Seeds of Hope in Ukraine

by Jamie Dean, OPC Communications Coordinator

When an Armenian living in Ukraine decided to practice his English on a couple of Americans he heard speaking on a street corner years ago, he had no idea the encounter would change the course of his life. He discovered his conversational English was awkward, but the Americans invited him to keep practicing in a class that used the Bible as a textbook. The Americans were missionaries, and the Lord used the class to draw George to saving faith in Christ.

George recently recalled those early days of faith from the upstairs room of a house in the southern port city of Odessa, where he serves his congregation as a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ukraine (EPCU).

The denomination of twelve churches is the fruit of decades of missionary and Ukrainian efforts that often began with simple, evangelistic conversations with men like George in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

OPC missionary Heero Hacquebord arrived in Ukraine nearly three decades ago, and he still serves alongside several of the original members of the MTW team in the country. (MTW is the missionary agency of the Presbyterian Church in America.) The team evangelized, discipled, worked to plant churches, and helped lay the groundwork for a seminary and the EPCU, a denomination now led almost entirely by Ukrainian pastors.

In March, a small contingent from the OPC visited the work in Ukraine, a year after Russia’s invasion of the Eastern European nation sparked the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II and upended life for millions in the country.

We saw firsthand how EPCU churches have distributed diaconal relief through the Crates for Ukraine project that many OPC congregations have contributed to over the last year. And we heard about Hacquebord’s bigger hopes for the effort: He’s praying the simple crates might become seeds for planting churches, as they build contacts across the country for the denomination.

The denomination that began with the seeds of street evangelism and outreach classes is now full of first-generation Christians and pastors like George. As those believers raise a new generation of covenant children, they also continue to reach out to others still hungry for the good news of Christ in a sinful and weary world.

The Kindness of God

George doesn’t have to go far to reach the weary. On the first floor of his home in Odessa, a sitting room is filled with supplies of medicine and hygiene products the pastor helps distribute through the church. On the morning we visited, George had just returned from a short trip to nearby hot zones, where he had been translating for a Christian paramedic training churches on how to administer first aid.

Upstairs, George’s wife sat with two women as they recounted their plight as refugees of war. One of the women fled to Odessa last year when Russian strikes hit her hometown and occupation seemed likely. She longs to return but doesn’t know if it will be possible.

The other woman fled her home during a Russian incursion in eastern Ukraine nearly ten years ago. After weeks of sheltering, she escaped on a train, without knowing where the train was headed. She found herself in Odessa, and she’s stayed ever since, including during the threats to the city over the last year.

The young woman teared up when she recounted her mother’s death, her father’s abandonment, her war experience, and her struggles as a single mother. She doesn’t have a church home, but George’s wife has been reaching out to her and other single moms in the area.  “I can’t go back home,” she said. “But I have found some kind people here.”

For both George and his wife, the kindness of missionaries and church members led to their own introduction to the gospel in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and it still informs their approach to ministry in the church George pastors.

These days, pastoring in war zones requires a mixture of the regular duties of preaching, teaching, and counseling, while also tackling unexpected tasks like making sure elderly congregants have clean drinking water and the medicines they need when supplies run scarce.

It’s a routine that’s become familiar to another pastor from a town nearby.

Grace Under Fire

Andre is a Ukrainian pastor from Mykolaiv, a city a couple of hours east of Odessa. The city suffered heavy bombardment at the outbreak of the war, and Russian missile strikes destroyed major pipelines for drinking water. At one point, the town’s mayor urged everyone who wanted to survive to leave. Pastor Andre stayed.

He recounted the early days of the war during our visit to Pastor George’s church in Odessa, where he also picked up medical supplies to take back to a city still struggling under the weight of wartime conditions.

When Mykolaiv came under attack, Andre and his brother raced to evacuate his wife, children, and other members of the church seeking to escape. But not everyone fled. Some were determined not to leave their homes. Others felt like they couldn’t: Many elderly Ukrainians remained in their villages and towns, unable to imagine piecing together lives as refugees somewhere else.

While Ukrainian laws prohibit most men ages eighteen to sixty from leaving the country during this war, Andre fell under an exception: he and his wife have four children. Any Ukrainian man with three or more children is allowed to travel abroad. Still, Andre stayed. He gives a simple reason: “I am a pastor.”

These days, he and his brother still make the rounds in a large passenger van, checking on church members and making trips to villages where little relief has arrived from the outside.

The pastor talks about the Lord with those he visits and says he encourages them with the ministry of the church: “I specifically tell the people that the church from all over the world is helping you right now.”

Thirty years ago, he couldn’t have imagined a life as a pastor. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Andre searched for something to believe. He read portions of the New Testament, and he tried in vain to keep the Ten Commandments on his own.

When he met members of the MTW team through an English club, he began learning about a concept he didn’t understand: Grace. Andre said the elders in the Presbyterian church he attended pressed him with the truth of repentance and faith in Christ. Over time he realized the good news of the gospel. “It’s a gift,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

Andre holds out that gift to others through his ministry to his own congregation now, preaching on Sundays to those who remain, and holding online prayer meetings with members taking refuge in other cities or countries.

He grows quiet for a few moments when he considers what the Lord has taught him over the last year. “In times like these, you realize what’s important,” he says. “It’s not your house. It’s not your money. It’s not your documents. . . . It’s the people God has called you to. It’s your family and it’s your church.”

Pastor George nods in agreement and says he’s also been freshly reminded of the urgency of sharing the gospel, whatever the circumstances. “It’s so important to bring the gospel and to do what Jesus said . . . to make disciples and build God’s kingdom,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

After a prayer and a warm farewell, Pastor Andre and his brother head downstairs and climb back into their van to reach Mykolaiv before dark.

Light in the Darkness

First-generation Christians aren’t a thing of the distant past. In L’viv, the western Ukrainian city where OP missionary Heero Hacquebord pastors Holy Trinity Reformed Church (another EPCU congregation), a young man named Ruslan is the point man for the Crates for Ukraine project.

He grew up in a Greek Catholic church, but he met an MTW missionary through campus ministry and started attending the L’viv church a couple of years ago. “It changed my life,” he says.

Ruslan now aspires to ministry himself and said he’s deeply encouraged by how many gospel conversations he’s had with people on the receiving end of the Crates for Ukraine. They keep calling him back, and he joins Hacquebord in hoping these new contacts might lead to more conversions—and more churches across Ukraine.

“It’s incredible to see how God uses such an evil thing as war to build his church, to prepare soil for his seeds,” Ruslan said. “And it’s not the end yet—He’ll work more.”    

The author is communications coordinator for the OPC. 

This article was originally published in the June 2023 edition of New Horizons.


Seeing the Lifeline Connection Among Saints

by Trish Duggan, Communications Coordinator for the Committee on Diaconal Ministries

David Nakhla, Administrator for the Committee on Diaconal Ministries, recently returned from a seven-day trip to Ukraine, with two others from the OPCdeacon from Covenant OPC in Orland Park, IL and CDM member, John Voss and OPC Communications coordinator, Jamie Deanalong with MTW Ukraine Country Director, John Eide. Their excursion began in Poland, where they met up with a Ukrainian woman, Olena, who escorted them by van over the border to L’viv, Ukraine. In the past year, Olena has made this over six-hour trip regularly, transporting over 1300 crates of supplies for the summer edition of Crates for Ukraine (CFU) and, Lord willing, will continue as the winter crates begin arriving from the states.

While in L’viv, the group was able to meet with OPC missionary Heero Hacquebord, visit his church’s building, Holy Trinity EPCU, tour the CFU warehouse, and meet the CFU distribution team. There is a huge sense of gratitude to all, which was particularly expressed to the OPC during the visit, for standing with them at this time. MTW team member, Doug Shepherd, in expressing his gratitude, described the OPC as “punching above our weight class.” In total, the OPC family was able to contribute 307 of the over 1300 total crates to Dallas and Chattanooga in the Crates for Ukraine Winter Edition effort.

There is a great sense of fulfillment from the distribution teams in passing on these gifts. The church’s website and access to the Ukrainian publishing house is posted on each gift as a way of incorporating gospel outreach with the distribution of supplies. The church views this as sowing many seeds in many directions. Recipients report the quality of the CFU items are far superior to what is coming to Ukraine via other channels and are saving lives.

The group then moved east on to Odessa, where life, as in L’viv, is operating at some level of normalcy, despite the circumstances. That said, they are all “affected people”, and as such they each suffer some level of PTSD.  Many feel a level of “survivor guilt”, hearing of the circumstances of those who live near the front or even in occupied territory, and where homes have been looted and/or destroyed. Further, while there is a degree of difficulty living as the “survivors”, this conflict is not over, there are no guarantees for tomorrow and a shadow of darkness looms large. Many are clinging to God’s sovereignty and care while some wrestle with understanding why God allows the horrific aspects of this war to persist.

The CFU effort has been a lifeline of connection between the mission team, the EPCU, and the church back in the States. It’s not been easy, but certainly worthwhile and has brought helpful connectionalism.

Thank you for your church’s participation in Crates for Ukraine. Further reports from the team’s visit to Ukraine are being written and will be distributed in the months to come. 


$500,000 for Ukraine Winter Help!

by David Nakhla

For months we have asked you to pray that the Lord would guide us to the best avenues by which the over $700,000 in Ukraine Crisis Funds could be used.  Your faithful prayers have led to many productive discussions and hopeful decisions. You might recall the trip I took through five countries in Eastern Europe, meeting 10 times in nine days, back in May.  While in Krakow, Poland, I met over coffee with Jon Eide, the MTW Country Director for Ukraine.

Since that time, I have met with Jon five or six times, asking him to recommend the best ways that the OPC Ukraine Crisis Fund could be used in the ministry to those suffering from the war in Ukraine.  In November we received the answer entitled: “Winter Help!”  And subsequently, the Refugee Ministry Subcommittee of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries determined to send $500,000 of your gifts to MTW. This money is to be used to assist the congregations of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPCU), the denomination with whom MTW and OPC Missionary Heero Hacquebord serves in planting a congregation in L’viv, in the following three ways:

1.)     $150,000 for the one-time provision of generators and other winter costs to equip Ukrainians for the cold, dark winter that is upon them 

2.)     $300,000 for six months of operating expenses donated to 17 congregations and ministries to enable the diaconal ministries of the congregations to continue 

3.)     $50,000 for other diaconal and humanitarian aid opportunities carried out by MTW and the EPCU congregations

Thank you for your contributions that have made this possible. Pray with us that the Lord would use this ministry of mercy for the good of the saints and to bring glory to Christ amid extremely difficult circumstances.