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Standing on a boat in the middle of a frozen river, Jeff Abrams and translator Alexander Rodnaev preach during a retreat in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sviatohirsk, near the Russian border, in 2014. Abrams, minister for the Tuscumbia Church of Christ in Alabama, hopes to return. Photo by Jeff Abrams.

Ukrainian Christians call for peace, prayer, but prepare for Russian invasion

A Church of Christ in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro is readying itself to house refugees if neighboring Russian forces invade.

“We’ve already told some congregations that we can be a point of gathering for them,” church member Alexander Rodichev told The Christian Chronicle.

But it’s likely that such an arrangement would only be temporary, Rodichev said, “because we probably also will have to move to the west.” He’s already made inquiries about places to stay.

Russia has amassed some 127,000 troops along its western border with Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian defense ministry. Among Russia’s demands are assurances that Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union, will never join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and also a ban on NATO weapons in the NATO member nations of Central and Eastern Europe.

READ: How the US and Britain paved the way for the 2014 Russian invasion

Ukrainian Christians have experienced death, displacement and loss in conflicts with Russia that date back to 2014. That’s when Russia seized Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, from Ukraine after the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Soon after, pro-Russian separatists began a bloody campaign to seize the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

A separatist fighter carries a live artillery shell through the former meeting place of the Petrovsky Church of Christ in Donetsk, Ukraine. Militants seized the building in October 2014 and renamed the region the Donetsk People’s Republic.

The region was home to many Churches of Christ before the conflict. Members were killed and kidnapped in the conflict, and hundreds became refugees, moving west to cities outside the conflict zone including the capital, Kyiv.

Some church members have taken jobs in other countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, and were trapped there due to COVID-19 lockdowns, Rodichev said. Now they don’t know if they should return home.

In Kyiv, “our level of anxiety had certainly increased in the last couple weeks,” said Vitaly Samodin, “But you have to keep in mind that Russia invaded Ukraine eight years ago, and they backed off in 2014.”

Samodin is outreach director for the Ukrainian Education Center in Kyiv, a campus ministry supported by Churches of Christ. He asked Christians worldwide to pray for peace.

Ukrainians have learned to live with uncertainty, but “the elephant on the border” remains a constant, looming threat, said Brandon Price, who works with the Ukrainian Bible Institute in Kyiv. The school, which is associated with Churches of Christ, trains men and women for ministry.

“Daily life carries on like normal,” Price said, though city officials urge people to locate their nearest bomb shelters and to stock up on emergency supplies.

Though many are nervous, they “don’t have anything else to do but to live life,” Price said. “There’s essentially nowhere to run this time.”

Church members are praying for peace and becoming more mindful of “the temporary nature of this world,” Price said. The tension has reinforced the sense of mission among the institute’s staff. Graduates of the school have launched and supported ministries that have provided humanitarian aid for refugees since 2014.

“We need to continue to train Christians to know God’s word and to lead ministries which will meet the needs of those around us,” Price said. “No matter what form UBI may take in the days to come, I believe this school is a vital part of Ukraine’s future.”

Rodichev said that, as he and his fellow Ukrainians watch diplomats from Russia and the U.S. negotiate their country’s fate, “we know that we can’t impact those decisions.”

Instead, he said, “I want to ask all our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray, and I hope that, if full-scale war comes, they will be ready to help.”

This story first appeared in the Christian Chronicle.

Erik Tryggestad is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. He has filed stories for the Chronicle from more than 65 nations.