July 28, 2014

From Conflict-Hit Ukraine, Adventists Tell Stories of Hope

Adventist believers in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine can
recount stories of horror and brushes with death, but more importantly, they
say, their faith has grown as they lean on Jesus and share His peace with

Hundreds of Adventists have fled the violence that is
thought to have killed more than 1,000 people since pro-Russia rebels seized
parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions in April.

Still, Adventist pastors and many other members have stayed
in their communities, caring for neighbors, sharing religious literature, and
even baptizing new believers.

None of the 3,500 Adventists who live in eastern Ukraine has
been killed or injured in the violence, and no church building or Adventist
home is known to have sustained major damage — even as neighboring buildings have
been destroyed, church leaders said.

“Thanks to the Lord, we have not received reports of any
Adventist church members dying in the conflict,” said Guillermo Biaggi,
president of the church’s Euro-Asia Division, which includes Ukraine and many other countries of the former Soviet Union.

“Yet we mourn with families who have lost their loved ones,”
Biaggi said. “And we continue to do our best to help people in eastern
Ukraine and to pray for a peaceful solution to the conflict.”

It is unclear how many Adventists have fled eastern Ukraine.
But the church’s Eastern Ukrainian Mission has evacuated about 180 people who
asked for assistance.

In recent days, the Mission has started evacuating
Adventists from Donetsk, the regional capital with 1.01 million people, as well
as from Luhansk and Horlivka as violence has flared in those cities. At least 30
believers have asked the church for help, and the Mission has provided them with
tickets on public transportation and other moving assistance, Mission leaders

Earlier, about 150 Adventists were evacuated from Kramatorsk
(population 181,025) and Sloviansk (population 129,600) at a cost of 50,000
Ukrainian hryvnia ($4,250), the leaders said. Fifty-four of the people — 45
children and nine adults — were sent to an Adventist sanatorium in the Dnipropetrovsk
region, where they were put up for 20 days at a cost of 56,000 hryvnia

Other believers were given shelter in churches or with
families elsewhere in Ukraine and in Russia.

Scores of Russian Adventists have also fled eastern Ukraine
and received sanctuary across the border in Russia. The Euro-Asia Division,
working with the local branch of ADRA, the Adventist relief agency, has
earmarked 800,000 rubles ($22,800) to meet the needs of the Russian refugees.

Despite the hostilities, 34 people have been baptized in
eastern Ukraine in the past six months, including three men in Luhansk on July

Armed men stopped the Adventists after the July 13 baptism
and demanded to see their documents, church leaders said. After questioning,
the Adventists were allowed to leave.

<strong>DESTROYED BUILDING:</strong> A building destroyed by shelling in Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine on July 22, 2014. Photo credit: Dmytro Mishenin

<strong>FORMER HOMES:</strong> Gaping holes covering the side of an apartment building in Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine on July 22, 2014. Photo credit: Dmytro Mishenin

Finding Goodness in Strife

While many people might consider the circumstances to be horrific
in eastern Ukraine, Adventist pastors and other members said they have
witnessed much good.

“Attitudes are changing toward the church, God and ministry.
Many people have begun to look at faith differently,” the Eastern Ukrainian
Mission said in an e-mailed statement.

“Churches are holding prayer meetings, sometimes daily,” it
said. “Church members have become more sympathetic to the needs and concerns of
others. They support and encourage one another. They have become more open to
God and receptive to His truth.”

In addition, people who had stopped attending church have
returned to worship, and new people are showing up for Sabbath services.

The Mission lacks the income to cover its ballooning
conflict-time expenses, but church members have become more generous despite their
meager resources, it said. Offerings have increased during every surge in
fighting, just when the Mission needed extra funds to assist affected members,
it said.

Unexpected expenditures have included an outlay of 100,000
hryvnia ($8,500) to cover the basic needs of Adventist retirees in Kramatorsk
and Sloviansk when their government pensions didn’t arrive.

“All this time, church members have not stopped distributing
the sharing newspaper, and inviting people to turn to God and to attend
church,” the Mission said.

The response to the outreach has surprised church leaders.

The sharing newspaper, called Eternal Treasure, includes a
contact phone number that used to average one call per month. Since the unrest started,
six to eight people have been calling every week, with many requesting leaflets
with the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 91, which describes the safety of abiding in
God’s presence.

In Mariupol, a city of half a million people, so many people
are now attending worship services that church leaders are seeking additional
seating. The church is also caring for 11 people who fled fighting in other

Church members themselves spoke of how their faith has grown.

Olga, who attended the Kramatorsk church with about 25
people every Sabbath before the city returned to the control of Ukraine's central government recently, told one worship service: “I thought about not coming to
church after the shelling last night, but my husband, who is not an Adventist,
said: ‘You’ve been praying to God. What are you afraid of?’”

Even on the darkest Sabbath, nine people managed to make
their way to the church.

"We felt the power of prayer, understood the importance
of repentance, and prayed every day with our brothers and sisters as well as
with our neighbors in the basement during the shelling,” said Tamara, a church

<strong>CITY OUTSKIRTS:</strong> A view of the city of Sloviansk on July 22, 2014, from an abandoned outpost once occupied by armed forces. Photo credit: Dmytro Mishenin

Praying for Peace

Life is returning to normal in Kramatorsk and Sloviansk after the central government regained control in recent days. But
church members won’t soon forget their nightmarish existence of living in
basements and cellars, sometimes for days without electricity, gas and water.

One church member in Sloviansk told of how he went into his
vegetable garden shortly before Ukrainian forces recaptured his city and heard
the buzz of a flying projectile. He quickly hid behind a shed and saw a
blinding explosion decimate the spot where he had stood moments earlier.

The church building in Sloviansk also survived the violence,
although the thunder of bombshells made it impossible for members to hear the
sermon one Sabbath. So the believers knelt and prayed for the remainder of the
worship service, Pastor Andrew V. Orlovsky said.

The only damage to the church occurred in late May when unknown
assailants broke in through a window and stole satellite equipment and kitchen
appliances. They fled by breaking down a door.

No Adventist churches have sustained damage other than
broken windows, church leaders said. In some cities, entire apartment blocks
have been destroyed and the only building left standing is the Adventist church
minus its window frames.

A similar scene has played out at apartment buildings and
private houses where Adventists live. Nearby structures are shattered, but the
Adventists’ homes stand intact, the leaders said.

Biaggi, the Euro-Asia Division president, said the extent of
the damages in the Eastern Ukrainian Mission, which has a total of 72 churches,
remained unclear and he was waiting for a final report.

“We also are making plans to search for financial support to
help them repair those damaged chapels,” he said.

The division’s Executive Committee, working together with
ADRA, recently approved an action plan for eastern Ukraine.

In addition, staff at the Moscow-based division office are remembering
eastern Ukraine daily during morning worship and a special 15-minute prayer session
before lunch, Biaggi said.

“We are praying earnestly for peace in the region, and for
the Lord to comfort with His infinite mercy and compassion those families who
have lost dear ones, especially with the news in recent days of the many who died
in the Malaysia Airlines plane crash,” he said.

<strong>REMAINS OF FIGHTING:</strong> Exploded ammunition from the fighting can be found lying around Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine. Photo credit: Dmytro Mishenin

<strong>DANGEROUS GROUND:</strong> A sign warning passersby of a buried mine in a field in Sloviansk. Photo credit: Dmytro Mishenin

Stories From the Conflict

Everyone in eastern Ukraine has been affected by the three
months of unrest, and pastors have found it especially difficult to meet with
their congregations.

Lev P. Vertylo, president of the Eastern Ukrainian Mission,
had to drive through a total of 16 manned checkpoints during a recent trip to
check on local churches. Armed men at 10 of the checkpoints pointed guns at his
chest — and once at his head — and demanded money and weapons.

Ruslan M. Demchun, pastor of two churches in the towns of
Kreminna and Rubizhne, came under gunfire as he walked through a forest to
reach a worship service in Rubizhne. Demchun, who decided to walk after
learning he couldn’t travel by car, escaped the attack unharmed.

“Arriving in Rubizhne, he stayed with the members for three
days, encouraging, exhorting and praying with the church,” the Mission statement

Over the past three months, three other pastors have been
briefly detained and questioned by armed men before being released, local
leaders said.

Adventist car owners have faced especially serious
restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Armed men attempted to seize the car belonging to a pastor
in the city of Donetsk and were in the process of removing the car’s license
plates when several passersby intervened and demanded that the assailants back
off, the local leaders said. The men reluctantly left.

Another group of armed men tried to confiscate a minivan
belonging to a Luhansk pastor but then inexplicably changed their minds.

However, an Adventist member in Kramatorsk lost her
32-year-old nephew when armed men attempted to take his car one night, said the
pastor of the local church. The nephew resisted and was shot in the chest and
both legs. With no working ambulances in the city, the man bled to death,
leaving a wife and a child.

Since the conflict began, all church services in eastern
Ukraine begin and end with prayers for a return to peace, for the families of
those killed and injured, and for the salvation of loved ones, the Eastern
Ukrainian Mission said.

Some church members have remarkable stories to tell.

A retired pastor, Ivan Gaina, was sleeping in the basement
of his apartment building in downtown Kramatorsk one night when an explosion
blew out all the windows in his fifth-floor apartment. About the same time, three
artillery shells landed in the nearby apartment belonging to his Adventist daughter
and her husband, breaking the windows and damaging the walls. Three days later,
Gaina and his family left the city.

Also in Kramatorsk, a retired couple living in a private
house emerged from their cellar hideout one morning to find five large craters
caused by BM-21 rockets in what was once their vegetable garden. The house’s
windows also were broken, and the roof was damaged. But the damage was relatively minor. Several of their neighbors’ houses had burned to the ground.

While Adventist church members said they were thanking God
for His mercy, they underscored that they also were actively assisting those who were suffering and were praying more than ever, including for the armed men who
still control parts of eastern Ukraine.

“As Adventist leaders, pastors and church members,” Biaggi
said, “we want to follow Christ's advice and the wonderful appeal found in His
famous speech from the side of the mountain: ‘You have heard that it was said:
“Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies,
and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in

Contact Adventist Review news editor Andrew McChesney at [email protected].
Twitter: @ARMcChesney

Related link

Adventist Review, June 26, 2014: “Adventists Urged to Pray for Peace in Ukraine”