On February 24th Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In mid campaign Russian missiles hit practically every major city in the country. Days later, Russian tanks rolled into the heart of Ukraine. Soon after, there was the destruction of television towers across the country. Consequently, the GCMM media campaign came to a halt.
When the February issue of Ministry Report came out it, GCMM announced that the East Ukraine evangelism campaign would continue to the end of March. That was assuming that military action would, at best, be localized. That however was not to be.
As our partnership with Pilgrim Orphanage Director Gennady Mohnenko in the city of Mariupol grew, so did the vision for a sweeping media campaign in the Donbas region.
We would frequently visit villages along the front lines where we faced Russian forces occupying swaths of Ukrainian territory. That was back in 2015.
Over the next six years we ministered in house churches in small villages as well as in larger cities. Ukrainian soldiers defending the motherland on the front were not neglected.
Donbas had a population of about 6 million people before the war in 2014. They were the least reached region in Ukraine.
Covid brought preparations for the media campaign to a halt between January 2019 and September 2021.
Signs of A Major War
On December 8, 2021, I penned this entry in my diary: “There is great restlessness and a deep sense of urgency in my spirit. Should Russia invade Ukraine, then Ukraine will be thrown into utter chaos. There will be unimaginable devastation! The doors to Russia will close ending an increasingly tough time of ministry. Ministry from the west will likely cease.”
Intensify The Campaign!
At the end of November 2021, the campaign focus was to reach both the Russian and Ukrainian held territories of Donbas also known as the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. This would include the larger cities of Donetsk, Mariupol, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk.
Soon after, in December 2021 we realized we had to modify the campaign plan in the conflict zone. The situation militarily had escalated and signs of a wider war were visible.
We expanded the reach of the media campaign to include East Ukraine’s three mega cities – Kharkiv, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia. By doing so, we would reach an additional 4-5 million people.
It was January 2022. We revised the campaign strategy again.
By this time, the likelihood of a massive invasion by Russia was undeniable. All normal ministry in Ukraine would cease.
Russia had positioned 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. It was clear that Russia would seek to overthrow the government and install a Kremlin-friendly regime.
Consequently that would mean neutralizing any church in Ukraine not aligned with Russia’s Orthodox Church. Evangelicals were a clear target.
The scope of the campaign was enlarged once again. Ukraine’s TV channel “1+1” with an audience of 40 million took the best campaign transformation stories. The channel was seen across Ukraine including military outposts and front line villages.
Ministry to Soldiers
Villages on the front line did not have much in the way of media. Newspapers, outdoor advertising or functioning telephone systems were not available.
For this reason, the campaign message would to be made available to front-line villages and military bases by hand delivery of the campaign book and brochures.
We were able to visit forward positions with military chaplains Gennady and Albert. In many cases we were within range of Russian and rebel artillery fire. We were able to fellowship and pray with soldiers in bunkers, trenches and underground tunnels. Bulletproof vests and helmets were mandatory attire.
A Day In The Trenches
The visit to the Ukrainian army base in Pesky was an experience not soon to be forgotten. Pesky was a village on the fringes of the occupied city of Donetsk.
The village has been destroyed, rendered uninhabitable due to heavy enemy shelling.
We arrived at the base at nightfall in time to enjoy a late dinner with the soldiers in their underground dining hall. At evening devotions we shared from the Word of God and had a time of prayer together. Campaign books were given to the officers for distribution among the soldiers at the base.
The campaign book has moving stories of a soldier, a professor tortured at the hands of rebels for 700 days, and a pastor’s wife whose husband was arrested outside their church and executed that same morning.
The book includes a road map and guide to new life in Christ and the prayer of salvation.
After a short night at the base and a hefty breakfast, we set out in protective gear to visit with soldiers manning forward positions.
As we walked through the empty streets with totally destroyed buildings, we made a stop at a bombed Orthodox church.
The last stop on our walk through the town was an underground military surveillance position a mere 900 meters from enemy heavy weapons. Our commanding officer pulled back a camouflage curtain at ground level for a few seconds to briefly allow for a photo shoot of occupied Donetsk City airport.
At this forward position, Chaplain Gennady prayed for the soldiers: “Almighty God. Bless our sons on the front lines. Protect them. Give them strength to endure all things. Lord, haste the day when we see the enemy leave our land in peace. We ask this in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Within minutes we were reminded of the presence of a lethal enemy one kilometer away. Russian-backed forces had detected movements of our military patrol and opened artillery fire at us. We found ourselves in the middle of a fierce firefight forcing our military escort and us down on our stomachs. We dove for cover. I counted about two to three exploding artillery shells per second.
We returned safely to base with our military escort. At the base we held devotions and had a time of prayer with the soldiers along with some hot tea.
Gennady told a story of a soldier who had come to faith. The young soldier had seen live grenades land near Albert, a chaplain, but none had detonated. In disbelief he said, “Your God has to be real! Albert you should be dead by now.” He was baptized not long after, during a short visit to visit his folks.
Grandma Katja From Nevelskoye
We made an unscheduled stop in the village of Nevelskoye. Weeks earlier it had been hit by thirty five 122 millimeter artillery shells. There was no electricity or running water in the village. Katja, her husband and a mother with her handicapped child were the sole residents of the village.
After sharing the Gospel and a prayer together we moved on.
In the seven years prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion Ukraine had lost 15,000 soldiers defending their country.
Race Against Time
Towards the end of February, as the full-scale war was looming between Russia and Ukraine, we understood that we needed to accelerate the campaign and spare no effort. It was now or never!
In the absence of standard size 6X3 meter billboards we went for billboards measuring up to 120 meters in length and 10 meters high in the East Ukrainian mega cities of Dnipro, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol.
The billboards read: “There is always a way! Experience God power to Change. Call to get your free book. Read stories that can change your life. ”
Villagers Seeking Security
Days before the invasion, campaign volunteers from participating churches were out in mass in villages along the conflict line. They ministered to villagers needing comforting, counseling. In Krasnohorivka villagers sought comfort from the church.
Since the invasion started Krasnohorivka has largely been reduced to rubble by Russian artillery. This past Christmas GCMM provided Christmas gifts for 600 children in villages between Mariupol and Donetsk.
The Story of Christmas was an integral part of the celebrations which were held in the school auditoriums. We could see the joy and happiness in eyes of these children.
Little did they know that weeks later their towns and villages would cease to exist and be reduced to rubble.
Russia’s forces would destroy them completely. Christmas, as these children had come to experience it, would never return to their childhood homes.
Last fall the SBU, the Ukrainian equivalent of the FBI in the US, invited Ukrainian church leaders to discuss the impasse in the occupied territories of the country.
These Intelligence Officers confessed that “The church is the only institution with the keys to resolve poisoned attitudes, the bitterness, the revenge, the aggression in peoples lives.
Reconciliation and forgiveness are needed in order for people to live as a united nation again in East Ukraine,” says Yuri Babinets, senior pastor of a large church in Kiev.
State Security welcomed the campaign. “We simply do not have the tools needed to deal with poison in people’s hearts.”
At the heart of the campaign is the message of forgiveness, of hope and survival amidst the most horrific circumstances.
The story of professor Igor Kozlovsky is an example of this. The professor was held in captivity by rebel forces for 700 days in occupied Donetsk. He shares his story in the campaign book telling of his source of power to persevere. Prayer was the force that sustained him despite physical and mental torture.
Prior to Russia’s full scale invasion thousands of books were distributed by the churches in the major cities of Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Sloviansk, Odessa, Chernivtsi, Lviv.
For A Time Such As This!
Over 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war and four million have fled to Poland and other countries.
It is not surprising then that GCMM has launched a drive to print 300,000 copies of the campaign book. The book will be tweaked and renamed “The Way Home”.
This will require significant funding.
Ministry in Bomb Shelters
The campaign office and call center is situated in Mariupol. Our volunteer staff moved to underground shelters as Russian forces closed in on the city.
Many of our volunteers continue to minister in bomb shelters, basements and hospitals.
Others have assisted with the evacuation of mothers and children left trapped in villages.