The director of missions mobilization at the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board and his family served as missionaries in Dniprotrovsk, Ukraine, with Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board from 1995-2014.
Dniprotrovsk is in east central Ukraine, about a seven-hour drive east of the national capital of Kyiv. “We were responsible for the IMB work in that region, which is about the size of Indiana, about 7 million people,” Ray said.
“There were about 3,000 towns without evangelistic churches. We were responsible for church planting, discipleship and evangelism projects, and other ministries. During our time on the field, we worked with 180 different church teams. That’s not 180 churches; some churches came to Ukraine 15 years in a row.”
“Our primary work was in church planting,” he said. “That included all that leads up to the planting itself: training church planters, mentoring them and a ton of relationship building.
“You just can’t come in and do anything unless you have a relationship with the people. That requires spending a lot of time with them just to earn ‘street cred.’ You just don’t go into a foreign country and start telling people what to do.
“We did evangelism projects, camps, Vacation Bible School and sports camps. We did lots and lots of medical clinics, probably more than 350 day clinics. We did English language ministries, prayer walking, construction – and no, I never made it to all 3,000 towns,” Ray said with a smile.
While serving in Ukraine, the Rays – Mike, wife Linda, and daughters Rebekah and Hannah – worked under a religious visa at the invitation of the Baptists there, which gave them the freedom to conduct their missions activities even though they aroused suspicion with some in the country where Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox are the predominant Christian faith groups.
“The political people didn’t really receive us well,” Ray said. “They thought Baptists were a cult. … If you aren’t Orthodox, you’re a cult, so people such as the mayor, people in political office … didn’t look favorably on you because they looked down on the people you were serving.
“Baptist evangelicals are a small subculture there. They aren’t really respected or appreciated, but legally, we had every right to be there so we were OK.”
Living through revolutions
The politically-volatile country went through periods of unrest while the Rays served there.
“We had two revolutions,” Ray said. “Let me clarify by saying we aren’t talking about blood-in-the-streets revolutions, but there were times when major elections were overturned by people who didn’t accept the results of those elections.
“We once had a million people in the streets of Kyiv, and military tanks were rolling on the outskirts of the city. There were protests in Dniprotrovsk too. In 2004, there was a major revolution called The Orange Revolution.
“In 2014, the president left the country in the middle of the night when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin took Crimea and invaded east Ukraine, which is the part of the country he is moving into right now.
“That border is about two hours from where we lived, so for about three months we had our ‘go bags’ packed. We didn’t know what was going to be on the news the next morning. We didn’t know if things were going to stabilize, just like we don’t know right now. We just knew we’d have to get in the car and start going west [toward Poland].”
Ray said the future is uncertain for Ukrainian believers.
“There are a lot of churches we were involved in planting that if Putin takes over, those churches will be severely limited – if they stay open,” he said. “The freedom they have will be curtailed. They would be within Russia’s borders, and any evangelical churches behind wherever the Russian line stops will be in dire straits.
“I’m not saying they wouldn’t be able to meet at all, but they’d be very restricted in comparison to what they’ve been able to do all these years. That’s discouraging. You see the progress and things that have happened and with Russia whatever falls behind that red line, the circumstances will change.”
About 75-80 percent of the gross national product of Ukraine comes from the part of the country that Putin apparently covets, Ray said. “That’s where all the mines are. That’s where the steel mills and factories are. That’s where the Antonov planes are made – the largest transport planes in the world.
“Trains, wagons and tanks are all made in that part of the country. Putin would really like to have all that. There are friends we have in the city who wouldn’t want to stay there, but it isn’t like they can just put their house on the market. You just have to walk off and leave everything you have. You’re just displaced.”
In contemplating the present situation for Ukrainian Believers, Ray said, “I wouldn’t advise people who are there what to do. What am I going to tell them? They’re already praying and they’re asking God to not let things happen.
“I could come up with all my platitudes, but my attitude is just to say, ‘Hey, we’re praying for you, we’re behind you, and we love you.’”
Ray encourages Christians around the world to pray for Ukraine. “Pray for the Believers. Pray for the churches. Pray for pastors. Pray for lost people, that somehow their hearts will be open as God speaks to them. They may realize they don’t have anything else to depend on.”