In Ukraine, there is a joke about the country’s place in a post-Soviet world:
A dog approaches the border and requests permission to enter Belarus. When the border guard asks why, he replies, “Because I have heard they have all the best meat and fat and bones.”
The officer says, “Well, you are a dog, after all, and don’t need a passport. Go on.”
A week passes, and the dog returns, wanting back in to Ukraine. “Wasn’t it everything you hoped for?” the guard asks.
“Yes,” the dog says, “They had all the best meat and fat and bones.”
“Then why come back?” the officer says.
And the dog answers, “They wouldn’t let me bark.”
A fierce desire for freedom smolders among the citizens of Ukraine. At the center of Kiev, the nation’s capital, is Independence Square, and if you were to visit there today, you’d see hundreds of people going about their daily lives: professional men and women on cellphones, young adults dressed in the latest bright trends, costumed street performers posing for pictures with tourists. It’s a different scene than it was in early 2014, when tens of thousands of people protested against Russian interference in Ukrainian politics. From a bridge nearby, snipers had shot at their own countrymen. A building complex-turned-hospital was set on fire, killing the wounded inside.
When things looked as if they couldn’t get any worse, the president was removed from power and a new, European-leaning government was put in place. Then Russia annexed Crimea to the far southeast, and separatists took control of several large cities in eastern Ukraine. The conflict still continues today with little ground gained by either side. Thousands have died in the war, and there’s no clear end in sight.
As a backdrop to this, Ukraine has been in existence less than 30 years. Poverty and hardship still linger years after the Soviet Union’s fall. The social service programs that exist are underfunded. Populations from the elderly and disabled to orphans and widows don’t have access to the same help as in western European countries.
It’s into this context that, for over seven years, In Touch has provided more than 20,000 Messengers. Estimating at least 10 people influenced by each audio Bible, that’s nearly a quarter of a million people presented with the everlasting hope of the gospel.
When dealing with such large numbers, it’s easy to forget there are actual individuals involved: people with hopes and aspirations, fears and failures. These are just a few of the individuals we met on a recent reporting trip to Ukraine. Their faces tell the story of life in a country fighting to direct its own future.
For years, Yaroslav Malko dreamed of opening an orphanage in Lubny, the small town where he was a pastor, but the local permitting office repeatedly denied his requests. Then he heard there was a staffing change, and the new director wanted to speak with him.
On the day he walked into the permitting office, he was caught off guard by a woman calling out, “Yaroslav!” He looked but didn’t recognize her. “I’ll never forget what you did for me,” the new director said, and she approved his longstanding request on the spot. Malko left confused but happy. Who was this person?
We never really know what God is doing in the background.
His thoughts went back to seven years earlier, when a church member called him in a panic. A woman she knew had just lost her son to suicide and was spiraling into deep depression, possibly suicidal herself. Malko and two others drove to the home of the woman—now the director of the permitting office—and sat with her for a couple of hours, bringing comfort and sharing God’s love.
Since the orphanage opened, hundreds of children have found a home, according to Malko. “And what did it cost?” he said. “Two hours.” Malko likes to share the story with others as a way of helping them see that we never really know what God is doing in the background—He may use our efforts, regardless of their immediate outcome, to bring about an opportunity that couldn’t be imagined.
With the success of the orphanage, Malko came to the realization that on having physical needs met, people would be more open to the gospel. That led to his founding Global Christian Support (GCS), a humanitarian organization, which now has widespread influence in Ukraine. GCS is involved in orphanages, homes for the elderly and people in poverty, support for widows of soldiers, chaplain training camps, and more. One of their newest initiatives takes children traumatized by the war and places them temporarily with families abroad to receive emotional healing in a peaceful environment.
Malko continues, persistently seeking new opportunities to serve others. He knows that at any moment the Lord could be working in unseen ways.
Aleksandr Gerasimov peered out across the smooth black asphalt as the van headed south to Sloviansk. The road looked totally different from two years earlier, when it was marked by gaping holes from shelling and explosions. Then, passing through military checkpoints, Gerasimov had marveled at the men in shorts and flip-flops, holding AK-47s. Today soldiers at checkpoints have proper gear. The improvements are just one reminder of the ongoing conflict’s duration. While there’s a general ceasefire between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army, tensions remain high.
Gerasimov first fled Ukraine more than 20 years ago as a religious refugee. Though he’s now an American citizen, his heart never left the people back home. Nearly eight years ago Gerasimov reached out to In Touch Ministries,
and a partnership formed. Each month, he sends 500 Messengers to Ukraine. To date, more than 20,000 have been distributed to soldiers, the blind and elderly, and others needing hope.
It’s painful for Gerasimov to witness the destruction of his homeland—the collapsed houses and apartments, the demolished roads and bridges. Separatists still control his hometown, Donetsk, and he cannot return to visit loved ones. “I see now, it’s not the buildings being destroyed, but human lives,” he said. “It has changed everything. And who can now bring them comfort? Only God.”
As an experienced seamstress, Lena Reuta moves her hands assuredly, directing fabric under the needle along the outline of a dress. She enjoys the work, but since her husband Sergey died in the war, it hasn’t been enough to sustain her needs. And so, friends have stepped in to offer financial support. She works with the same peaceful gaze those who know her have come to recognize—a look that hides her pain.
Sergey was serving as a Ukrainian military police officer when he died, along with three others, in an ambush. It’s a situation that unfortunately is common in Ukraine since the war began, as neighbors turn against one another. A former pastor, Sergey had been using the Messenger—what he called “a bright light in the darkness”—to encourage fellow soldiers.
Lena is proud of the man Sergey was, and not a day goes by that she doesn’t miss him. She lives now in that liminal space between ongoing grief and the joys of motherhood, having recently made the bridesmaids’ dresses for her daughter’s wedding and welcomed her first grandchild. Life continues, and the same spirit of love from her marriage to Sergey helps Lena carry on.
The black SUV has done its share of speeding down rural roads outside Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, slowing only for checkpoints. Its driver, Andrey Borylo, makes supply runs to two army bases on the front lines of the conflict with separatists. His typical cargo consists of physical and spiritual sustenance: rations of food, scarce in remote outposts, and a box of Messengers.
Borylo, a volunteer military chaplain, enlisted as soon as the war began in 2014. He splits his time three ways—between this calling, a full-time job, and his personal life. He knows that he’s spread thin, and that the time spent serving young soldiers are hours he’s not with his wife and children. But in the face of ongoing war, he feels as though there’s no choice. Through loving counsel, he once stopped a young soldier from committing suicide. Another time a sniper, having heard the gospel from Borylo, decided to stop taking kill shots.
As long as there’s war, Borylo will do what he can to serve. But like dozens of his fellow chaplains, he knows that lasting peace will come only through the Prince of Peace Himself.
Each week, Julia Oblets carries bags of food and toiletries up flights of stairs in a building with no elevator, to reach the inhabitants on the top floor. Those elderly men and women were placed there by the government so that, according to Oblets, they would be “out of sight, out of mind.” Many of the residents Oblets serves are shut-ins, so she and other volunteers bring life’s necessities to their doors.
Her passion for the elderly hinges on one specific aspect of their lives: They’re overlooked by society. Many of the same social services that exist in European countries to the west are rare in Ukraine, a post-Soviet nation struggling to fund programs. The pensions the elderly live on are the equivalent of $50-$70 U.S. per month, barely enough to pay utilities and feed themselves. Christians like Oblets collect donations to fill the gap.
Oblets credits the Messenger with radically changing the face of her ministry. The people she serves, many of them lonely and embittered, now find comfort in the Word of God, brought to them in their isolation. “When we give them the Messenger,” she said, “it’s another world to them.”
Like a solitary figure haunting empty spaces, Yuri often walks his bicycle through modern-day ruins that were once a hospital complex. The doctors and patients are long gone, forced to flee the impending violence. Yuri moves slowly, the weight of a long life made heavier by war. The wrinkles in his tanned, dark skin tell stories his voice doesn’t.
When separatists first took over the town of Seleznivka, they kidnapped Yuri for three weeks. Thinking him an informant for the Ukrainian military, they grilled him about whether he was giving away locations for artillery strikes. To him, his captors were simply criminals indiscriminately killing and destroying—not self-styled freedom fighters. Yuri felt hopeless, caught between sides that didn’t care about him. “Because of the war, I became an atheist,” he said. Yuri is one of millions in eastern Ukraine affected by the conflict. Homes have been destroyed. Factories have closed down. Hope is in short supply.
On receiving a Messenger from a local pastor, Yuri opened up about his lack of faith. “But I will take this gift,” he said, adding that perhaps he would even return to church someday.
As a businessman working late into the night, Nikolai Kuleba often encountered a heartbreaking sight on leaving his office: children living on the streets of Kiev. He would strike up conversations with them and sometimes buy them food, ultimately trying to understand their predicament. Eventually he couldn’t shake the desire to do something about it.
With help from the community, Kuleba opened a daytime center where kids could eat and bathe. Before long it was a network of facilities, and he started finding permanent homes for the children. Kiev’s mayor offered a government position to spearhead a solution to the crisis. Within two years, Kuleba and his team helped all the street children—numbering more than 1,000—get into safe home environments. That unprecedented success caught the eye of Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine, for whom Kuleba now works. As cofounder of Ukraine Without Orphans, a Christian organization, he has the full support of his government to fulfill Psalm 82:3: “Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute.”
Photography by Audra Melton