Ministers in Ukraine Are ‘Ready to Meet God at Any Moment’
James offers so many prayers in a day, they puff from his mouth like vapor in Ukraine’s bitter winter.
For the senior pastor of a large church in Kherson, prayer is not only an occupation. It is a lifeline. He prays aloud when Russian missiles shake the walls of his church and his four-year-old son cries. He prays aloud before driving to nearby villages to deliver bread. He prays aloud when he’s scared to death, which is often.
And so, on a frigid Tuesday morning in December, James, who asked to be identified by his English nickname, gripped the wheel of his dusty yellow van and prayed in Ukrainian. He turned toward a bridge leading to a manmade island along the muddy Dnipro River that locals simply call “the island.” Russian shelling had shattered several windows of a small church there, and James was carrying plywood to board them up.
The island is a frequent target of Russian attacks. Directly across the river is the eastern part of Kherson Oblast that’s still under Russian occupation. Every day since November, when tens of thousands of Russian troops fled Kherson, the province’s capital city, in a hasty retreat, they have flung rockets, grenades, tank shells, and mortars across the river as if in vengeance, killing at least one person a day.
Today, would it be him?
But a church’s windows needed fixing. Of the island’s original population of 30,000, only about a quarter of residents remained—mostly those too old, too disabled, or too stubborn to evacuate. The church is the only one on the island offering shelter and supplies. So James gritted his teeth and crossed the bridge.
Ukraine’s Christians no longer see “the last days” as some far-off, eschatological era sketched in Revelation. “We live as though today is our last day,” one of them told me, echoing a sentiment I heard from so many Ukrainians. And should they ever forget that life is a vapor, explosions and frequent blackouts return them quickly to the truth: We’re here a little while, and gone tomorrow.
When Kherson fell to the Russians, James and his wife opted to remain in the city with their family: “If we die, we die together.” They have four children, ages 4 to 17. They remember Russian shelling shaking their fifth-floor apartment like a Jenga block, their second daughter screaming hysterically, then gathering their kids and rushing to the church.
It was a difficult but obvious decision to stay, James said. “We saw the despair in people’s eyes. They couldn’t see tomorrow. Who gives them hope if I run to America or Europe?”
For three weeks, they slept underneath the church stairs. About 300 others sheltered in the church basement, some for months. People slept sitting up, and in the men’s restroom. A family with an eight-month-old squeezed into a closet with a five-foot ceiling.
James had been their senior pastor for barely a year.
James’s choice to remain with his family in occupied territory is noteworthy. More commonly, Ukrainian pastors on the frontlines evacuated their families to safety, particularly those with young kids. Others left with their families, or stayed for as long as they could before eventually fleeing.
Today, a year into the full-scale invasion, many pastors who left have no church to return to. Their congregations have scattered, their church buildings were destroyed, or their war-beaten congregations are wary of having them back.
“We call them ‘orphan pastors,’” said Valeriy Antonyuk, president of the Baptist Union of Ukraine, the nation’s largest Protestant community. Antonyuk estimates that of the 2,100 Baptist pastors in Ukraine, about 200 evacuated. Roughly 200 more were called to military duty. Half of those who evacuated have returned, though many had to be reassigned to another church. For some, the reintegration with their church was “painful,” Antonyuk said. Certain congregants harbored resentment and hurt that their pastors had left during a crisis, while others were apprehensive about veterans continuing to serve as ministers.
Such are the troubles that war has forced upon many churches in Ukraine. Pastors say that some ministers who stayed were arrested, threatened, and tortured by Russian forces. Others simply disappeared. Horror stories rippled across congregations.
Pavel Smolyakov is the head pastor of Baptist churches in Kherson Oblast. His church, Calvary Baptist, is the denomination’s flagship congregation in Kherson. A day after the invasion, Calvary took in 46 orphans, ages 4 months to 4 years, from a local orphanage. Russian forces were bombarding the region, and the orphanage, with its large windows, was unsafe.
For two months, the church housed the children in its basement. Church members helped feed, clean, and warm the kids, some of whom had special needs and required round-the-clock care. Volunteers spread throughout the city, queuing for hours to procure medicine, milk, and other baby supplies that would run out by evening.
Smolyakov battled anxiety and the weight of responsibility for the children’s lives. Russian soldiers, he feared, wanted to take them and use them as wartime propaganda. Most days, occupation officials banged on the church door, peppering the staff with questions: Who was responsible here? Why did they have these orphans?
Then, a week before Easter, a uniformed Russian official appeared one morning with armed soldiers and gave Smolyakov two options: Either the remaining orphanage staff and volunteers could escort the children back to the orphanage, or the soldiers could take the orphans by force.
The pastor helped take the children back, and the rest was predictable: Smolyakov says a picture of him soon appeared on Russian television, the Russians claiming to have rescued the orphans from traffickers and accusing him and the church of harvesting children’s organs for the American black market. “That’s when I knew my life was in danger,” Smolyakov said. It took him and his wife four days to skirt Russian checkpoints and sneak out to Odessa.
The last the pastor heard, according to a Telegram post from the governor of Kherson Oblast, the children had been taken to Russian-annexed Crimea.
As Smolyakov told me this story, our interpreter, a youth pastor with two young kids of his own, paused to wipe his eyes.
Smolyakov remained matter-of-fact. “It’s not easy to talk about emotions right now,” he said.
Ukrainian ministers who chose to evacuate, like many other Ukrainians, struggle with guilt. They worry about the flocks they left behind. One pastor told me he escaped an occupied city in September, after Russian forces shut down his church in the middle of a Sunday service and ransacked his house. “I know it’s not a heroic act,” he said, “but we decided it’s better to be alive.” Most of his congregation also evacuated, but about 200 remain, mostly elderly people.
The pastor, who asked for anonymity to protect church members who are still in occupied territory, is now effectively homeless, bouncing among friends’ houses, waiting for a time when he can return to his church, whose building is being used by the Russian military. Online, he is in touch daily with parishioners who have fled across Ukraine and the world—in some ways, a forced return to the kind of fellowship they learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I wasn’t taught in seminary how to be a pastor of a church in occupied territory,” he said. “I wasn’t taught in seminary how to be a pastor of a church that’s scattered across 15 different countries.”
At James’s church, three out of five elders left Kherson. Most of the ministry leaders are gone—the worship band, the Sunday school teachers, the youth pastor. In the early days of the invasion, the church had dozens of volunteers helping to fill the leadership holes. But as conditions worsened, many were forced to evacuate.
When hundreds of hungry, desperate people gathered outside his church, James felt the sheer limitations of his one human body. When he considers all the people in surrounding remote villages who for months have endured an unusually cold winter without power, heat, and water, he aches that he can’t reach them all.
But then he looks at those who stayed—his steadfast wife, his kids, and the handful of consistent church volunteers—and he thinks, I have enough for today’s work. They have been for him the rod and the staff of Psalm 23, God’s comfort in the valley of the shadow of death.
There are, for instance, two men in their 20s who have stayed with James since the beginning of the war, helping with whatever’s needed at the church. Over the past year, they’ve grown closer than family. (Both asked for their names not to be used for fear the Russians would target them as aid workers.)
They make an odd trio: James, in his 40s with a rumpled dark beard, passionate eyes, and black jeans, gives off a vibe of renegade-youth-pastor-meets-Gandalf. One of his sidekicks plays the jester, incessantly ribbing his pastor and cracking jokes. The other, a strawberry-haired, slim violinist with wire-rim glasses and a sweet tooth, is thoughtful and intentional.
They sleep on thin mattresses in the church basement, and the two younger men take turns keeping watch upstairs in the night. “We are the church guardians,” one of them told me. Few young people stayed in Kherson if they had the choice. He stayed, he said, “because there are people who need help.”
On the Tuesday when I accompanied James to bring plywood to the island church, both of his assistants rode along. The pastor’s old van has no backseats, so the young men perched behind him on wobbly plastic children’s chairs.
If there are orphan pastors, the church they were visiting is an orphan church. Its pastor fled with his young family the first day of the invasion. The majority of his congregation also fled.
James appointed one of his church members, a sound engineer with no formal pastoral qualifications, to lead this church. The engineer, who asked to be identified by his nickname, Nevod, lives in an apartment across the street. After Russian missiles destroyed the concert hall where he used to work, he found himself running a church that doubles as a bomb shelter and social service center.
On any given day, up to 600 cellphones charge at the building, courtesy of its generator. Roughly 200 people can shelter in the basement during shelling.
“He’s the pastor now,” James told me when we entered the church.
Nevod shook his head. “No, no,” he protested. “Not a pastor, just a volunteer.”
James insisted, “Yes, you are a pastor.” He typed something Ukrainian into Google Translate and showed me his phone. Sacrificial man, it displayed in English. “That’s him,” James gestured. “For nine months without pay he was here, serving Christ.”
Nine months. The duration of the Russian occupation of Kherson. Long enough, under the circumstances, to live multiple lives.
Kherson is the first key city and the only regional capital that the Russians have seized since the invasion, falling almost immediately when the war began. Once a thriving, economic hub with rich agrarian soil, the city became a ghost town overnight. For months people hunkered in their homes, scurrying out only for necessities. By early afternoons, the streets were bare except for stray dogs.
“It plays with your head,” one pastor told me: After months of billboards heralding, “Russia is here forever!” many people began believing it.
On November 11, when Ukrainian tanks paraded into downtown Kherson with blue-and-yellow flags and dancing civilians took selfies in the streets, James at first couldn’t believe his city was actually liberated. What tricks were the Russians playing this time? Russian soldiers were known to dress as civilians or Ukrainian soldiers to ferret out pro-Ukrainian sentiments.
By the time it sank in, he had little time to rejoice. Amid the celebrating, people were already lining up at his church for bottled water and bread.
Retreating Russian forces had destroyed critical infrastructure in the region. For about three weeks, there was no electricity, water, heat, or phone service. By the end of the first day of freedom, with the streets pitched in total darkness, 7,000 people had queued outside the church for help.
In some ways, postliberation Kherson was in worse shape than Russian-occupied Kherson. When I visited in early December, many places still had no power. Shops, banks, restaurants, and schools were still closed. People had no jobs. Playground swings swayed, empty of children. The city settled into uneasy silence after a 7:30 p.m. curfew, and sporadic bombings shook the city throughout the night—a constant reminder that the enemy stood just across the river.
[ This article is also available in español, Français, 한국어, русский, and Українська. ]
The day we visited the island, Russians shelled Kherson 51 times, according to the Kherson government, striking mostly civilian areas, killing two and injuring one.
The first shelling we heard that day was at 10:20 a.m. James and Nevod were talking logistics outside the church when two women, one elderly and one late in a pregnancy, approached to ask for help. They had barely finished speaking when the telltale boom-boom-boom cluster explosions of Russian Grad rockets sounded close by. The older woman put her arms around the younger one, and they hurried into the church with Nevod.
“We need to go,” James shouted, waving his arms toward his van. “Let’s go!”
We jumped into his van. James hit the accelerator and we sped out of the church compound and across the bridge off the island.
James says he has seen worse: Russian tanks shooting at schools, children starving while Russian soldiers partied at cafés, Russians plundering crops and equipment from Kherson’s farmers. “This is not war,” he said, stamping his finger firmly. “This is genocide.”
On the drive back to his own church, James pointed to a downtown building that looked like a trampled sand castle. It had been a Russian base, he said, before the Ukrainian military destroyed it with a US-supplied HIMARS rocket launcher. The pastor flashed a toothy grin. “I like it,” he exclaimed with what little English he knew. “HIMARS, forever!”
War has marked every area of Ukraine, not just occupied territories.
On a Saturday evening in Vyshneve, a densely populated suburb of Kyiv, the winter daylight was short: The sky remained indigo at 8 a.m. and darkened by 3 p.m. The thick clouds of an approaching snowstorm loomed.
That made the rolling blackouts, a staple of life now as Russian forces attack the Ukrainian power grid, even blacker. The city, which preinvasion had a population of 42,000, was as dark as a medieval European village. Streetlights and building signs were off. Apartment buildings were colorless cubes, save for flashes of yellow emitting from several units with generators. Vehicle headlights bounced off snow, and pedestrians stepped gingerly on icy sidewalks glinting beneath headlamps and flashlights.
In the frigid darkness, Salvation Church glowed and hummed like an oasis. Wafts of coffee and toasted buns warmed the air. The church was the only community building in Vyshneve offering power during the blackouts. Every day, it opened its youth center, which includes a café and a basement, for community members to warm up, sip hot cappuccinos, and work on their laptops.
Kyiv Oblast has come a long way since the early months of the invasion, when Russian troops swooped in to key cities surrounding the capital. On a Sunday late last year, churches filled with worshipers. Pastors dunked new believers into a baptism pool. A choir sang at a new church plant in Vorzel, a village outside Kyiv that, just months prior, was a junkyard of mines, abandoned tanks, and dead bodies. Stores and pharmacies and coffee stands were open. Young people licked grease off their fingers at McDonald’s, and babushkas pushed bundled-up babies in strollers.
At Salvation Church, a group of girls wearing sweatpants and holding giant white feathers practiced a dance routine for the upcoming Christmas performance. They floated and pranced to tinkling music underneath a ceiling with the declaration “Jesus is King” inscribed on all four corners.
“That’s my daughter, the tallest girl there,” said pastor Mykola Savchuk, pointing.
Savchuk has two children, a 15-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. The second day of the invasion, when he saw Russian tanks penetrating a city close to his home, he immediately drove his family to his parents in western Ukraine: “I couldn’t bear to see my kids suffer.” Savchuk returned to Kyiv by himself in time for Sunday service. When Russian forces withdrew in April, he brought his family back home by Easter.
Were things returning to something like normal?
“On the outside, yes,” Savchuk said. “But inside, no.” It’s too early to measure the level of psychological trauma in the nation. Those who know what life in Ukraine was like before the war see the mental stress: the changes big and small, the daily miracles of survival—the resilience, the persistence, the determined grasp for the mundane.
In the early months of war, Salvation Church lost 90 percent of its 3,000-member congregation. Half evacuated abroad; the others to western Ukraine. That first Sunday after the February 24 invasion, Savchuk walked up to the pulpit wondering how many people would show up. He was surprised to see 300, about 10 percent. Half of his 16 pastors evacuated. Some leaders who stayed, Savchuk advised to leave; he could see their mental health buckling.
Like James in Kherson, Savchuk went to bed each night thinking, This could be the last night of my life. That constant uncertainty takes a toll. Five days into the invasion, when the shock had finally worn off, Savchuk woke up alone in the middle of the night and sobbed.
But there is a time to lament, and there is a time to act. The immediate needs were severe and urgent—medicine, food, supplies. All the stores were closed. People needed shelter and help evacuating, and they knocked on church doors because churches were the swiftest, most efficient, and most flexible institution offering aid.
Despite losing congregations and ministers, Ukrainian church leaders say they are seeing more unbelievers entering their doors than ever before. Salvation Church added a 10-minute sermon to its regular Sunday services to explain the basic gospel to the unchurched. Savchuk estimates that 20 to 40 newcomers have responded to altar calls each Sunday. Salvation Church had always placed strong emphasis on evangelism, but he said wartime heightened the urgency to preach the gospel. “Life can end at any moment. I had to look into the eyes of my God: What am I doing?”
“This is a very special time,” said Valeriy Antonyuk, the Baptist Union president. “In times of trials like this, we see how God multiplies his grace. It’s difficult. We cry a lot. But we see God at work … . We have all this harvest. This is the season to sow.”
The war has exacerbated the need for ministers in Ukraine, especially those trained in trauma care. Even before the invasion, the Baptist Union could have used about 500 more pastors, according to Antonyuk. He said the conflict has prompted hundreds of young people—many who used to sit in the back pews—to apply to Ukrainian seminaries. The problem is, “Pastors don’t grow up in two years.”
At a Baptist strategy meeting in Irpin, about 200 pastors and ministry leaders gathered from across the country to discuss how war has impacted their work. There was weariness, but also great excitement: The challenges to ministry during wartime are giant, but ministry would not stop.
“Everyone is scared, but we are in ministry,” Antonyuk addressed them as the meeting concluded. “War is a new reality. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. But we all have to die some day. If it’s 2023, so be it.”
Two days after the liberation of Kherson, Pavel Smolyakov drove straight to Calvary Baptist Church. He had evacuated to Odessa a week after Easter—after Russian media had spun tales of him being an orphan trafficker—and had not been back in Kherson for seven months.
The drive was harrowing. He had to maneuver his car around minefields and corpses lying untouched on the streets. But the reunion with his congregation was joyful. They hugged. They cried. They prayed and worshiped.
When Smolyakov finally entered his apartment, it felt eerily still. Everything was exactly how he had left it more than half a year earlier: the bedsheets, the mugs, the familiar creases and knickknacks. It was as if time inside his home had stood still while the whole world outside had changed.
All the pastors in Kherson—those who returned and those who never left—are “dead busy,” Smolyakov said. As a regional leader, he’s encouraging weary ministers, training new ones, and helping returning evacuees. But don’t expect your church to be the same, he warns. Many churches have hollowed out. Three-fourths of the 400 church members at his own congregation scattered throughout Ukraine and Europe. Out of its six pastors, only Smolyakov has returned to Kherson.
And yet. Throughout the occupation, the remaining church members of Calvary still came together every morning at 10 to pray. Like the early Christians in Acts 2, they gathered daily to break bread, share their food, and praise God. And like in Acts, God has added day by day to the church.
Today, 300 new faces have become regular attenders at Calvary. It’s going to be challenging when leaders and members come back to an unfamiliar church body, Smolyakov said, but it’s a happy challenge—a heartening reminder that the church never stopped doing what a church should do.
James’s church in Kherson is not the same church it was before the war, either. Of 400 church members, only 50 remain. Sunday service used to be filled with the laughter and screams of 150 children. Now there are barely 20. A skeleton crew remains, and with the daily Russian shelling, James says, those who left “would be crazy to come back.”
When I visited, a few weeks before Christmas, he walked me into the dark, freezing sanctuary. It’s a big auditorium with all the fancy stage lights and media equipment—even a harness for performers who once floated onto the stage. Now the media team is gone. The theater team is gone. There is no one to play the drums or guitar.
Last December, they put on a vibrant Christmas production to a packed audience. James had no idea how many people would show up for the service in 2022. He might have to play recorded worship songs.
But in the church all around James, a different kind of service was taking place. Older women poured rice into little sacks for distribution. A cook who lost his restaurant simmered cabbage and mashed potatoes in the church kitchen with his wife and mother-in-law. James’s wife was on her feet all day, running between homeschooling her kids and serving the hungry. A dozen volunteers formed a human chain linking a delivery truck to the church storage room, unloading bags of food donated by other churches.
Outside, the boom-boom-boom of Russian rockets thundered off and on, so frequent that they blurred into the background, like traffic horns.
“Do you miss the old services?” I asked.
“No,” James said without hesitation. “Before, the people here were all already believers. Now we see new people who have never heard the gospel.”
James seemed both young and old, vigorous and weathered. He’d seen and heard too much in the past year but was somehow always able to pull out fresh energy—an effect, perhaps, of all those prayers he utters.
Lord knows he needs them. Once, while he was delivering food and supplies to a village, a Russian tank smashed into several cars at a spot where he had been driving only minutes before. He didn’t dare look back but just drove on, cold-sweating from the realization of how close his wife had been to becoming a widow and his children fatherless.
I thought of my own seven-month-old back home in Los Angeles. “Don’t you ever regret staying in Kherson?” I asked.
“Regret? No! No! Never!” James said. “We are on God’s frontlines. We are ready to meet God at any moment.”
Beside him, one of his right-hand men cracked a joke, and the other giggled.
James’s expression loosened. His eyes crinkled into laughter. He may have been on the frontlines, and these may have been his last days, but Lord willing, with his church beside him, he would live them with a smile.
Sophia Lee is global staff writer at Christianity Today.
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