Marti and I were leading a 3-month field trip with about 150 students from YWAM Schools of Evangelism in 1974, when Igor strolled into our campsite in Odessa, Ukraine.
But it wasn’t Ukraine then, it was the Soviet Union.
We had been a bit uneasy as we approached the border the previous day, not knowing what to expect. Having travelled through Bulgaria and Romania, we discovered the wonderful farm produce. (I have yet to enjoy fruit nectar the equal of what we found in Bulgaria.) We were pretty sure that the prices couldn’t be cheaper in the USSR, so we stocked up as much as we could.
When we arrived at the border, the guards were suspicious of everything and combed through all our supplies and many of the personal ruck sacks and bags. They didn’t find any contraband, but seemed to want to demonstrate their authority, so they demanded that we boil our 60 dozen eggs for at least an hour. We grumbled quietly amongst ourselves and complied, then ate hardboiled eggs for weeks.
Everything was run by the government then, and the campgrounds, though okay, were strictly out of bounds for locals. Somehow Igor had managed to get through, or around, the gates and introduced himself with good English. He was clearly practicing his English and wanted to know all about us. When it became clear to him that we were Christians, he was excited and wanted us to know that he had a very dangerous long-play record: Jesus Christ, Super Star!
It was fascinating to talk to an intelligent young man who was expressing his rebellion against the system by wanting to be a Christian! We prayed with him and, on his second or third visit, gave him a Bible. He confirmed that he was not unique—many young people were interested in being Christians. Fifty years of atheistic communism had paved the way for the gospel; atheism had heightened their appetite for God.
When the USSR disintegrated in the early 1990s, churches of all confessions and denominations sprang up with millions of Ukrainians identifying themselves as Christians. Today some of the largest churches in Europe are in the Ukraine and 71% say they are Christians.
I recently interviewed Sasha, our convenor in Eastern Europe, who lives in Ternopol Ukraine. He explained that, prior to the war, Ukrainian missionaries were going all over the world, but especially to the Slavic-language nations.
Now many towns and cities are occupied and, as of writing this, it looks as though the Russian military is about to mount a new attack.
What has happened to the mission movement?
I was reading in Matthew 9 recently and was struck by how the crowds following Jesus were described. In verse 36, he “was moved with pity and compassion for them, because they were dispirited and distressed, like sheep without a shepherd.”
I had a surprising thought. When God chose to start His movement to redeem the world from its sinful state, He became one of us. But where did He choose to walk among us? In an occupied land, where the people were “dispirited and distressed”. These were to become his representatives, his ambassadors.
What a strange strategy.
It’s upside down!
After the crucifixion and resurrection, He told them to stay in Jerusalem (which was not their hometown, they were from Galilee) until they were baptised in the Holy Spirit and fire. But when that happened, they did not “go into all the world and preach the gospel” as he had told them; they remained in Jerusalem where the infant Church was growing exponentially.
But in Acts chapter 8, a “great and relentless persecution” arose, following the religious execution of Stephen. Then they went.
The daily news about Ukrainian families being driven from their homes, often with unspeakable atrocities committed against them, has made me think again about those earliest Christians. The oppression must have been intense, and the threat of execution must have been immediate and real. People will only leave their homes and familiar surroundings if it is their only hope for survival.
As they became refugees, fleeing murderers, they “went from place to place preaching the word” (vs. 4). Imagine that! The inner joy of salvation, and the indwelling Holy Spirit, lifted them above the trauma, and loss, and suffering. Inner joy can overcome terrible circumstances!
We, that is YWAM all over Europe and further afield, are doing what we can to provide immediate aid and long-term support for the suffering people of the Ukraine.
At the same time we are reminding everyone to also pray for the people of Russia. They have been bombarded by relentless propaganda claiming that the Ukrainians are Nazis, and the world will only be safe when they are irradicated. Some have believed that, while others have limited access to the narrative we get. But when a beloved son or husband or father is killed, it hurts the same no matter what story you have been fed.
Pray for the Ukrainian believers as so many are scattered to the nations. May they be filled with the Spirit and preach the Good News from an inner joy! So that hey can become a new generation of apostles— “sent ones”.
Where is Igor? I don’t know, but I like to think that he, now around 70 years old, is an elder among the believers of the Ukraine, a thoughtful, Godly man influencing Ukrainian believers to live life from the JOY WITHIN!
**Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding: https://www.pexels.com/photo/people-standing-on-street-11421331/**