Little Roma darted out the Ukrainian church building after Sabbath services and headed straight to a grandmother playing with her young child in the adjacent playground.
“Are you a believer?” he asked.
The elderly woman looked surprised at the query from the 7-year-old boy with blond hair and an earnest face. She confirmed that she believed in Christ.
“Then why weren’t you in church?” Roma said.
As the woman struggled to come up with a reply, Roma invited her to attend the next Sabbath.
“He’s our little evangelist,” Roma’s adoptive father, Evgeniy Tkachishin, said with a smile as he related the incident.
But Roma, now 10, is more than a little evangelist. He represents the fulfillment of his father’s hopes to share the gospel in southern Ukraine and beyond.
Tkachishin is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, the father of nine adopted and biological children, and cofounder of a one-of-a-kind center of influence in Ukraine. His organization, Alfa-Nik, runs an orphanage, preschool, and community center inside a gated compound shared with an Adventist church in Mykolaiv, a Black Sea city of half a million people.
“We meet and befriend people through our programs, and we believe that over time they will open their hearts to God,” Tkachishin told the Adventist Review.
Twenty-nine children live with five Adventist married couples in spacious apartments on the compound, which Tkachishin secured for U.S.$200,000 in 2010. Another $500,000 has gone into upgrading the property since then, with some funds coming from the Adventist Church’s Southern Ukrainian Conference (it has earmarked $800 for 2016) but most from private donors.
In the three-story building where the children live, construction work is wrapping up on 10 one-room apartments for new mothers and their babies. The mothers — some single, others from abusive or drunken homes — will be able to stay for up to six months and receive parenting classes from a licensed psychologist.
Mykolaiv Seventh-day Adventist Church No. 7 occupies a neighboring building, and its main hall was packed with 35 members and 25 children on a recent Sabbath. The children have their own Sabbath School classrooms in the building, and a preschool for neighborhood children operates in another room on weekdays.
The playground where Roma approached the grandmother is located directly in front of the church building. Filled with brightly colored equipment, this is the only playground within a one-mile (2-kilometer) radius, making it a magnet for children of all sizes. Tkachishin organizes educational activities throughout the year on the playground, and hundreds of neighborhood children attend every time.
Four visits to the compound in August 2014 and July 2016 revealed first-hand how its operations were expanding. A gray hulk of a building was transformed into an attractive dining hall with comfortable table-and-chair sets and a large shiny kitchen. The building has many functions: a cafeteria for the preschool, a cooking school for the community, a venue for birthday parties, and a place to hold Adventist women’s and youth meetings, Tkachishin said during a tour.
While the compound meets many community needs, the priority is orphaned and otherwise abandoned boys and girls.
“The family is growing,” said Anatoliy Gurduiala, who cofounded Alfa-Nik with Tkachishin, his cousin, and currently pastors the Russian-American Adventist church in Glendale, California. He visits several times a year, and his church collects tens of thousands of dollars annually for Alfa-Nik.
“This is a big mission project,” Gurduiala said. “I believe that the children will become good church members.”
Children’s lives are already being changed, said Tkachishin, who also pastors two other local churches.
He told of a boy named Seryozha who lost his single mother when he was 10 and was sent to live with alcoholic relatives. Neglected in his new home, the boy begged neighbors for food and watched television through their apartment windows. The authorities removed Seryozha from his home last year and sent him to Alfa-Nik.
“Today the boy is 12 years old and participates in outreach programs and collects offering in church,” Tkachishin said. “We see that God has carried out a big miracle in his life, taking him from a situation where he had nothing to eat and no one wanted him. Today he has everything he needs — and he has God.”
Another boy, Dima, also arrived at Alfa-Nik last year. His mother moved to Italy to work and never returned, giving up her parental rights and turning him over to his father. The father later died and, with no other relatives, Dima was placed in a state orphanage.
Today Dima, 11, prays regularly and sings in the front with other children during church worship services.
“You heard today how the children sing,” Tkachishin said after a worship service on a recent Friday evening. “The truth is no one forces them to sing. They sing because they want to.”
The Friday worship service focused on the importance of brushing teeth and included a short animated film, Christian music, and a presentation on good health practices. The children eagerly raised their hands when the presenter posed questions at the front of the church.
“They learn about good health, and they give up bad habits,” Tkachishin said of the children in his care. “They have suffered serious trauma but, praise God, their lives are changing here, and they are ready to share what they have learned with others. We have children who want to become pastors.”
Roma, front right, and other children rehearsing a song about Jesus after a Friday night worship service at Mykolaiv Seventh-day Adventist Church No. 7 on the compound of the Alfa-Nik center of influence in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, in July 2016. (Andrew McChesney / AR)
The children, who attend public school, invite classmates to church and share their new-found faith at state-run summer camps. Tkachishin said one of his adopted sons, Artur, 10, had initially expressed anxiety about attending summer camp this year.
“I said, ‘You are going not only to relax but also to preach,’” Tkachishin said. “After three weeks, I went to pick him up and he told me, ‘Papa, I found a boy whom I preached to and told about Jesus. And he listened to me!’”
Alfa-Nik is continuing to grow. Plans are in place to provide a home for a total of 50 orphans and to also one day open an Adventist elementary school. Funding does not worry Tkachishin, who said God had provided beyond his expectations over the past six years.
“Our project is a project of faith,” he said. “We don’t know when or how the money will come. We just believe.”
The compound welcomes a steady trickle of foreign visitors, many of whom express astonishment at what they see. Three guests from California were worshipping in the church on a recent Sabbath.
“Alfa-Nik and what they are doing is absolutely profound,” said Esme Ross, who visited the compound twice with her husband, Robert Ross, pastor of the Triadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland, during evangelistic campaigns in Ukraine in 2012 and 2013.
“The saddest thing is that Alfa-Nik can only reach a drop in the bucket of all the children who need to be reached,” Ross said. “I picked up this little girl and I didn’t want to let her go. I wanted to bring her home. I wish that what they do could be replicated over and over and over again.”
The children at Alfa-Nik spend much time in prayer. Although they are happy by all appearances, their past weighs heavily on their minds during prayer time. They worry about children who still live in orphanages, Tkachishin said.
“They pray that God helps those orphans to find families,” he said. “They are worried because they used to live there. We visit orphanages from time to time and take apples and other gifts to the children.”
Even the youngest child, 3-year-old Nastya, tries to pray. Nastya and her two older siblings were left at home alone for several days by their parents, and the authorities, when they found out, sent them to Tkachishin.
“Nastya is only now learning to speak, but she tries so hard to pray with the rest of us,” Tkachishin said. “If you could only hear the precious utterances that she makes.”