By Laura McKillip Wood
Kevin and Renee Payton talked as they did their Christmas shopping. It was December 2002, and they were home on furlough from their ministry in Simferopol, the central city in Crimea, which was still part of Ukraine at the time. Kevin had been teaching theology at a college in Crimea for about four years, but they saw their work with these students ending, as former students who had gone on to seminary were returning to teach at the college. Maybe the need for American professors was waning. But what would they do? As they talked, they believed God still had a plan for them in Simferopol. They went back to Crimea in early 2003, unsure of what their next steps would be.
Not long after returning, they received a call from Ukrainian friends who led a student ministry in Simferopol. A large group of Malaysian students had arrived to study in the medical school there. Their Ukrainian friends asked Kevin and Renee to help plan a retreat for some of the students who were interested in Christianity and spoke English. That retreat led to a weekly Bible study in the dorms, which led to Sunday church services. The Paytons shared their lives with the students, caring for them while they were so far away from home.
“We became like parents to them. We were with them all the time,” Kevin says.
The Paytons knew how to navigate the city, where to buy what they needed, and how to speak conversational Russian. They also knew how it felt to be outsiders. They understood culture shock and had learned to deal with it well. They found they could pass their wisdom on to the students, who had just arrived and had a lot to learn.
Eventually, that cohort of students finished medical school and returned home to Malaysia.
“We are still in contact with a lot of them,” Kevin says.
He and Renee helped them grow in their faith while they were in Crimea, and when they returned to Malaysia with their medical degrees, they took that faith with them. Some of them have experienced persecution for leaving their Buddhist and Hindu faiths, but some have shared Christ with their families back home. Kevin has even traveled to Malaysia to perform some of their weddings, and recently some of them asked Kevin to preach via Zoom for a church service they started.
When those students graduated, a new crop of international students from Nigeria and India arrived—many of them Muslims—and Kevin and Renee began their work anew.
In the meantime, the Paytons’ own children were growing up. Their daughter, Kristen, went back to America to college, and their two teenage boys grew close to the students, who were almost like brothers and sisters to them. They helped a student who became a single mother care for her baby while she continued school, and the Payton’s younger son became like an uncle to the baby. Their older son, Isaac, eventually left for college, but Kevin and Renee had put down deep roots and planned to stay indefinitely.
ABRUPT CHANGE OF PLANS
In 2014, the unthinkable happened. The Russians entered Crimea and took over the government, creating a dangerous situation for expatriates. Team Expansion, the Paytons’ sending agency, urged them to leave. Shocked, they purchased train tickets to Odesa. Hoping just to stay a few months and then return, they packed Jacob’s schoolbooks and some important papers and photos and said tearful goodbyes to as many people as they could.
The streets were completely empty as they made their way to the train station. As they rolled to Odesa, from the train windows they saw Russian troops posted every hundred yards or so. Since the Russians had shut down all access to outside information, people in Crimea heard only Russian propaganda. In Odesa, the Paytons were finally able to read the international news. They were shocked to learn Russia had taken complete control of Crimea and had bombed eastern parts of Ukraine. They knew then that they would not be able to stay.
Leaving Ukraine was heart-wrenching and “very tragic,” Renee says.
“We were there 16 years,” Kevin says. “We got to know our neighbors. They watched the kids grow up. There were people in the market we saw several times a week for all these years. We had to leave in a hurry, and we couldn’t even really say goodbye. There was no closure. One day we were there, the next day we were gone.”
On their trip back to America, the Paytons had an overnight layover in Vienna, where they ate dinner at a McDonald’s.
“We were sitting there, in shock, and we didn’t even say anything,” Kevin says. “Then Jacob and I started sobbing.” They felt they had lost everything.
ANOTHER NEW DIRECTION
Despite those difficult times, God has given Kevin and Renee a new and rewarding ministry, and he is continuing to use their passion for college ministry. These days, they work for Outreach International, traveling to colleges and campus ministries across the U.S. and encouraging students to ask God what he wants to do through them.
“We want to challenge and equip them that no matter what they’re studying, God can use them to share the gospel anywhere,” Kevin explains. They share their experiences and all that God has done through them. They want to open people’s hearts to the possibilities God has in store.
Looking back at their time in Simferopol, the Paytons feel a deep sense of satisfaction.
“There are a lot of missionaries who don’t get to see the fruit of their work. They don’t get to see the people accept Christ and don’t see how it plays out long term,” Kevin says. “We were blessed and get to see a lot of that firsthand.”
Now they relish the fact that they can participate in raising up a new generation of people dedicated to pursuing God’s plan for their lives.