Ukrainian churches face shaky future

DONETSK, Ukraine (BP) -- In Tom Long's* city in eastern Ukraine, life is "fairly calm" -- except that people are carrying baseball bats and packing semi-automatic rifles.

And Long is packing his bags -- all of them.

"It's difficult. We don't know what the situation is like or if I'll be able to come back," Long, an IMB representative who has called the city of Donetsk home for the past four years, said. "It's hard. I care about the people. I have grown to love this city, and I wish I could stay."

The Donetsk area and the neighboring region of Luhansk passed referendums May 11 to withdraw from Ukraine and move toward joining the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian government in Kiev -- along with the U.S. and the European Union -- called the move illegal, and international leaders called for Ukraine to be reunified.

But ever since Russia absorbed Crimea in March, Ukraine's "normal" is shaky in both the short and long-range forecast, the International Mission Board representative said. The nation is on edge for the rapidly approaching presidential election May 25. No one knows what the future may hold, he said.

Donetsk's government offices are closed for now, keeping Long from renewing his residence permit and forcing him from his home indefinitely.

The crisis is also affecting day-to-day life for Ukrainian nationals, Tim Johnson,* an IMB representative in Kiev, said. Bloodshed breaks out occasionally in "shocking" ways in an otherwise calm nation, he said. Border checks have become increasingly complicated, and Ukrainians find their wallets pummeled by a falling currency and rising prices.

"This isn't Cairo, Somalia or the West Bank," Johnson said. "We are not accustomed to this. This (kind of crisis) is new territory for us."

The financial shift caused by the crisis hurts Ukrainians at the gas pump and the grocery store, but most of all it hurts the ones with mortgages, he said.

"Some purchase a home with a loan backed with (U.S.) dollars, and when their currency loses ground against the dollar, their house payment goes up," Johnson said. "We know many people dealing with some form of debt like that for whom payments have suddenly just gotten really hard."

For national believers, it's impacting work on the ground, too, he said. "When you lose 30 percent of the value of your currency, it affects your ministry."

The church in general is holding its breath to see how life may change as the crisis develops, Johnson said. In Crimea, Baptist churches are already seeing the effects of the power shift, he said.

"The churches in Crimea now have to reregister and re-form to meet Russian Federation criteria," Johnson said.

Crimean Baptists' relationship setup is shifting as a result, he explained.

"Their historical relationships have formerly been with the Ukrainian Baptist Union," he said, "but to comply with the laws they will have to reregister their churches and maintain an official relationship with the Russian Baptist Union when all of their relationships are with the Ukrainian Baptist Union."

For all of the Baptist churches in Ukraine, it's a "wait and see" situation as to what the future of ministry in the region will look like, Johnson said.

But for Long, personally that goes for one specific church -- the one he's leaving behind in Donetsk.

"There's a small church here that started about a year ago, and they still need lots of help," he said. "There's a lot of young people in the church, and I care about them greatly."

Long asked for prayer for them, as well as for the people of Ukraine in general -- that they would have the comfort and peace of God.

"Pray for somehow God to use this for His glory," he said. "We know He uses situations in our lives for that. I'm just praying that through this His glory would be made known to the people here."

Pray:

-- That God would bring peace and comfort to the people of Ukraine.

-- That God would use the situation there for His glory in the church and among those who do not yet know Him.

-- That God would provide new opportunities for ministry in Ukraine in the midst of the crisis, as well as the means to carry out that ministry in the face of financial strain.


*Name changed. Ava Thomas is a writer/editor for the International Mission Board based in Europe. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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