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A year in retrospect: Life and ministry amid war in Ukraine

Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary transformed into a refugee center almost overnight when Ukraine was invaded by Russia one year ago.

A year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, today marks a year of death, devastation, and upheaval even as airstrikes and explosions continue in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions. Although an estimated 8 million Ukrainians have fled the country as refugees, at least 5 million more have been displaced from their homes, and tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict.

Iryna Los

Today also marks a year of the Church’s tireless wartime ministry and relief efforts in Ukraine and in bordering countries. As Ukrainian resident Iryna Los recounts, churches, seminaries and other Christian ministries in Ukraine have united in their efforts to provide food, shelter and Gospel hope to millions. Southern Baptists and other groups have likewise joined these relief efforts. Together, they have testified to the presence and power of God in suffering and have helped the hurting, offering them love and hope in Jesus Christ.

Southeastern (SEBTS) alumna and chief of staff at Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary (UBTS) in Lviv, Ukraine, Iryna distinctly remembers the suspenseful months preceding the invasion as rumors spread and tensions continued to escalate.

“I remember a sort of ambiguity in the air,” Iryna recalled. “On the one hand, we knew the war might come to us in a matter of months, but on the other hand we didn’t believe it would be a full-scale war.”

“We as a seminary had been preparing for war for at least two months,” Iryna said. “We developed an action plan. We bought food, mattresses, fuel, and other items so that we could serve as a refugee center from day one. And that’s exactly what we did on Feb. 24.”

Iryna was at home in Lviv the morning of the invasion. She still vividly remembers her friend Ilona telling her to check the news as the tragedies of the morning began to unfold. Iryna’s ministry changed in that moment.

As the Russian military advanced into Ukraine, UBTS president Slavik Pyzh called Iryna to gather the seminary staff. They divided responsibilities and — that day — turned campus into a humanitarian relief center for refugees.

On the day of the invasion, Iryna also coordinated with her family to relocate her parents to the western side of Ukraine. In the middle of the night, Iryna’s brother-in-law safely transported them to Lviv before moving them further west along with Iryna’s grandmother and her sister’s family. Iryna, however, did not go with her family. Instead, she chose to stay behind.

“I decided to stay in Lviv in order to help at the UBTS refugee center,” she said. “Most of the other staff members did the same. So, we started to serve the people coming to us. There were hundreds of people daily. We would provide housing, meals, hygiene supplies, clothes, and spiritual care to refugees. We would also help refugees relocate to other countries. Meeting these needs has become our 24/7 ministry reality.”

As Iryna recalled, the sorrow and fear that gripped Ukraine quickly turned into a collective spirit of resilience and resolve — even amid the ongoing grief, pain and suffering.

“I remember a mixture of feelings,” Iryna said. “There was a clear understanding that something absolutely evil had happened to our country. There was a lot of pain, deep sadness, anxiety, uncertainty, anger, and fear. But at the same time, there was a lot of courage, strong will, and resolve, as well as a lot of compassion, care, love, unity, and support. Ukrainians were fighting as one nation. We knew what we were fighting for and that we would not give up.”

It was in this context of fear and resolve, suffering and resilience, that Iryna and the other UBTS staff purposed to imitate Christ through acts of sacrificial love and to comfort the hurting with the comfort they had received in Christ.

In just four months, UBTS had sheltered or served more than 10,000 refugees and had helped to transport several hundred tons of humanitarian aid supplies to more than 189 cities and villages throughout Ukraine. Each day, UBTS staff would offer biblical counsel and spiritual care to refugees, host morning devotions, and cultivate Gospel conversations with those who had fled to safety.

UBTS also recognized the need for ministry among the millions of Ukrainians who had been forced to flee to other countries in order to escape the war. Mostly women and children, these refugees dispersed throughout Europe as strangers in new cities and cultures — many without necessary provision or community. That is why UBTS launched a European ministry initiative in March.

“The main idea of the European initiative was to provide Ukrainians abroad with humanitarian aid, Christian counseling, educational programs, and biblical, Gospel teaching,” noted Iryna.

To multiply their efforts in Ukraine, UBTS also partnered with regional churches and organizations to start the WeCare Centers initiative over the summer, creating 13 service centers throughout the country to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of thousands whose lives have been affected by the war.

With a heart to serve her people and extend Christ’s love, Iryna has played an integral role in these ministry efforts at UBTS.

“I was in charge of volunteers at our UBTS refugee center and served as a volunteer as well,” she said. “I was also involved in communications with churches and partners on a daily basis and am one of the leaders of the WeCare Centers Initiative.

“I regularly thank God for the opportunity to do this ministry because it has given me a sense of purpose and a sense of community in these difficult days, which has helped me not to be overwhelmed with fear or anxiety and to do something meaningful instead.”

While coordinating these relief efforts in the spring of 2022, Iryna was also completing her seminary education through a partnership between UBTS and SEBTS. For Iryna, the Great Commission vision of SEBTS became a formative framework for her everyday ministry, as her work among refugees became the testing ground for what she was learning.

“Southeastern is a Great Commission Seminary, and that is the core and the spirit of the school on all levels,” she said. “This emphasis has guided me in my ministry to refugees at UBTS. It also helped me to incorporate missions into the strategic idea behind our WeCare Centers throughout Ukraine.”

Serving also as a ministry-leadership coach in the UBTS women’s ministry program, Iryna has been able to integrate a Great Commission approach into her one-on-one coaching sessions with women’s ministry students at UBTS.

“I want to help them expand their ministry and develop a missional approach to all of life,” she said.

As relief efforts have continued over the past year, the importance of this missional approach has become increasingly apparent to Iryna. God has used the tragedies of war to offer the Ukrainian Church untold ministry opportunities. By God’s grace, churches rose to the challenge and have continued to do so.

“Many churches opened their doors and became 24/7 refugee centers,” Iryna said. “They have served displaced people with housing, food, and humanitarian aid. They have also initiated countless Gospel conversations and started Bible studies and small groups to serve refugees well. Many of these people have started attending churches. These are the realities for today’s churches in Ukraine. That is a big miracle.

“What has been encouraging to witness is the many Gospel conversations that have happened over the past year. Ukrainians are more eager to hear the Gospel.”

For Iryna, Matthew 25:35-36 has been a key verse for her over the past year. Serving others in Christ’s name has been her mantra for wartime ministry. It is also what stands out to her about the support of Christians around the world. She has been profoundly encouraged by the prayers, support and ministry teams from churches and Christian organizations outside of Ukraine.

“We would receive dozens of calls, emails, and Zoom calls from churches and organizations in Europe and the U. S. — each asking the same question: ‘How can we pray for you, and how can we help you?’” Iryna recalled. “That was God’s help and blessing indeed. We would not have been able to serve refugees without the prayers and support of our partners. We would not be able to educate, mentor and coach UBTS students without such help.”

Now a year after the invasion, Iryna’s prayers remain much the same as they were when the invasion first began.

“We have all been praying for God to perform miracles in Ukraine since the first day of the war,” Iryna said. “We have been praying for wisdom for our government, for the army and families of the soldiers, for people who have lost their loved ones, for people who are wounded physically and mentally and need rehabilitation, and for children who are so vulnerable and affected by the war. Tragically, many Ukrainian kids are now drawing a bomb shelter when they are asked to draw a safe place — this represents only a slight dimension of the ugliness of war.”

The need for ongoing prayer and support is not only evident in the stories of Ukrainian children, whose lives have been forever changed by war, but also evident in the stories of millions who have been hurt or displaced by the ongoing conflict. Inviting others to join her in prayer and continue to support the ministry and war-relief efforts in Ukraine, Iryna continues to cling daily to evidences of God’s presence and power at work in their midst.

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  • Chad Burchett/SEBTS