On the Ukrainian Frontline: Bullet Proof Vest-Wearing Pastors Still Spread the Gospel and Humanitarian Aid

By Nancy Flory Published on June 20, 2023

“The most terrible things that can happen to a country happen[ed] to Ukraine,” Ukrainian pastor Igor Bandura told The Stream at last month’s National Religious Broadcasters conference (NRB). Bandura is the Vice President of the Ukrainian Baptist Union.

The war that Russia started with Ukraine has continued for over a year. “It has changed our life. Many people lost everything they had. It changed the course of the ministry of our churches. The war and the desire to finish this war, the war and the desire to get just peace back to Ukraine is probably the biggest desire, the most urgent prayer and the power that motivate[s] us as Christians, as pastors, to move forward and to do whatever we can to pray, to minister to our people, so our churches to minister to Ukrainians.”

Into the War Zones

Michael Johnson, the president of Slavic Gospel Association (SGA), was also present for the interview as the two men work closely to bring humanitarian aid to Ukrainians, especially those on the frontline. “I might add that, particularly in the eastern part of Ukraine where the fighting is the most intense, there are Baptist pastors and workers driving into the war zones to distribute humanitarian aid and resources to people who are stuck in those cities,” said Johnson. “They wear body armor, moving in and out of there, because it’s extremely dangerous.”

Like an Underground Railroad

As the president of SGA, Johnson oversees the distribution of Bibles and books as well as helping provide humanitarian aid. His organization has churches and individuals who sponsor over 370 national church planting families. He does not have Western missionaries on the ground because he wants to equip the locals to do the work. When the war began, Johnson’s organization provided funding to churches in strategic locations. They were able to purchase food locally for distribution to people. “Also, we transferred funds for [churches] to help the individuals in the eastern part of the country who were trying to make their way out of the country into the West. And it was kind of like an underground railroad that was taking place from church to church to get people out of the country that we helped to facilitate.”

Johnson explained, 

[W]e’re not a humanitarian aid organization per se. Our focus is on the Gospel, but if we can equip them with food and books and Bibles and heaters and all kinds of things, it helps the churches in those countries to be lights of the Gospel in this desperate time. And people flood to those churches. … We’re an equipping ministry. We exist to serve their churches, and I count a privilege just to carry their bags. … [T]he Lord has been very generous to us from a fundraising standpoint that we have been able to get those resources purchased and distributed through those churches so that they can minister to the people both in word and deed.

A Blessing of New Believers

Bandura has seen the fruit of his and SGA’s ministries as many people have come to Christ during the war β€” more than 3,000 people have been baptized as new believers in Christ since the war began. “That was a blessing,” Bandura said. And they are still planting churches, even as they lost pastors to the war. “[W]e have been blessed to ordain more than 100 new pastors and deacons just for the last year.”

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Bandura is reminded of the biblical story of Joseph and compares it to what is happening now in Ukraine. “[W]hen we remember the story of Joseph, his life, in the end, he said to his brother, ‘You planned it evil to me, but God transformed this evil to good.’ And usually when we remember that passage, what he means [is] that one day we would realize that all the evils that were against us, God would transform to our good. But the war taught me to see this, not just from the perspective of the future, but from the perspective of today. God is transforming evil into good today, right now. We experience evil and it’s real evil. It’s like a hell.”

Bandura’s own city was destroyed. 

‘God is Still With Us’

Still, Bandura learned a lot over the past year. “Here we are crying, getting all the terrible news. And here we give thanks, we laugh, we have this special feeling of joy, because God is still with us. God is working and we expect our victory. Yes, God is working through church, through politicians, through the army, through different people. He’s really working to establish what is just to bring peace back, to stop all the evil plans.”

Of course, some people ask, “Where is God in this?” “You know the answer where God is,” said Bandura. “He’s in the trenches with our soldiers. He’s in churches where we are praying. He’s in a church basement where we accommodate refugee people. He’s with volunteers that take a risk, take their bullet-proof vests and go there just to bring good [and] help people. So where is God? It’s not an easy answer. It’s not just theoretical, theological, but it’s deeply practical. We know that God is there because He shows Himself in faithful acts and He gives us [these] understandings of His Holy Spirit. So this is why we are going through this painful reality, but we know that we are going through the victory and to peace.”

Prayer Request

Bandura has a prayer request for Stream readers:

First of all, give thanks to God that He keeps us alive. We should start from gratitude, even in the midst of the most terrible war. Second, please pray for the end of the war. It can sound for some people from abroad like a general prayer. But believe me, for the last two weeks, we had drones and missiles attacks in Kiev every single night. So basically it’s like you go to bed and you do not know if you would get up in the morning. This is the reality. When we are talking about the end of the war, we mean not just [a] big end, but we mean that [these] days of fears and attacks and all the problems will be shortened. Because God knows how to shorten this time. We are talking about just peace. It’s important for us because as a nation, as a country, we would like to live at our own home. And we understand the peace would come only when Russia would stop, not only this war, but any future plans to regain power and come back. So we need this peace.

We need support and retribution from Russia to rebuild the country, to rebuild everything that was lost. And we need international guarantee of our safety as a country. This is what what we need. And of course as Christians, we always ask to pray for pastors, for Christians, for volunteers, that God would make us strong enough, not only to go through all the difficulties of these days, but to have power and allow to minister to people around us. To hear the word from God, to share with people, to hear this confidence from the Holy Spirit to bring hope to other people. So we want our churches to be renewed through the sufferings and remain salt and light.

Please join us in praying for Bandura and the nation of Ukraine. 

 

Nancy Flory, Ph.D., is a senior editor at The Stream. You can follow her @NancyFlory3, and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.

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