By Michael Wetzel
Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, I asked my good friend Yuri if he was still in Kramatorsk. His strong reply was, “Of course, Michael, I am a pastor.”
A few days earlier he had posted a short video to Facebook showing himself saying goodbye to his wife, Alyona, and their two children. It was a tearful send-off. The video also showed hundreds of other women and children boarding the train. He later shared his concern that the train would be passing through hard-hit Kharkov and then through Kyiv. Still later, he reported that all had gone well; his loved ones had arrived in Lviv safely, and then passed through Poland to Germany.
OUR MINISTRY PARTNERSHIP IN UKRAINE
During the almost 20 years I have served as executive director of Shepherd’s Purse ministry, we have been working in Ukraine. We work with street kids, orphans, widows, and the poor in 10 cities. Along the way, we have made many friends and added many partners. Yuri is a partner who became a good friend.
Yuri is a pastor in his early 40s with a small congregation of about 30 that meets each week. Whenever our teams would visit, we always enjoyed great times of ministry. We visited orphanages and would share the gospel, conduct programs, and provide supplies. There were gatherings with up to 80 widows that included preaching, encouragement, a meal, gifts of groceries, and group and individual prayer. The widows were always hungry for more than just food. At other times, Yuri would gather 20 local pastors and their spouses for dinner, presents, and prayer. While the ministers differed in some religious beliefs, times of trial brought them together on common ground.
Yuri has always had a heart for his people. After Shepherd’s Purse shipped tons of clothes to his church, he commented that he would use the clothing as “bait.” People were invited to preaching meetings and afterward, they were given the opportunity to go through the clothes.
At Christmastime one year, we rented a massive building that seemed twice the size of our White House. A group of Christians dressed as superheroes and for an hour they tried to “save the world.” They failed, of course. In the end, Yuri dressed as Father Christmas and for 20 minutes he shared about the One who could save the world. Most had never heard this story. When the event ended, 950 adults, orphans, and children were sent home with candy and booklets about the birth of Jesus.
ESCALATION AND EXPANSION . . . OF THE GOSPEL
As most people know, Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine—where Yuri lives—in 2014. The war has continued right up to the present day, though this year has been a major escalation and expansion. Many pastors and people left Kramatorsk, but Yuri stayed. He told his wife that, if something were to happen to him, she should find a new Christian husband and go on with her life. He and some of his staff also stayed on to minister to the poor and hopeless people of his city.
The number of people worshipping at his church on Sundays quickly tripled this year. At each service, church leaders would share the good news of Jesus and give out bags of food. Yuri said many were coming to repentance. He posted a video of 15 baptisms one day, and within a week there were still more. A kiddie pool filled with water was added to the main meeting room, and each baptism was filmed individually. People cheered every resurrection.
Yuri was interviewed by a local reporter who had heard how his group was helping soldiers and locals by providing food and more. Not much later, Yuri was walking past a local college and realized the school had a meeting room that would seat more than 300. Yuri inquired about using it, but college officials told him he needed the approval of city officials; they warned him it would take a while. Yuri contacted the reporter and asked for advice and help. A week later, the church held their first meeting.
TIME TO HEAD FOR SAFETY?
As the war escalated, we encouraged Yuri to leave and reunite with his family. Yuri, however, just became more passionate for his fellow Ukrainians.
“Michael, my emotions say go, but my God says stay.”
His first meeting in the new location attracted more than 600 people. Sadly, half the people had to be turned away, but they were asked to return the next day . . . and they did. The gospel was preached and food was distributed.
Soon after this, the Russians bombed the local train station where hundreds were waiting to evacuate. Yuri and some of his friends were worshipping God in a home one mile from the station. (We had been to this same station several times over the past few years during our trips to Kramatorsk.) The next day, Yuri and several church families finally decided to leave their homes, their church, and their friends and head for safety. Traffic lines leaving the city were terrible, but by late in the day they were in a safer area about halfway across the country.
I was proud of Yuri’s passion and glad he was heading out . . . until he told me they were going back for Orthodox Easter Sunday (April 24). He cannot give up on the Ukrainian people. To date, Yuri is still serving the people of Ukraine. He is a pastor . . . a true shepherd of the flock.
Michael Wetzel serves as executive director of Shepherd’s Purse, a ministry to “the forgotten ones” in Ukraine and India. Prior to that, he served as a minister in Christian churches for almost 15 years.