Just walking through an open-air market, taking a taxi, or going to church caused a palpable fear in Odesa. Everyone felt the terror and battled the nightmares. As the war progressed, the number of casualties kept rising. At least 14,000 were killed over the next few years.
This was in 2014, in a portion of Donbas (nickname for Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts), on the border of Eastern Ukraine and Russia. Pro-Russian separatists in these Ukrainian provinces wanted to return to Mother Russia. They began attacking targets in these cities and started riots in Kharkiv, Odesa, Kyiv and other major cities.
I had been serving as an ABWE missionary family physician in Odesa since 1998, providing medical help and sharing the Gospel with destitute farming villages in Odesa and Kharkiv oblasts. Nurse practitioner Holly Friesen joined me in 2010. We had a wonderful network of pastors in Odesa, Mykolaiv and Kharkiv oblasts committed to serving the needy and sharing the Gospel.
My passion had been fueled by Matthew 9:35-36: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
“Harassed and helpless” perfectly describes the depressed Ukrainians, struggling after the fall of the Soviet Union. It also describes the hordes of refugees from the war in Donbas. So, I would pray. O God, help me to show Jesus’ compassion to these pain-wracked people! And I watched, as they continued to wallow in despair, despite being baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox religion gives them no hope, but it permeates every aspect of Ukrainian society and breeds fear, threatening to send anyone who attends a non-Orthodox church event or medical clinic to hell. By the time I arrived, the early wave of Ukrainian conversions to Christianity was waning.
We needed to show Jesus’ compassion in a tangible way, like medical care, to earn their trust so that we could share our faith. The mobile village clinics gave us that platform and created many opportunities to talk about Jesus, though people were still hesitant to leave the Orthodox religion.
As Russia conquered Crimea in a bloodless coup and provided arms for the separatists in Donbas, our ABWE team evacuated from the country, amidst rumors of an invasion of Odesa, the major shipping port on the Black Sea.
Upon our safe return to Ukraine a few weeks later, Holly and I decided to provide medical care for the refugees fleeing the war zone in Donbas. The government estimated over 2 million fled Donetsk and Lugansk, many to nearby towns and cities.
We traveled to the free Ukrainian territory of northern Donbas and Kharkiv, doing daily clinics in churches throughout the area. The refugees were shell-shocked, reeling from losing their homes, friends, and families, fleeing with only a small bag or the clothes on their backs.
Our churches welcomed them with open arms. Feeding them, providing clothes and necessities, finding housing, being Jesus’ hands. In these war-torn times, many were more open to the gospel than they had been in peacetime.
My soul cried to God for wisdom and strength, as scores of refugees would descend upon each church where we set up clinic, opening their broken hearts and longingly looking to me for medical help. I’ll never forget one lady in her early 60’s. Let’s call her Natalya.
She came to my clinic several times with her grandson. Pastor Lonya, my primary ministry partner in Odesa, accompanied our clinic on every trip to share the good news of Jesus’ salvation. He and I visited Natalya in her home one time and helped her ask Jesus to become her Savior. Her husband had died before the war. Her daughter and son-in-law were both killed in the bombing of her village. Natalya had fled with her only grandson to a free town about 50 miles away with only the clothes on their backs. She was so concerned about her grandson, who was barely coping, but she was thankful for the support from the church youth group.
Lonya showed her Google Earth on his tablet, which amazed her! She gazed longingly at Lonya and hesitantly asked, “Can you see if my house is still standing?” As tears filled our eyes, Lonya gently reminded her that she had a new home and a new destination. An amazing peace washed over her and wiped away the haunted look in her desperate eyes. God was now waiting to welcome her to heaven!
I saw many people with similar stories over the next five years, until the conflict settled down to a simmer, before erupting again in 2022. Many people here in the US forgot about Ukraine, but we never did. Those years were filled with mixed emotions and deep longing for our brothers and sisters there.
Why explain this backstory? Last month, when the latest invasion was announced, many Americans became aware of Ukraine who could not have previously pointed to it on a map. The only picture they saw of Ukraine and its Christians was of a beleaguered church on the run, fleeing their homes. But when I see the headlines, I think of people like Natalya—and their joyful confidence in possessing an unfading, eternal home.
News cycles come and go, but God has been at work long in the country long before this latest wave of conflict, and he has not abandoned his people there. May God continue to use missionaries and Ukrainian believers as Jesus’ hands and feet to share his compassion with desperate survivors of this horrible war.
Want to help Ukrainian believers? Partner with churches serving refugees, sharing Christ, and providing basic needs. You can be the hands and feet of Christ to Ukrainians in crisis.