As the war in Ukraine continues but also slips down the news headlines, it is easy for us to forget about it or at least to allow it to slip down our prayer priorities. Other things take over the news headlines and we become focused on needs nearer home, some such as aspects of the cost of living crisis fueled by Putin’s invasion.
How do we ensure that our response isn’t just virtue signaling? How do we commit to standing with brothers and sisters for the long haul. This week I caught up with Ryan Burton King who I interviewed at the start of the invasion for the podcast. I put some of those questions to him. Here are his responses.
Could you give us an update on the overall picture in terms of the war and how it is affecting Ukraine?
The war rages on, and even as many people in the West have forgotten Ukraine for “the next thing” or simply become bored with Ukraine, it is intensifying in the East. Bombs are still periodically dropped as far West as Lviv and on the nation’s capital, Kyiv.
However, gone for now are the days of massive convoys advancing on Kyiv, rapidly burning, pillaging, and raping their way to the centre of the nation’s government and commerce. The abject failure of Russia to achieve its initial goals and the embarrassment they continue to face at the hands of Ukraine’s substantially smaller armed forces has led to a shift toward a war of attrition, with cities particularly hammered from the air. Western viewers will perhaps be most familiar with Mariupol, which has been significantly profiled in our media – and justifiably so. However, the same horrific visuals we have observed coming out of Mariupol could just as well come from other villages, towns, and cities. Ukraine is experiencing rising costs, depleted stocks, and the effects of over four months of intense war against what is, at least by military reputation and geopolitical significance, a global superpower.
At the same time, the Russian blockade of the Black Sea has made substantial complications involving exports, particularly wheat. There is no lack in the harvest – the storehouses are full with around 18 million metric tons of grain – but cannot be cleared to make way for the new harvest. Efforts have been made, at great expense and logistical strain, to shift some of this by land via Poland. Some grain terminals have been attacked and destroyed by Russia, and others seized, with the stolen grain being taken into Russia and sold on from there. This is likely to have global implications, and amounts to the weaponisation of a range of agricultural, climate, poverty, and hunger issues against Ukraine. Even as Ukrainian troops are forced to withdraw from the decimated city of Severodonetsk, invaluable military resources are arriving from the United Kingdom and the United States, and Ukraine has been granted EU candidacy status. While it remains to be seen how successful Russia has really been in achieving its rather murky objectives, Ukraine’s national identity and place in democratic society is only growing stronger.
Despite grief, fatigue, and the many and mounting costs of invasion and war, Ukrainians remain resilient and determined. While some voices, not least in the Church of England, unhelpfully opine about how Ukrainians should let their lands go for the sake of peace, there is no appetite in Ukraine for pandering to such injustice and the violation of their national sovereignty and political self-determination.
What News is there from Ukrainians who stayed?
The vast majority of Ukrainians have stayed in their homeland, and of the millions who fled, a fair number have returned to their homes, if able. Most of my connections in Ukraine are in Baptist churches. Baptist churches in Ukraine continue to provide refuge, rehousing assistance, and ongoing pastoral and practical care to refugees and internally displaced people often at great expense and out of their own poverty. My father-in-law Anatolyy Melnyk serves as pastor of House of the Gospel in Khmelnytsky, and Khmelnytsky Oblast pastor for churches in the Union of Evangelical Christians – Baptists.
At the peak, House of the Gospel was housing and feeding 150 to 200 people a night. The first two waves were mostly people passing through Khmelnytsky en route to Poland and beyond. With the changing dynamic of the war, those numbers have substantially diminished, from hundreds to tens to ones and twos. This of course, is still not insignificant.
Churches in the Khmelnytsky Oblast Baptist association are a microcosm of what churches across western Ukraine are doing to support refugees and internally displaced people. While millions have fled the country and some continue to, millions more have been and continue to be internally displaced. Most of those being displaced at present are from the East, and they are being welcomed and cared for in the West, not least by churches. I was told of 8-10 churches in the Khmelnytsky Oblast association that are presently housing 40-70 families in their buildings. These are not large or wealthy churches, but they are spending £5-6/$7 per adult daily on food and utilities. Of course, more stability is desirable. Churches are leading the way in rehousing people in long abandoned homes. As a result, villages suffering depopulation and dilapidated infrastructure have been repopulated by internally displaced people. To help meet the needs of internally displaced families trying to get settled and on their feet, churches are also beginning food banks.
House of the Gospel in Khmelnytsky distributes food hampers to 100 families 2-3 times a week, at a cost of around £10 per hamper per family.
Elsewhere, not far from the Belarusian border, my friend Vadym Kuchinskyy continues to serve villages in the north of Zhytomyrs’ka Oblast. His wife and children have just returned after three months in Poland, where they evacuated as fighting and flyovers intensified before Russia’s defeat at the Battle of Kyiv and the war’s shifting theatre.
“Some days, it is like there is no war,” he reports. But the prolonged absence of his family, the presence of people displaced into his area, and the occasionally resurfacing threat of invasion from Belarus are reminders that the war is real. He preaches, delivers food to families in need and supplies to territorial defence volunteers, shares the gospel of Christ with people in his community, and tries to meet the very practical needs of sustainable local church ministry that predate the recent invasion.
There is talk that the war may end by September. Others fear it could continue the rest of the year. Regardless, churches in Ukraine are committed to responding to the crisis well, and as ever need our prayers and support to do so.
What news is there from Ukrainians who have been scattered as refugees. How are they affected? Are they seeing Gospel opportunities?
Ukrainians who have been scattered and now live as refugees face a number of challenges. Adequate accommodations – even with schemes like Britain’s Homes for Ukrainians – can be hard to come by. Access to jobs, education, and good support networks are found in cities. There is less space, however, and what is available can carry with it other challenges: disengaged or oppositely over engaged hosts, language barriers, personal boundaries, the frightening unfamiliarity of it all, and a host of other complicated factors few think about – either those fleeing or those hosting.
As more refugees come to the UK, I have observed these complex dynamics personally. However, the opportunity is undeniable. We have worked with a sister from Mariupol who we assisted in housing on our street to start an ESL group in our church, Grace Baptist Church Wood Green. This is already being a Christian witness to suffering people, and holds great potential for gospel advance.
An overlooked demographic in relief efforts is older teenage boys. I have found two in the area, sorted some gym memberships for them, and work out with them regularly. Between sets, we talk. My most recent conversation was very rich indeed as these 16/17 year old boys initiated conversations about medicine (particularly neuroscience), the philosophical methods of Aristotle and Hegel, Ukrainian and English literature, and the epic poems of Greek, Latin, and Norse mythology.
At every turn there are opportunities to shine the light of Christ! In the case of one friend, members of his congregation have been scattered across Europe, but quite a few have gathered around him in Germany, where they continue to worship and witness in exile. A trip to Kraków put me in touch with a missionary and church plant that has begun to lease a property that they are using as a refugee centre, housing refugees from a church in Irpin and training them for evangelism, church planting, and mission.
What specific things are they praying and asking us to pray for?
There are a number of points for prayer regarding those of our Christian brothers and sisters who are scattered as refugees. Pray for the advance of the gospel through the consistent worship and witness of believers through their suffering. Pray for churches to be planted and strengthened by Christian refugees. Pray for churches to selflessly welcome and care for refugees, wherever they are from, not least those fleeing the present conflict. Pray for the smooth and successful integration of Ukrainian refugees into their new environments, for those assisting them with this to be patient, kind, sincere, and truly helpful, and for sufficient access to churches, education, and jobs do that the refugees can not only survive but flourish.
Pray for Christians who are sponsoring refugee families to be salt and light to those they host, and for Christian refugees being hosted by non-Christian sponsors to be good Christ-like witnesses. The vast majority of refugees are women and children. While it was important that they flee in the early days of extreme Russian aggression on an unexpected scale, many are feeling the pull of home – and for some – the weight of responsibility and choosing to go back. Pray for safety, whether they stay or go.
How do we commit to sustained engagement and prayer for the long haul?
As the months roll by with no end in sight, real virtue is distinguished from mere virtue signalling. Virtue is more than flying a flag, using a hashtag, or learning various Ukrainian phrases and patriotic slogans. While solidarity is important, especially in the raw and uncertain early days of crisis, we must move from solidarity to sacrifice and service if our engagement is to be sincere and therefore sustainable.
The axiom “proximity breeds empathy” is not universally true but works as a general principle. Developing relationships with Ukrainians individually and partnerships with Ukrainian churches, seminaries, and organisations institutionally will help maintain ongoing prayerful interest and practical responsive care.
There was much need before the present invasion – indeed before the war began in 2014 – and the needs have only increased. We must order our minds, especially as Christians, to recognise that the needs go beyond mere temporal crisis relief and be determined to make Kingdom investments in the household of faith in Ukraine.
If such opportunities are of interest to readers, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.