Ukraine's forgotten crisis: How ordinary Christian heroes are bringing hope to the hopeless
Just a few years ago, Ukraine was the main issue in the news. Every day we would see on our TV screens distressing images of violent protests, a Russian invasion and occupation of the Ukrainian Crimea peninsula, and a bloody war being waged in Eastern Ukraine.
Nowadays Ukraine seems to have dropped off the agenda. This lack of media attention means that many people in the UK and beyond are unaware of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe there that continues to the present day.
As a result of the war in Eastern Ukraine, 11,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes and are now living almost without hope. Behind these statistics lie countless stories and individual lives that have been destroyed by despair, heartbreak and tragedy.
Moreover, thousands have died indirectly as a consequence of the breakdown of infrastructure caused by the war. In many parts of Ukraine, especially in the eastern 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, during the winter months, many people, especially the elderly who cannot afford to meet the cost of rising fuel bills (again, this rise is directly attributable to the war with Russia), are literally freezing to death in their own homes. In Eastern Ukraine, temperatures regularly fall to minus 20 degrees and last winter thousands of people are thought to have died in their own homes as a result of prolonged exposure to the cold.
In the summer of 2016, I and a few friends based in London came together to explore how we could help alleviate some of this suffering. The result was the founding of a new organisation, Dnipro Hope Mission, with the aim of creating a new movement for renewal Ukraine by working in partnership with local churches and denominational leaders.
My own passion for Ukraine goes back many years. Between 2011 and 2013 I worked as a missionary at Donetsk Christian University (DCU), which was a major theological training centre in Eastern Ukraine. Sadly, in 2014, following the Russian-led uprising in Eastern Ukraine, DCU was forcibly seized by Russian special forces and has now been turned into a military base. The lecture halls where I used to teach trainee missionaries about the light of Christ, have become dark chambers where paramilitaries throw knives and fire bullets at targets on the walls.
From my experience of living and working in Ukraine I have seen first-hand the enormous difference that a few dedicated and compassionate Christians working from local churches can make to an entire region. In a situation where state institutions are either ineffective, corrupt or have broken down completely, the role of local churches becomes paramount. In many parts of Ukraine, ordinary Christians are performing heroic deeds, sometimes sacrificing their own health and safety to assist and care for those in desperate need.
I am convinced that were it not for the presence of heroic yet ordinary Christians in this region, the whole of Eastern Ukraine would long ago have descended 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.
The desire to help, support and encourage these people is what lies behind the foundation of Dnipro Hope Mission (DHM) – named after the river which runs through the middle of Ukraine from north to south and gives its name to the main city in Eastern Ukraine, where our ministry is based.
Our vision at DHM is to help to make the Kingdom of God a visible reality in Ukraine. We work closely with a network of trusted contacts in local churches in the region to help them provide high quality compassionate care for people in need, such as the sick, disabled, refugees, elderly and orphans.
Ordinary heroes doing gospel work
Pastor Sasha Boyko of Vasilkivka Baptist Church is one of the many unsung heroes whose ministry we are aiming to equip. Under the most adverse circumstances of poverty and deprivation, he has become something of a roving pastor, travelling throughout the Dnipro region, offering prayer, material help and encouragement and support for the forgotten people, such as those with disabilities or diseases, the elderly, the orphans and refugees.
Dnipro Hope Mission is launching a fundraising appeal for a minibus for pastor Sasha in order to assist him in this apostolic and compassionate ministry.
In recent years, Pastor Sasha has built up a relationship with the carers and residents in a home for people with disabilities in a small town near the city of Dnipro. Whenever I have accompanied Sasha on his visits to the care home, the suffering of the residents has been very tangible. Some people were visibly unwell. We heard tragic stories about how people had lost their limbs or were paralysed as a result of disease or accidents.
Thanks to the generosity of our donors, DHM has been able to purchase thousands of pounds of medicines, mattresses, hearing aids, adult nappies, hygiene packs and other essential items of humanitarian aid for the residents of the disabled home.
I had a particularly moving encounter with one of the residents of the care home, whose name is Sergey. He had all but lost the ability to speak, but Pastor Sasha explained that Sergey was once happily married and that he had a good job and a house where he and his wife lived with their three young children.
In 2002, Sergey went on holiday with his family to Crimea and on their way home, he stopped the car in a layby to get some food and drink from a nearby shop. While Sergey was away a lorry had collided into the back of the car where Sergey's wife and children had remained behind. They were all killed instantly.
Seeing the mangled remains of his dead family in the wreck of the car, Sergey flew into a furious rage and went over to the driver of the lorry, who was lightly injured and whose vehicle had come to a stop a short distance down the road. Sergey discovered that the lorry driver was drunk and in that moment he beat the driver to death in a fit of spontaneous rage.
As a result, Sergey was sent to prison for 10 years. In an instant he had lost everything: his wife and children, his job, his freedom and his faith in God. Over time, Sergey also lost his health as he became depressed and began to develop an addiction to alcohol and drugs. He even lost the ability to speak.
When he was released from prison, he was sent to the care home. Pastor Sasha took pity on Sergey and began to speak to him about the gospel. In 2014 Sergey committed his life to Christ and was baptised in a local river. With his face beaming, he proudly showed me the photographs of his baptism, which depicted him entering the water in his white robes on a beautiful, sunny spring day.
As we were viewing the photos, Pastor Sasha explained that when Sergey emerged from the waters of baptism he began spontaneously to speak words of praise and thanksgiving to God. This was the first time he had spoken for over 10 years.
It was a privilege to meet Sergey, to pray for him and to bring him a large supply of essential Western-quality medicine, which we hope will help him to recover further.
Our aim at DHM is to offer ongoing, sustained assistance to Sergey and others in sad and distressing situations of poverty, sickness and deprivation. Please visit our website to find out how you can become part of our vision to bring the light of Christ into these dark situations and working with God in the work that He is already doing in Ukraine.
If you're feeling fit, you may even want to apply to join one of our regular short-term mission trips to Ukraine.
A UK team recently returned from a DHM-led children's summer camp in Eastern Ukraine. See the website for photos and a full report.
Dr Joshua Searle is Chair of Dnipro Hope Mission and co-author of the book 'A Future and a Hope: Mission, Theological Education and the Transformation of Post-Soviet Society'. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org