By Scott Weber
As I start to write this, I am on a flight to Warsaw, Poland, and then will get into a car to cross into western Ukraine. I have been to Ukraine 18 times since 2002, but never like this. All my other trips were to visit Tavriski Christian Institute (TCI) for a work project, to teach, or to attend board meetings. This time it is to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bible college during the middle of a war.
My relationship with TCI started before the school formally launched. In 1996, Glen Elliott, who was most instrumental in founding TCI, invited the new church I was leading to be one of the first churches to help support this new and very needed ministry training school in Kherson, Ukraine. The school started offering classes in 1997. Our church was brand new, and TCI was the first mission we supported.
A FLEDGLING CHURCH AND A FLEDGLING SCHOOL
The first TCI student we supported financially was Valentin “Valik” Siniy; he has served as president of TCI for the past 16 years. Upon his graduation from TCI, our church helped financially support him as an associate pastor at Church of Christ the Savior in Kherson. Shortly thereafter, he became a professor at TCI, and eventually he was selected to serve as president. (His leadership qualities were very evident.)
My relationship with Valik runs deep. Since 2002, I have stayed with Valik and his family in their home almost every year while I served TCI in different ways. They have also stayed with us in the United States many times. Our friendship is built on raw honesty. We have shared many joys and sorrows together. We rely on each other. We envision new ideas, strategize, and plan. We enlarge our network and partnerships for TCI. It has been a real blessing. I have seen his two children grow from babies into godly young adults. His daughter, Sonya, was just married in July. His son, Kirill, is newly engaged.
The war has not stopped Valik and his family from living life. His wife, Luba, is also a dear friend of my wife and me. She has served as my translator during hundreds of hours of teaching, dozens of sermons, and in numerous conversations around the dinner table.
FORCED TO FLEE CAMPUS
TCI and its leaders have shared regular updates since the start of the war, but visiting Ukraine and speaking with old friends there has brought the tragedies into more detail. I cringe at what Valik Siniy, his family, and the TCI family have gone through since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine and several enemy attack helicopters landed near the institute’s campus in order to secure the Antonivskyi Bridge. The faculty and students fled; most traveled west in Ukraine, while others went to other nearby countries. The campus became a barracks and a medical facility for Russian soldiers (and a rumored mobile crematorium). Then, on Aug. 29, I got the following email from TCI:
As you may remember, our campus in Kherson was occupied by Russian soldiers from the first days of the war. The Russian occupants have turned our beautiful campus into a military camp and their military hospital.
Tonight the Ukrainian Army has started a major offensive operation in Kherson and the area. As a result, several buildings where Russian soldiers settled were hit by the Ukrainian Army, including the campus of TCI.
At this point, we do not have much information or any pictures, but from our staff who still live in that village where TCI is located, we know that the “Christmas Tree building” (dorms and classrooms) and one of the dorms (some of you know it as the Alamo Dorm) have received significant damage.
Reports indicate high-precision missile strikes hit the two buildings, and they are now unusable. It is unfortunate, but understandable, why the Ukrainian army needed to attack TCI’s campus.
Many American churches helped fund purchase of the campus and sent teams to help with building and remodeling projects and starting new ministries in churches. My first visit in 2003 was to see the new campus—purchased at auction—and to do work projects. I was angered by the invasion, the Russian troops’ use of the campus, and the damage resulting from the Ukrainian Army’s counter-offensive, which was necessary to retake Kherson. It’s frustrating that an evil dictator could unnecessarily cause so much harm to so many, while also disrupting what TCI was accomplishing for the kingdom of God.
TCI CONTINUES ITS WORK
Still, God and others are revealing to me that TCI’s ministry has not been stopped by this inexplicable war. The school’s work has continued, even as tens of thousands Ukrainian civilians and soldiers were killed, cities and villages suffered untold damage, and peaceful people were left with psychological scars. Most of TCI’s staff now operate from Ivano-Frankivsk. They not only have continued the work of training students for ministry in Ukraine and in many other countries, but they have performed incredible humanitarian work as well. Jesus said of the church, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, English Standard Version). I have seen evidence of the truth of Jesus’ words these past nine months.
God recently blessed TCI with a new temporary campus in Ivano-Frankivsk, after a former small hotel became available to rent at the start of this month. It has the right-sized classrooms, office space, and dorm space for TCI’s current needs.
As we celebrate Tavriski Christian Institute’s 25th anniversary, we are thankful that so many pastors and Christian leaders have been trained, so many new churches have been planted and existing ones strengthened, and so many parachurch ministries have been started. I cannot begin to measure the impact of TCI’s ministry on the kingdom of God. And while the campus in Kherson (more specifically, Antonivka) was a great tool and asset for TCI, it was not the ministry. (The church building, after all, is not the church.) TCI is so healthy that the ministry advanced boldly without the building. TCI’s staff is so dedicated that the degree programs have continued despite the school’s workers losing their homes and possessions, and despite being forced to live apart from many loved ones. In fact, 20 new students have arrived for the new semester.
A CLOSE CALL AND A BLESSED REUNION
Incredibly, amid the school relocation and humanitarian work, TCI staff and a board member have started two new churches in Ivano-Frankisvk.
During my recent visit, I reunited with Yuri Birzov, whom I mentored to enter the ministry many years ago. He was kidnapped by Russian soldiers in early April while delivering medical supplies to Kherson. He was held for a week and then released. No one knew where he was; many prayers were sent on his behalf.
It was very emotional seeing him and his wife, Vena, again; we shared a meal together. He and Staas Siniy—brother of Valik Siny—have started Reconciliation Church here in Ivano-Frankivsk.
“God protected me in custody from being tortured or killed, as many others were,” Yuri said. “Being released and able to then escape Kherson three days later, I was able to find my calling to help the new church.”
Yuri is glad he has been able to serve TCI as an administrator, while also helping with transportation and distribution of humanitarian aid.
“If I had stayed in Kherson as I intended, I would not have had this opportunity,” he said. “I am able to do so much more outside of Kherson than I would have if I had stayed. God had to give me a push out.”
THE FUTURE OF TCI
When asked about the future of TCI, Valik Siniy shared this:
We understand that our mission is to remain the same kind of school [as] we have always been, despite [not knowing] which place we will be associated with. We see that the Ukrainian church has now lost about 500 pastors who [either] left the country or, because of the war, . . . cannot fulfill their duties. We need to prepare leaders to serve the church and community after the war. We know the war has wounded us all, and we need to prepare ministers who will work to heal the spiritual wounds that our people have. Geography may change, but our calling and mission remain the same.
This verse comes to mind when I think of TCI and the work it continues to do: “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7, New American Standard Bible).
I stayed in Ukraine a few days, even attending a theological conference that addressed how the church should respond to present and future circumstances in that nation. It is obvious Ukrainian Christians are filled with hope. Their candle burns bright. Their love for Jesus is very evident.
It was a heartening trip. I was encouraged by the outlook and expectations for the future of TCI and the Ukrainian church. I look forward to seeing what God does through them in the months and years to come. I look forward to my next visit with them.
Please pray for TCI, their work for the kingdom, and the wisdom needed to navigate the future.
Click here to access Tavriski Christian Mission’s Sept. 1 ministry update.
Support TCI by making checks out to Mountainview Christian Church (write “TCI” in the memo line), and mailing them to Mountainview Christian Church, 40 E. Highlands Ranch Parkway, Highlands Ranch, CO 80126.
Scott Weber is a former pastor now living in Payson, Ariz.