As Russian troops launch a mass invasion of Europe’s largest Democracy, the Ukrainian Church is praying even as bombs are heard in the distance.
Andrew Kelly watched as a boy, no older than 12, finally got through to his mother on the phone after days of trying.
It was 2014, and the boy was staying at a Christian camp overseen by Kelly and his wife, Jenny, near the town of Kolentsi in northern Ukraine.
The camp is an hour south of Chernobyl, site of the 1986 nuclear disaster. In 2014, it was much safer than eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists were seizing towns, schools and church buildings.
The boy, one of 350 refugees that the Kellys had taken in, had only a brief conversation with his mother before he heard her shout, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” Then the phone went dead. Three agonizing days passed before he reached her again. She had dropped her phone when she saw a missile flying toward her village. She was the last one to make it into the basement before it hit.
READ: Russia invades Ukraine
Eight years later, as Russian troops amassed along the Ukrainian border, Kelly led a prayer for “the wanderers.” The Kellys and about 50 other Christians with ties to Ukraine gathered for an afternoon of prayer at the North Davis Church of Christ in Arlington, Texas.
On the auditorium’s wall hung the outline of a cross, filled with colorful handprints and footprints — all of the refugee children who stayed with the Kellys. Andrew Kelly prayed for all those displaced in 2014 — and for all who may be displaced if Russia makes further incursions into Ukraine.
Little has changed in the eight years since the separatists formed breakaway republics in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Less than 48 hours after the prayer service, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of the breakaway republics and ordered his military to “maintain peace” in the disputed areas, the Associated Press reports.
“It’s easy for us to complain about the politics in our state and our nation,” said Kelly, who moved to Texas a few months ago but continues to serve with the Ukraine-based ministry Jeremiah’s Hope. He urged his fellow believers to focus on their brothers and sisters in Ukraine. He prayed for the nation’s sovereignty.
“Protect Ukraine,” he prayed. “Keep her in your care.”
A crisis of ‘servant leadership’
Until recently, Ukrainians “had never seen any model of leadership except authoritarianism,” said Mike Armour, founder of Strategic Leadership Development International, who led a prayer for Ukraine’s leaders — political and religious — during the Dallas event.
Armour is a former president of Eastern European Mission and has worked with Ukrainian leaders, including members of the country’s cabinet, on “projects from one side of the country to the other,” he said.
Historically, Ukrainians “have been under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Soviet Union,” Armour said. “They had never developed a concept of leadership that we take for granted in the Western world.”
In government and in church leadership, Ukrainians have had to learn “what it means to be a servant leader, to be a shepherd,” Armour said. “There has been a fast learning curve in churches, influenced by the gospel, but leaders in Ukraine for the most part have not grown up with role models of servant leadership, the kind of leadership that Christ calls us to.”
Armour prayed for Ukraine’s leaders to receive “deep political wisdom.” He also asked for “a very special measure of God’s wisdom to be poured out on leaders of churches and spiritual ministries.”
“Give us, father, a sense of commitment to stand for freedom,” he prayed, “to stand for truth, to stand for basic humanity in the way that neighbor treats neighbor and nation treats nation.”
‘The Lord’s church is alive and well’
The turmoil of the past and present haven’t stopped the Lord’s work in Ukraine, said Tim Johnson, and neither will this latest conflict. Johnson first traveled to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in the days before the Soviet Union collapsed. He met with underground congregations of believers, some of whom had family members seized or killed by the secret police. Still, they urged Johnson to take their message back home: “Tell them that the Lord’s church is alive and well; the church survives because of the Holy Spirit.”
After Ukraine’s independence, Johnson and his wife, Darla, planted the Nivki Church of Christ in Kyiv in the early 1990s. He also taught at the International Christian University in Kyiv and spent nearly a decade in the country planting churches and spreading the gospel. Johnson now serves as development director for Missions Resource Network.
After eight years of turmoil in Ukraine, “I’m really not sure what to say,” Johnson told his fellow Christians at the prayer gathering. He reminded them of the struggles of the country’s past and that churches had endured. He then prayed for peace, pleading to God, “Move in such a way that your gospel will be shown through these difficult times.”
Richard Baggett, who has worked with Eastern European Mission and makes regular mission trips to Ukraine, was an organizer of the prayer event. After Putin’s announcement on Monday, he told The Christian Chronicle that he and fellow Christians involved in Ukraine missions “are assessing the situation and planning to respond to needs and opportunities in Ukraine.”
“We are building a response to the coming new realities there,” Baggett said. “One thing that hasn’t changed is the openness to the message of God.”
Erik Tryggestad is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. He has filed stories for the Chronicle from more than 65 nations.