MISSIONARY PERSPECTIVE: Why I love Ukraine

DNEPROPETROVSK, Ukraine (BP) -- My love for Ukraine started more than 20 years ago. God first called me to the former Soviet Union in 1992, and I moved to Lugansk, Ukraine, in February 1994.

At a prayer vigil just days before the local government was replaced by separatists in Donetsk, the weight of uncertainty and fear lay heavy on the hearts of residents. This week, the uncertainty continues as results of local elections are disputed on a global stage.
Photo by Charles Braddix/IMB
In those early years, I saw lots of growth numerically in believers and church starts. Sure there were difficulties that included long lines to simply purchase bread. However, seeing people who lived under communism for 70 years stepping forward to live in Christ was worth every challenge encountered.

After three years I returned to the United States to attend seminary, and eventually went back to Ukraine in September 2003 with the International Mission Board. Life had dramatically changed in the six years I was gone. Unfortunately, church growth was slowing in the midst of prosperity.

Four years ago I moved to Donetsk in the heart of the industrial belt. Trying to plant churches in eastern Ukraine had always been difficult, but God blessed me with a group of young people who had the same desire. Last fall, we moved into a rented hall and were averaging 20 people in the worship service. We made plans to start new groups.

But in February 2014, Ukraine's president left office. His departure set off a series of events that turned our world upside down and led me to leave Donetsk in April. War came to the city in late May and dispersed the church members to Russia and all over Ukraine.

By mid-June I knew I would not be returning to Donetsk. I would go to Dnepropetrovsk instead. It would be my fifth move in 11 years -- a move I really didn't want to make, yet a move I knew I had to make.

Since I left Donetsk, God has been teaching me much about loving Him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and loving my neighbor as myself. What does it mean to love my neighbors? Surely God doesn't mean those neighbors who caused me to flee my apartment, my life, the city I loved. Or does being a Christ follower mean I must love even those neighbors?

I've seen examples of several pastors loving these neighbors in the conflict zone. One brother shared with me that during the height of the war their church housed more than 70 people and fed many more. This pastor could be retired, yet he stayed and served others. He told me he couldn't leave; it was his duty to stay. Because the church's doors have been open, they have seen numerous people from the neighborhood repent.

A second pastor and his family have stayed right in the midst of the war. Their church serves food to their neighbors. He drives outside the conflict zone so he can get money and food. His family, along with a few church members who stayed behind, prepares the meals for those who don't have any resources for purchasing food. Through this ministry, the church has seen people more interested in hearing the Gospel, and some have put their faith in Jesus.

Another pastor recently challenged me to pray a list of Scriptures back to the Lord and to substitute my name for the pronouns. So as I sat in the park on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I prayed John 13:34.

A clear picture came to me of what the Lord intended in this verse. It doesn't matter where I live, whether in Texas, Donetsk or Dnepropetrovsk. If I am going to be His disciple, I must love.

How you can connect

During the height of the war during the summer, it was estimated that more than 1 million people were displaced from eastern Ukraine. Some have returned to their cities, but most are still displaced, and many are being helped by Baptist churches throughout Ukraine. IMB missionaries have partnered with Baptist churches to provide basic necessities for those displaced. Through Baptist Global Response, food, medicine and bedding are supplied.

For more information on how you can help, go to http://gobgr.org. Or, go to https://netcommunity.imb.org/StrategicOpportunities; in the "Find Projects by keywords" search box, type "Rebirth" and you can find more information on how to help.

Tom Long is a missionary for IMB based in Ukraine.
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