Baptists in Ukraine continue to minister with support from Send Relief

By Caroline Anderson

On April 11, Send Relief leadership gathered in a hotel room in Chisinau, Moldova, for a virtual meeting with leaders of the Ukrainian Baptist Union. Separated by roughly 360 miles, leaders from the two organizations discussed how Ukrainian Baptists are responding to the war and areas Send Relief and the global church can help.

“We are very thankful to have this time with you today, and certainly want to talk about how we can be of help to you in the most beneficial way,” Bryant Wright, the president of Send Relief, told the leaders at the start of the call.

Send Relief leadership gathers in a hotel room in Chisinau, Moldova, for a virtual meeting with leaders of the Ukrainian Baptist Union. Separated by roughly 360 miles, leaders from the two organizations discussed how Ukrainian Baptists are responding to the war and how Send Relief can continue supporting their efforts. IMB Photo.

Igor Bandura, the vice president of the Ukrainian Baptist Union, told Wright and the other Send Relief leaders that they had been praying the escalations wouldn’t lead to war. Three weeks before the start of the war, Bandura and other leaders felt the Lord leading them to make contingency plans.

“We strongly felt that it was a message from God that we had to prepare ourselves,” Bandura said. “Still, right to the end, we hoped and prayed that God would help and protect Ukraine from the war.”

Bandura said before the war started, they spoke with every pastor in the eight regional associations in western Ukraine and asked them to prepare their churches, Sunday School buildings, camps, any Baptist-owned buildings and personal residences to house refugees.

Ukrainian Baptist Union (UBU) leadership came up with a three-part plan for response. The first is to send all the money they receive directly to Baptist churches in the 25 regional associations of Ukraine. There are 2,500 Baptist churches in Ukraine.

The second focus is transportation and sending food, hygiene and medicine into heavily hit areas. Volunteers are giving their time and taking tremendous risks.

Fuel is expensive, and multiple trips into disaster-riddled areas is an expensive, risky endeavor. So, the third phase of their plan involves providing fuel. Bandura said last week, he stopped at every gas station in the vicinity, and every station was out of gas. He parked his car at his house with only one or two liters left.

They received news that the war would start in 48 hours. Valeriy Antonuk, the Ukrainian Baptist Union president, told Baptists leaders to prioritize the safety of their families.

“Please take your time – take your families, your wives and children, and send them to western Ukraine to safe places and come back to the office because we will have a lot to do,” Antonuk said.

The war started in the worst-case scenario. On the second day of the war, Russian troops moved to Kyiv, and the capital became a battlefield. The Baptist Union offices relocated, and it usually takes five hours to travel to their destination city, but it took 24 hours due to the mass exodus of people from Kyiv.

A Ukrainian family has an emotional reunion when a refugee disembarks from a bus fleeing Ukraine at the border crossing near the Polish town of Chelms. In Feb. 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine causing a massive movement of refugees into bordering nations as well as internally displaced peoples within. IMB Photo

Bandura, Antonuk, UBU vice presidents Roman Vecherkivsky, Sergiy Moroz and executive secretary Volodimir Kondor have worked day and night.

Antonuk said their most urgent need is to help people in the eastern part of Ukraine. They expect military offensives will continue and intensify in the area. Antonuk said they are providing transportation to evacuate people. He joined the call with Send Relief from his car while returning from a trip to bring supplies to Kharkiv.

“A big priority is to try to make sure that our ministers, as much as possible, are remaining in Ukraine and keep serving in Ukraine,” Antonuk said.

There are 2,000 ordained pastors in Ukrainian Baptist churches.

“It’s our prayer that by 2025 we will have ordained 500 more,” Antonuk said.

Every three to four days, UBU leadership have virtual meetings with regional pastors to hear updates. They also send videos to encourage them to persevere.

The five Baptist churches that were in Mariupol were destroyed. In one eastern region, Antonuk said 70 percent of the region’s 115 churches are under Russian occupation. Pastors have stayed in the area, and the union is trying to provide help.

Antonuk said another area of focus is helping churches in western Ukraine that are hosting refugees. Families have welcomed refugees into their homes and are going to railway stations to pick up refugees. Churches in the central region serve as transition points for Ukrainians traveling to the west and onward to other countries.

When Kyiv was under fire, the Baptist union sent supplies in case the city was ever surrounded. They’ve established corridors to send supplies and fuel to other areas. Romanian and Moldovan Baptists are also sending supplies.

Bandura said that despite the turmoil, Baptist churches are rising to the challenge, and Christians are united and ministering generously. More humanitarian assistance is needed, however, to assist them as they serve their brothers and sisters. Nearly twelve million Ukrainians are displaced.

“What we see is the grace of God in the midst of war,” Bandura said. “We continue to baptize people, and new babies are being dedicated.”

This past week, Bandura ordained a pastor. The parents of this new pastor were not Christians, and he and his church had been praying for them for many years. After the ordination, the pastor gave a call to prayer. The new pastor’s parents came forward and prayed to receive Christ.

“It was such a powerful sign for the church and for this pastor. For all of us it was a really powerful sign of God’s presence and His blessing despite all the terrible things: destruction and horrific suffering,” Bandura said. “We have emotional ups and downs. We are still humans, but overall, if we share our testimony, we say, ‘God is still alive. He’s blessing Baptist churches and local Baptist churches, and we are committed to stay to the end.’”

Throughout the Easter weekend and the following week, Bandura asked for the U.S. church to remember Ukrainian Christians in prayer. Ukrainian Baptists celebrate Easter one week after western churches.

“This is the first time in our life that we are celebrating Easter right in the midst of war.”

Bandura asked for prayer, encouragement from the Word and courage from the Holy Spirit. He said there are “more reasons to cry than reasons to celebrate, but we would like to experience the power of the resurrection in our hearts. Pray people will be touched in a special way by the Easter message.”

The way the Ukrainian church continues to be salt and light to the Ukrainian people made a great impact on Wright.

“We are greatly inspired by the courage and determination of the Ukrainian people,” Wright told the Ukrainian leaders.

Antonuk thanked Wright and Southern Baptists for their help and prayers.

“We have been working together with the Southern Baptist Convention for a very long time, starting in the 1990s. Missionaries from the Southern Baptist Convention have helped to start a lot of churches in Ukraine,” Antonuk said. “This is a new page in our partnership with you.”

A church planter in Lviv, Ukraine gathers together with internally displaced Ukrainians that were forcibly displaced from their homes and traveled to western Ukraine for refuge. The church planter is partnering with the Ukrainian Baptist Union and Send Relief to provide food and other essentials to internally displaced persons (IDPs). Photo provided by Send Relief Project Director.

Jason Cox, vice president of Send Relief International Ministries, shared they are sending funds for Ukraine refugee ministry through partnerships with the disaster relief arm of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the North Carolina Baptist Convention. Cox said they are also working with the Romanian and Moldovan Baptist Unions, organizations that support Baptist ministry in their respective nations, to both support refugees and to help send funds through the unions relief efforts.

“We’re so very encouraged and inspired by the unity and the solidarity between Baptist unions inside and outside of Ukraine,” Cox said. “Our greatest priority at this stage of this crisis is how we can become more involved directly in supporting efforts inside of Ukraine.”

Antonuk said they will prepare a list of ways Send Relief and the SBC can help. The list will include aid in transportation for evacuating people, fuel for vehicles, paying the utility bills of churches that are housing refugees and providing food for refugees. Two regions in Ukraine have 2,000 people coming through their churches in one day.

Antonuk said they are grateful for the help the Ukrainian Baptist Union has already received.

Wright prayed for the Ukrainian leaders before the end of their call.

“We are completely aware that without the prayer shield of millions of Christians around the world, our president, our army, our churches would not be as strong as they are,” Bandura said. “But the battle is still going on, so we would appreciate it if you would continue to ask your people to continue pray.”

Published April 22, 2022

Caroline Anderson

Caroline Anderson writes for the IMB from Southeast Asia.