I find myself breaking out in tears all through the day. For those who know me well, I’m not one who cries easily. My heart is broken. I’ve been in contact with many I know who live in Ukraine. I feel so helpless living so far away. I’m so grateful for so many of you who are praying and have opened your heart to the people of Ukraine.
Our family served as missionaries in a city called Kherson, Ukraine. CNN put a correspondent in Kherson so I’ve watched the invasion of “my” city on television. Both of my children have an amazing tattoo of Ukraine as they spent some of their childhood there. Kherson (the same size as Tucson) is the first major city on the main road out of Russian-annexed Crimea. It has the main bridge across the Dnieper River from Crimea to Ukraine so it’s a strategic point. It appears that the Russians now control Kherson.
We went to Kherson when it was part of the Soviet Union. We helped start churches. We saw thousands come to faith. We helped start Tavriski Christian Institute in 1997 which is training church leaders in Ukraine and Muslim Central Asia. We watched Ukraine declare independence in August 1991 and were there when the Soviet Union broke up.
Here’s what I want you to know. Ukrainians are the most peaceful people I know. Let me be clear. There are good and bad people in every culture and society. There are really good Russians. But Ukrainian culture as a whole loves peace and cherishes freedom. Before this week, I would tell people that Ukraine was the freest country in the world! Ukrainian and Russian languages are similar but different (like Portuguese and Spanish). But even the language tells us about the culture. Ukrainian is much softer than the guttural sounds of Russian. It reflects the softness of the people who love to be hospitable and cherish relationships. Ukrainians are loyal and very spiritual. To this day, my best and closest friends are Ukrainian.
Ukraine’s independence has lasted 31 years. Now get this. That is the longest Ukraine has ever had independence. Ukraine has no natural borders to protect it (the name Ukraine means “borderland”). It has been conquered and ruled by the Mongols, Poles, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and now an attempt by the Russian Federation. Ukrainians love their freedom and independence and they won’t stand for Russian occupation. Look at their recent history to keep their independence from Russia:
The cost of lives and property is immense. But there is another cost as well. It’s close to my heart. In 1997 we established the Tavriski Christian Institute (TCI). We were to celebrate its 25th anniversary this fall. It is the first Christian college in Ukraine that has received state accreditation. TCI is sponsoring Christian training for pastors and leaders in central Asian countries where believers there are under constant persecution. TCI professors and teachers can go to these restricted places because they hold Ukrainian passports. TCI is helping support church planting movements in Muslim countries where few can go.
Today, TCI has been evacuated. The TCI property is right on the Dnieper River and is just a mile or so from the main Turupinski Bridge. This bridge is the main way to cross the river from Crimea to the rest of Ukraine. 20 helicopters of Russian special forces landed right by TCI. They burned and cleared all the cattails and brush from the river to make sure they can protect the bridge so their tanks and military support can cross the river. Russian snipers are controlling the bridge currently. Will TCI students and staff ever be able to return? Will TCI have to become remote and relocate? The future is unknown for TCI and 40 million Ukrainians.
Russia also invaded the south of Ukraine to get water. Their first main target was the hydroelectric dam in Kahovka (some 40 miles from Kherson). They needed to open up a water canal that is the main source of freshwater for the entire Crimean peninsula. When Putin illegally invaded Crimea and took it from Ukraine, the Ukrainians cut off their water supply in response.
Yes, in some ways there are two Ukraines. Western Ukraine (basically from the Dnieper river west) is predominantly Ukrainian-speaking. Eastern Ukraine is predominantly Russian speaking – however, almost all can speak and understand each other’s language. But even Eastern Ukraine is split also. Many who speak Russian identify culturally as Ukrainian and love their country. There are those who speak Russian who watch only Russian propaganda television and side with the Russian Federation. That’s why there have been the breakaway regions (instigated by Russian operatives). In general, there’s been peace between Ukrainian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, until the Russian operatives began their work of disunity.
When Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, he sent Russian operatives into Kherson. They were driven out by a united city. Part of the unity in that city developed through the faith community. For decades, the Protestant churches and the Orthodox churches have worked for unity. Every Sunday, leaders, and congregants would meet in the central square where the statue of Lenin used to stand. They would pray together for their city and country.
So what can you and I do? We can pray. Like believers for the last 2000 years who have faced persecution, it seems so little. But do we really believe in a God who is greater than an invading army? I do. I’m praying daily that Putin repents and surrenders to Jesus. I’m praying for the Russian and Belarusian people to stand up and revolt against this tyranny. I’m praying the Russian oligarchs will take a stand against Putin (even if only for selfish reasons). I’m praying for a miracle of resilience on the part of the Ukrainian people. I’m praying that the West fully support and supply the Ukrainian people. I’m praying that the believers still in Ukraine will stand strong in their faith as they love and serve all and be a witness to the life-giving Jesus. I’m praying for peace as other bad actors in the world might be tempted to use this to further aggression in other parts of the world. Pray for peace. Pray that in the midst of chaos and conflict that the kingdom and influence of God will advance.
Many of you have asked how you can help financially. We’ve been able to set up a way to get the funds into Ukraine! The funds you give will go to help Ukrainian refugees and the churches and Christians who remain in Ukraine to serve their people and advance the love of Christ. You can give at https://pantano.church/give/. Select the Ukraine fund.
I’m now in daily contact with Ukrainians (thank God for the internet) and we have ways to ensure that help gets to those who need it. Thank you for your love, prayer, and support. Please keep praying. I’m confident that God will not ignore the prayers of tens of thousands of believers.