Nighttime in Ukraine is hard. In some cities the air raid sirens interrupt sleep a few times a month. But in towns like Kramatorsk, very close to the front lines, it’s much different. As I was recently having dinner with Bernard*, a leader in the local EFC of Ukraine (EFCU) church in Kramatorsk, he shared, “We are so close to the front, that frequently we hear the alerts after we hear the explosions. At first, we stayed in the shelter, but we would not sleep. Now, we stay at home, but wake up to sounds of the incoming rockets and explosions and pray.” The frequency of the attacks does vary, in fact, he said they had experienced enough weeks of quiet that things really felt normal. That normalcy was broken again just two days after our dinner, when a rocket hit the central market area resulting in many casualties. The effect of the prolonged impacts of living amid constant threats and these overtly traumatic events has its impacts on these church members and the residents of Kramatorsk.
When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started in February, 2022, the EFCU church in Kramatorsk, led by Pastor Yura, was quickly mobilized. They invested the first few months of the war helping people even closer to the front evacuate, as well as those from their own congregation. Pastor Yura recalled, “Several times a week I drove a van full of refugees from Kramatorsk to Dnipro. We had fours hours together, so I would ask each person to share their story.” Then after listening, he would ask if he could share a story, and on every van ride he shared a gospel presentation and offered prayer for whoever wanted.
Before the summer, his congregation had gone from about 50 people to six, as a result of evacuations, but his church and a remnant of believers from other churches built a ministry collaboration that was serving those residents that stayed behind or resettled from areas overrun by the fighting. The church collected what resources it could find and shared with those they knew were struggling in their community, especially elderly residents, by distributing food and non-food item (NFI), helping with prescriptions and other medicines, and regularly spending time listening and praying. And God did His work, such that by the end of 2022, the church had grown to about 1,000 attendees!
Pastor Yura has been investing in this new congregation, most of whom are hearing about Jesus and Gospel Truth, and experiencing His grace and care for the first time.
By God’s grace, he’s got a group of key leaders who have joined his team from other local churches, as many other churches in town have simply closed due to their members and leaders evacuating the war zone.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Pastor Yura and the team. I was able preach in four services, on another of their series of Baptism Sundays they have been having over the summer. During first service on Saturday evening, Pastor Yura was giving the opening announcements, and a soldier in uniform stood up in the congregation and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but can I repent now? I don’t want to wait”. Pastor Yura welcomed him to the front of the church and then lead him in prayer to receive Christ. In the second service on Sunday morning, as I was in the middle of my message on Baptism, a rocket exploded about a mile away causing a collective gasp. Pastor Yura jumped right in and lead in prayer for several minutes, then gave me the nod to continue. And after the third service Sunday, the church again celebrated Believer’s baptism.
They had already baptized dozens of new believers throughout the summer, and ten more were prepared for baptism on that afternoon. It was such a blessing to see the congregation gathered, to worship and to hear the testimonies.
After the service ended and people were dispersing to head home, an elderly woman grasped me, squeezed my cheeks and hugged me all while speaking Russian. Pastor Yura heard her and said, “She’s asking to be baptized too!” So he called the people leaving to come back, and we accompanied the lady to the pool and baptized her, dressed in her Sunday best. What a privilege to witness the church and Holy Spirit at work.
Pray for Pastor Yura and his team, as they minister amid the challenges and dangers on the front lines.
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