God's people again and preaching the gospel. Now we were going to the churches, which he also surrounded with his pastoral care.
In my heart, I carried the word that I received from the Lord for the inhabitants of Donbas, where the war had been going on for nine years: "The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a Light dawned."
I knew I had to share it with everyone I met. I had a deep conviction that the Lord Jesus wanted to reveal Himself to these people as a great light of salvation, forgiveness, consolation, and hope.
And it was there in Donbas that I saw how powerful prayer is, how powerful God's protection is, and how great a desire for salvation the Holy Spirit can arouse in people.
On Saturday, we met with a small group of believers in a town just eight miles from the frontline. Most church members and residents had fled the war. The pastor and his wife stayed behind to minister to a handful of believers and bring the gospel, comfort, and help to those who had not left.
When I asked the pastor how he was, he looked at me with tired eyes and said only one word: "Sorrow."
Then I shared the word about Christ, who wants to reveal himself to the people of Donbas as a great light. The pastor had tears in his eyes, and I could read on his face the words, 'Yes, come Lord Jesus.'
A few hours later, in another town nearby, I was preaching at a meeting where local Christians were distributing humanitarian aid to residents.
No one was forced to listen to the Word of God. But people listened attentively because they were hungry for hope. Thirty people declared their willingness to give their lives to Christ.
After a long and tiring day, I went to bed, alone in the room. At a quarter to eleven, I felt a very strong urge from the Holy Spirit to get up, kneel by my bed, and pray for God's protection for our team and the people around us.
The building where we stayed was in the middle of many four-storey and taller apartment buildings. I prayed until midnight, and then again, I felt the Holy Spirit saying to me, "Now go to sleep. Tomorrow morning you are to preach the gospel at two church services, and you must be rested."
I put earplugs in my ears, blindfolded my eyes, and slept like a rock, even though the front line was only 15 miles away and the city we were in was under Russian fire.
When I woke in the morning, everyone was very disturbed. They said, "Did you hear what happened last night? At half past one, two Russian rockets hit very close to us. Even the walls of our building shook."
It turned out that in the building where we stayed, two windows were broken, and a few meters away, a huge stone fell on the asphalt alley. It had flown 400 yards over two four-storey apartment buildings.
When we got to the site of the explosions, I froze; one of the rockets hit right next to the wall of the apartment building. The force of the impact tore a huge hole in the wall and ripped out the window frames in all the apartments on the three nearby staircases.
Thank God, only four people were slightly injured. If the rocket had hit a metre or two closer, many would have died. I could only thank God for His protection for all of us.
I also wondered what impact my nightly prayer had on the trajectory of these rockets and the stone. One thing I am sure of is that prayer has power and is a priceless gift from God for us.
Searching for hope
We drove to another part of town for the first service at 9 o'clock. A big church building had no glass left in the windows. It was the result of an earlier shelling when a Russian rocket fell 300 yards from there.
The shockwave was so large that it severely bent the large iron front door, which could only be repaired with great difficulty.
Several hundred people gathered in the spacious chapel, most of them non-believers, who started going to church during the war. I saw a similar picture in practically all Ukrainian churches in the frontline areas that I visited.
New people come not only in search of humanitarian aid – many listen to the word of God with great attention and hope.
I preached the gospel to them. Nearly 30 people responded to the call to give their lives to Christ. I asked them to come to me at the front of the chapel, where we prayed together that the Lord Jesus would cleanse them of their sins and grant them eternal life.
We went straight from there to the second service, which was to take place at noon in the chapel in the building where we stayed overnight. As we approached the door, the hall was filled with people, most of them newcomers. There were no seats. People stood squeezed in all the aisles. We pushed our way forward with difficulty. Virtually all of those gathered lived in a surrounding area hit by Russian missiles last night.
Never before have I felt such a deep unity with my audience while preaching the gospel. We all knew that if not for the grace of God, we might no longer be among the living.
I told them that Christ loved them so much that He not only gave his life on the cross for them but now wants to come to their hearts as a great light and bring them hope and eternal life amid the darkness of war and death.
I said that the Bible says today is the day of salvation, and we should not put off making our peace with God until later because none of us knows if we will be alive tomorrow.
At least 50 people raised their hands as a sign that they wanted to ask God for the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life. And then a powerful chorus of voices repeated after me the words of the prayer for salvation. The Lord Jesus appeared to them as a great light.
After the service, a young man in his 20s who had started going to church at the beginning of the war approached us. He took care of his two older, disabled brothers. Their mother had died a few months earlier. These three brothers lived in the building close to where the rocket exploded that night.
Their apartment had survived, but there was no electricity, no heating, and no water in the entire building – in the middle of winter with the temperature below zero.
The pastor of the church, who was standing next to me, immediately said, "For the time being, you will be able to live in our building."
I thanked God for this man and his wife, who stayed in this church to serve people practically on the frontlines. What would have happened to this man and his brothers if the church door had not been left open? What would happen to the hundreds of others to whom the Christians bring help and hope?
I returned to Poland with a deep conviction that we will continue to support the ministry of our brothers and sisters from Ukraine, who, despite persecution and war, tirelessly serve God and people throughout the frontline areas. They are the light of Christ there and often the only hope and salvation for war-torn people.
Maciej Wilkosz is CEO of Voice of the Martyrs, Poland.
Release International has launched an appeal to help Christians suffering from oppression. You can read how evangelical Christians in Ukraine are suffering persecution at the hands of Russian forces. They include Ivan and his wife Viktoria (their names have been changed for security reasons) who remained in Kharkiv to minister to the people after the Russians invaded. Ivan was arrested and tortured on suspicion of being a spy. To find out more about how you can help Christians who are being oppressed for their faith, click here.