A 22-year-old Pentecostal military chaplain was killed in Ukraine after the troops he was ministering to in the Donetsk region were hit by Russian rockets.
Yaroslav Pavenko’s final words were “I’m going to heaven,” according to the Ukrainian Orthodox military chaplain coordinator. Pavenko was ministering alongside two of his brothers, Volodomyr and Artur, who are also chaplains. Artur was holding Pavenko’s head in the back of a car on the way to the hospital and praying with him when he died.
Pavenko volunteered as a chaplain at age 14, after Russian-backed separatist forces, wearing masks and wielding machine guns, broke into his father’s church and kidnapped four men, including two of Pavenko’s other brothers.
The militants had seized control of Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014 and declared the areas independent of Ukraine. As they fought the government and sought to subdue the Russian-speaking population opposed to separation, the rebels, who called themselves the Russian Orthodox Army, seemed to target Protestant churches
“Their logic is: ‘We brought the Orthodox Church, ours is right and there are no others. Your church is linked to America, our enemy, so we will destroy you,’” Peter Dudnik, pastor of the Christian Center of the Good News Church, told The Christian Science Monitor.
Pavenko’s father Alexander Pavenko’s church, Transfiguration of the Lord, traces its history back to Polish Pentecostal missionaries who returned to the region to preach about sanctification and the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the 1920s after having religious experiences in the United States. The militants also attacked a Roman Catholic priest from Poland and a Greek Catholic priest who opposed separation, warning him, “If you bark any more you will be found with a slit belly.”
On June 7, 2015, the armed militants may have been seeking to kidnap the pastor, but some of the 300 church members said it also seemed like the soldiers just wanted to steal some cars they saw parked outside Transfiguration. They seized four men: two deacons and two Pavenkos, 31-year-old Ruvium and 25-year-old Albert.
The four were accused of “crimes against the Donetsk People’s Republic”—feeding Ukrainian soldiers. According to information pieced together by church members and journalists, they were tortured for hours. The militants released the men early Monday morning, telling them they could go home and putting them in a car around 4 a.m. But as they started to leave, a gunman fired two grenades into the vehicle, killing one and wounding three. The three were then shot to death as they tried to escape from the wreckage.
The Pentecostals were buried in a mass grave with two dozen other bodies. Their corpses were not located for more than a month. When they were found, Russia’s state-owned radio falsely reported the men were killed by Ukrainians, citing a Ukrainian official who did not make that statement.
One member of church told a reporter the militants were “people with dirty souls who want to make things bad” and who hate “everything that is good, everything that is beautiful, and everything that comes from God.” But Alexander Pavenko reminded his congregation they were called to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them.
“If they wanted to cause me pain, they succeeded,” the Pentecostal pastor said. “But they did not manage to break my belief. It is God who will deal with them.”
Pavenko’s furniture store was also shelled and militants visited his home seven times, attempting to catch him.
A photo from that time shows a somber Yaroslav Pavenko standing with his father and brothers, wearing a red hoodie and holding his hands behind his back. A short while later, he volunteered as a chaplain with the Ukrainian military.
According to the chaplaincy service, Pavenko stayed on the frontlines of the fighting throughout the War in Donbas and continued to serve after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. He became part of a group of ministers known as the “Eastern Angels” and was praised for being reliable, sincere, and self-sacrificing.
Pavenko was ministering to the 26th Artillery Brigade, which operates Polish-made tanks that fire 155 mm high-explosive rounds, when the soldiers came under attack on Saturday, February 4. The chaplain was wearing a helmet and body armor, but a fragment of an exploded Russian shell pierced his body.
“The warrior of Christ laid down his weapon,” wrote Anatoliy Raichynets, deputy general security of the Ukrainian Bible Society, “and went to meet the one whom he loved above all else and faithfully served until his last breath.”
Pavenko is survived by his father, his wife, a young daughter, and several brothers who continue to minister to Ukrainian soldiers.