‘Reliving Some of Our Parents’ Nightmares’
Ukrainian and American Christians rally together as Russia’s invasion continues and fears of persecution grow.
Last Wednesday, Father Oleh Kindiy rose to start his day at 6 a.m. Lately it’s been just warm enough that the snow has melted in the streets, and he’s taken to biking 10 minutes down the road to the parish church. He would spend the next few hours this day listening to confessions, then holding a service to pray for the deceased. Then, he had a bus to catch, though not for himself.
For the last 10 years, Kindiy has served as a parish priest in the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the large western city of Lviv. He also teaches philosophy at Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University.
It had already been a long day by the time Kindiy spoke to The Dispatch last week, nearing midnight. But long days have been normal since Russia invaded.
“The very first day of the invasion, the sirens were already going off even in our city,” Kindiy said. “People were panicked and they would run—one of the first places they would run was church.”
As war broke out, seats in the church began to fill rapidly with those who had not darkened the door of a church in years. Now they brought their children to confession.
Kindiy’s church was built 20 years ago in a part of Lviv where churches were sparse. But now, it’s always open.
Parishioners have been organizing for prayer shifts 24 hours a day so that someone is always praying. As families from shell-shocked eastern and southern Ukrainian cities have streamed in seeking refuge, a team of community volunteers, whose numbers fluctuate between a couple dozen and 100, have mobilized.
Displaced families have found shelter in the church basement.
“It’s safe, it’s warm, people can actually lie down,” the priest said. “There is a bathroom and water, both cold and hot.”
About two or three times a day, air raid sirens go off and everyone scrambles for cover, though thus far the church has not suffered bombing raids or missile attacks.
One of the most faithful prayer volunteers has been Kindiy’s wife Ivanka. (The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church ordains some married men as priests.) But now she’ll be praying from afar.
After the Wednesday morning service, Kindiy biked back home, just in time to drive his family to a bus stop. Ivanka did not want to leave him or the church. But on the line was the safety of their four children: two boys and two girls between the ages of 4 and 12. And their friends in Warsaw, just across the Polish border, ultimately persuaded Ivanka.
The bus ran behind by almost an hour. But finally, around noon, it departed. Kindiy’s phone was already ringing with a request for help, and he took off for another part of the city.
In recent days, Catholic and Protestant churches alike have stepped up to serve their community, Kindiy noted, adding that “most of the churches have become safety nets.” People from the community have come by, bringing jars of pickled tomatoes and cucumbers that don’t need refrigeration, and other goods, for those in need.
Kindiy said it seems as though the country is plunging back into a darker era. He recalls stories from his grandmother, who remembered Soviet aggression 50 years ago driving the church underground.
“They carried out hope that there will be a day that we will be free. And we saw that day when Ukraine became independent,” Kindiy said. “And now as again the darkness is coming out to absorb us, we don’t give up. We have this hope and faith.”
But that hope comes with suffering: Mothers who have already lost their children to the fighting come to the church to mourn. “And we mourn with them,” he said.
Kindiy sees a spiritual parallel with a time of fasting as the church begins its observation of Lent, a 40-day period leading up to Easter. But after the fast, the church enters a time of celebration, something that Kindiy said he is holding onto: “As Jesus died and rose again, so we also believe that we will also with Him rise again. So no matter what happens, we have hope. We have Jesus leading us. We have nothing else.”
Kindiy has noticed an outpouring of support, not just from Christians in the area, but also from churches from various faith traditions overseas. “A lot of my friends from American churches, from evangelical churches, not just Catholics, they’ve been pouring out some funds and sending them over here which is amazing,” Kindiy said. “They’re just supporting us.”
Churches have donated to various volunteer organizations and have sent Kindiy funds directly. He and the other volunteers have used the money to buy food, diapers, mattresses for displaced families to sleep on, and other resources from the stores that are still open.
Though some on the political right in the U.S. call for disengagement on Ukraine, American Christians are invested in what’s happening there. Meanwhile, Ukrainians who remember Soviet-era persecution are hoping such suffering doesn’t return if Russia prevails.
“Many people feel like [Ukraine] is the Bible belt of Europe, and it has had a strong evangelical church presence for a long time,” Coy Webb, crisis response director for the Southern Baptist-affiliated nonprofit organization Send Relief, told The Dispatch.
Send Relief is one of the largest crisis response organizations in the U.S., alongside the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. It boasts around 80,000 volunteers stateside, as well as hundreds of partners overseas. Last year, it worked to respond to more than 213 different overseas disasters.
The group also works to aid refugees, and the current war is testing both its refugee and crisis work operations. Webb said workers are in contact with local Christian leaders in Ukraine, Poland, and surrounding countries helping distribute food, shelter, transportation, medical supplies, and trauma care. There are also Send Relief workers in surrounding countries that border Ukraine helping refugees and distributing supplies on the ground.
“Many of these are long-term relationships that Southern Baptists have had for decades where we’ve worked there,” Webb said. Since the invasion, Webb has seen an uptick in donations from churches stateside and small-dollar donations online.
“We get story after story—certainly of the suffering that is going on, but what amazes us is the churches’ continued work,” Webb said.
Webb hears over and over again of Ukrainian families separating as women and children flee battle zones while husbands and fathers stay behind to fight.
Across the borders in neighboring countries of Poland and elsewhere, Christians have converted churches and seminaries into places for displaced people to stay.
“It amazes me that the church—not only in Ukraine but in surrounding countries—have quickly responded to do all they can to care for those that are flocking across those borders,” Webb said. “To me that is what the church is supposed to be and I think that is who we are when we are at our best.”
Relationships between American Eastern European churches trace back decades. After the Iron Curtain came down in 1989, Christians from the U.S. and elsewhere sensed an opportunity to help in countries that had experienced oppression under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
“There were floods of churches and partnerships and mission organizations and ministries,” Trevin Wax, vice president of research and resource development with the North American Mission Board, told The Dispatch. “People flooded into Eastern Europe … they saw an opportunity to have a real influence in these nations that were struggling in the post-communist era.”
Now it’s common for missionaries from the U.S. to frequent Eastern Europe.
“What you have are ties that are much stronger between the West and the East than people realize,” Wax said. “People are talking about firsthand knowledge about [people] they know. In many cases people are talking about Ukraine as if they’ve got some kind of personal connection.”
As the situation in Ukraine has unfolded, Christian leaders in America have expressed sorrow and outrage. For many American Christians with deep ties to Eastern Europe, the sentiments are personal.
Ihor Zhakunets is a Ukrainian-American pastor who lives in Parma, Ohio. He calls himself a “1.5 generation” immigrant: He came to the U.S. as a young child and his memories of life in Ukraine are foggy.
His parents were Pentecostal Christians, which put them in the bad graces of the Soviet government. He remembers KGB agents following his father and interrogating his parents at their house. Agents once tailed his family for a week.
So when they got the opportunity to flee in the 1980s, they seized it. Their journey to the U.S. took them through Poland, Austria, Italy, and finally New York. In the fall of 1988 they moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Zhakunet was 6 years old.
Now, Zhakunet and his younger brother are pastors at Mercy Hill Chapel, a multicultural church that holds a 9:30 a.m. service in Ukraine, then an English service at 11:30 a.m.
The last few days have been tough. Their congregation is made up of many Ukrainian immigrants and Ukrainian-Americans, some who immigrated years ago, as well as a woman who just immigrated a little over a year ago.
“Seeing what was there during the USSR—this just brings back awful memories of what it means to be an evangelical Christian over there,” Zhakunet said. “You just kind of think to yourself, Is this really happening again?”
Zhakunet remembers stories from his parents and older immigrants about Christians making tough decisions about whether to register their churches with Soviet authorities or operate under the radar.
Zhakunet said that, against the dark backdrop of that history, the current invasion has seemed surreal: “It feels like we’re reliving some of our parents' nightmares when it comes to this stuff.”
In the midst of the sorrow, Zhakunet said he has been surprised at the support from other American churches.
“We’re seeing churches do huge cargo shipments of supplies to refugees, we’re referring people to individuals and families who are in need, referring people to places like Send Relief,” he said.
When he walks around his town, he sees the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag hoisted on businesses and houses, as well as across social media. “It’s been a crazy thing to see the Ukrainian flag everywhere. I wish it was under different circumstances.”
Historically, religious minorities faced persecution in the Soviet Union, driving Christians to meet in secret. Yet Ukraine exploded into a European hub for the growth of evangelical Christianity in particular.
The history of persecution eventually led to USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy allowing victims of religious persecution to immigrate. The U.S. Congress followed suit: In 1989 U.S. lawmakers passed the Lautenberg Amendment to make religion a part of the asylum policy for those fleeing the Soviets. Previously, religious discrimination had been a consideration for Soviet Jews. But now evangelical Christians, Ukrainian Catholics, and Ukrainian Orthodox believers also could qualify for resettlement due to religious persecution.
Now there are fears of such oppression coming again. Elijah Brown, general secretary and CEO of Baptist World Alliance, told National Review that Baptists in Crimea and Donbas have reported a crackdown since Russia increased its influence. Churches find it difficult—and sometimes impossible—to register with the state, according to Christianity Today.
In the rebel-controlled Luhansk territory as well, authorities have labeled Baptist and Pentecostal Christians a threat, and designated the Baptist Union a terrorist group. The Russian government has cracked down on religious minorities within the country during Vladimir Putin’s time in power.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2021 report, authorities target religious minorities with frequent fines, home raids, interrogations, imprisonment, and torture, and anti-extremism and blasphemy laws that are wielded against Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, Catholics, and other religious minorities.
“It’s personal for us in the Southern Baptist world,” Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told The Dispatch. “Most folks don’t realize it, but Ukraine has the second largest population of Baptists in Europe.” In churches across America, Leatherwood said, pastors are utilizing prayer guides and partnering with Send Relief and other organizations helping on the ground.
“In the conversations I’ve had with colleagues and friends that have served in Ukraine, they’re very worried in the immediate for the safety and well being of the people they’ve served, but long term they are very fearful that if Vladimir Putin is successful with his conquest here, what that means for religious liberty in Eastern Europe,” Leatherwood said.
Alan Cross, an author and Southern Baptist pastor, told The Dispatch he is concerned that Christians will face a religious freedom crackdown should Russia expand its influence over the region.
“We want there to be religious freedom, we think that’s an inherent right for every person,” Cross said.
Around midnight, Kindiy, the priest in Lviv, still had not heard whether his wife and children had made it over the Polish border by the time it closed. In normal times, it’s only an hour drive across Poland’s border, though with the scramble to evacuate crossing can take anywhere from eight to 60 hours. But by Thursday morning, he knew his family was safe in Warsaw.
Kindiy said increasingly the streets of Lviv are filled with families fleeing the country. According to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippio Grandi, more than 1 million refugees fled over the last week of the invasion. Ukraine is restricting the crossing of fighting age men—those between 18 and 60—to other countries.
Kindiy, however, never had plans to go. In addition to caring for his community, he also looks after his 71-year-old father, who suffers from Alzheimers.
“I always knew and I know that I will not leave. I will stay with our parish, with our people,” Kindiy said. “Some are staying—often those who are most vulnerable, and I realize that if everybody leaves, who will help them?”