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Members of the Kharkiv church plant in 2000

30 Years of Grace in Ukraine: The Backstory on a Country That's on Every Front Page

By Andrew Hess, May 23, 2023

In late February 2022, just prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion, MTW Ukraine leadership  met to assess the threat, form a crisis team, and establish a support account, which providentially opened for donations on the day of the invasion. Because of their unity as one country team serving Ukraine, they were able to respond in a united way, “with one common response to the war” as Country Director Jon Eide said. Over time this team had been refined together, having already survived the Russian invasion of Crimea, persecution in its early days, and rooted in its founding in 1993 after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Wall Comes Down

During the latter half of the 20th century, communism in the former Soviet Union limited the work of gospel ministers. For many Christians who were praying for gospel witness to spread there, these were times of waiting and praying, when circumstances offered little hope that missionaries and churches would be allowed to work or grow in the region.

In 1989, communism’s hold began to loosen. Years of suppression began to subside as the Berlin Wall was torn down. Mission to the World missionary Dave Smith recalled those days: “It was an amazing thing to witness the Soviet Union becoming unglued.” The prayers of Dave and many other Christians were beginning to be answered as the Soviet Union became open to the Christian witness for the first time in almost 70 years.

An Astonishing Offer

On November 5, 1992, Campus Crusade for Christ was offered a meeting with Olga Litsenko, the former Soviet Union’s assistant minister of education. Unexpectedly, at that meeting Christian leaders were invited to teach Christian ethics and morals in schools across the Soviet Union. The “CoMission,” a collaborative effort of 70 parachurch and missions organizations, was founded to step into this unprecedented opportunity.

MTW was one of the first organizations to join the CoMission. On August 18, 1993, MTW sent two teams to Odesa, Ukraine, beginning a year-long work in the public schools teaching the Bible and discipling students. By 1994, MTW had 12 CoMission teams serving in southern Ukraine. Eager to join this work, over 100 Americans volunteered to live there for a year at a time, many at their own expense. Many of the first interpreters were themselves converted. Some became pastors and active servants, such as Ivan Bespalov, Sergei Nakul, and Sergei and Lyuda Betin.

Masha Shepherd and Olya Powell

A Vision to Plant Churches

Clay and Darlene Quarterman had served as MTW missionaries in Portugal for 14 years when they were asked to consider moving to Ukraine to help plant churches for the people who were becoming Christians in response to the CoMission. The Quartermans

joined Dave and Dee Smith and Dal and Beth Stanton to form a team whose primary goal would be to establish churches. While the CoMission had opened a window of opportunity, it was the team’s vision to draw together bodies of believers which became the preeminent work. Dave was serving as team leader at the time and recalled that by the time the missionary team formally launched, people were already asking how to start a church.

By 1996, the open door the CoMission had enjoyed allowing them to teach in schools was beginning to close. Many organizations eventually lost their opportunity and their work in the region declined.

Clay recalled being called into the official office of the Ukraine Ministry of Interior with an interpreter and told, “We know what you are doing. You are preaching. If you preach this Sunday, we are going to deport you and shut down the whole group.” Clay said, “The interpreter told me she thought this felt like the KGB.” The MTW leadership team gathered to pray as they decided what to do. One of the Ukrainian men who was being discipled said, “They can’t do this. I’ll preach.” He did preach, and the church continued to grow despite governmental pressure.

Raising up a Generation of Missionaries

One of the significant impacts of the CoMission was the people who came to serve the CoMission and then became MTW missionaries. Clay said, “Doug Shepherd came out to serve in the CoMission and Dal Stanton spent a lot of time with him. Dal is a good discipler and likes to set up programs of discipleship.” Eventually Doug and Dal set up the Odesa Project, a discipleship program pairing Ukrainian disciples with American disciples for summer internships.

Kyiv Team

This program led to ongoing work. Clay said, “Doug caught a taste for what God was doing in Ukraine and went back to the U.S. for seminary training.” Doug returned as part of the MTW team and has continued to set up training projects in Lviv. Doug's story was like that of the many who came short term and found a way to serve long term in Ukraine.

Today, 15 Reformed churches in Ukraine make up the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ukraine denomination. As the denomination formed, MTW Ukraine leaders knew it needed to be independent from MTW. Jon said, “We desired to partner with and work under our Ukrainian brothers and sisters in Christ.” This vision to create churches that would grow into an independent denomination with its own seminary reflected the values of MTW and the leadership team from the beginning of the work.

EPCU pastor Sergei Sudakov (right), then a seminary student, meets with a Russian believer and fellow seminary student, circa 2005.

Hope Even in Wartime

As the war started in Western Ukraine, MTW leaders in Ukraine immediately looked to meet the needs of the Ukrainian people. Some opened their homes to those fleeing from the cities under threat. Others helped those displaced from their homes travel to safety. Some pastors decided to stay in cities like Kyiv, preaching and ministering to those who couldn’t flee.

In addition, Doug Shepherd recognized a need to coordinate the supplies being sent to Ukraine. Crates for Ukraine was a coordinated effort to get the right amounts of the most needed supplies to the right places with the greatest efficiency. Churches across the U.S. worked together to fund, pack, and ship hundreds of crates to Ukraine where they were received in the hardest-hit places.

For the Ukrainian Church, the war has been a time of walking through a severe trial together, serving one another, and remembering the they have as God’s people. Such eternal hope fuels sacrificial ministry. MTW missionary Kirk Norris said, “The church has this beautiful, unique moment to minister right at the point people are feeling vulnerable and feel the pain and trauma.” Ukrainian Christians even now gather to worship together each week in gratitude for God’s marvelous work in opening a door that no one expected would ever be opened.

The story of MTW Ukraine is a story of how Christ continues to build His Church through many successes and setbacks. Clay said, “We must remember God is doing a work that will not fail. Our own history is a part of this glorious and eternal story, glorifying God for His work in our midst, in our time, and in our place.”

Andrew Hess

Andrew Hess is content strategy lead at Compassion International. He holds an M.Div. from Denver Seminary and is a ruling elder at Village Seven Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

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Give thanks for and pray for the Krakow crisis team, the distribution of aid, and the shelter ministry as the team cares for displaced Ukrainians.

Please pray for the Crates for Ukraine 3.0 effort, and for the med kits, tourniquets, vitamins, winter wear, and other critical supplies to meet the physical needs of Ukrainians in the areas that need it most.

Pray against rape, murder, and capture of men, women, and children in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. Pray for protection for the vulnerable.

Pray for courage for Christ’s followers in and around Ukraine. mtw.org/ukraine-crisis

Pray for families who have evacuated, leaving behind the only place they have ever known. Pray for transition and provision. 

Pray for pastors who have stayed behind in Ukraine as they minister to their congregations and the surrounding communities in a time of war.

Pray for the health, rest, and ability to continue for those who are working with and making arrangements for refugees. It can feel like the future of each one of them is in your hands. mtw.org/ukraine-crisis

Pray that our brothers and sisters who have lost everything will cling to the community of believers and ultimate hope in Christ, and for the massive movement of people and the refugee work our teams are involved in focusing on Lviv and Krakow. mtw.org/ukraine-crisis

Pray for Ukraine to trust what is not changeable and to hope in what cannot be lost. May the Church in Ukraine be strengthened through this war. mtw.org/ukraine-crisis

Pray for Ukrainian refugees who are being welcomed by the church in Belgorod to be drawn to Christ. 

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