SOCHI, Russia (BP) — After a long day of performing with her drama team at the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, Tamara Wasylyshyn wanted nothing more than to step into the American fast food chain down the street, eat dinner and rest.
For Wasylyshyn, a Ukrainian-American serving with the ministry outreach effort Engage Sochi, the trip to Russia was a time to confront painful memories of Stalin-era abuses carried out against her family in Ukraine. Though she came to Russia with the network of Southern Baptists sharing the Gospel during the Olympics, it turned into a journey that challenged her to confront a painful past, then help others as they faced crises of their own.
“I had much reluctance in taking a trip to Russia,” she said. “I was not really wanting to deal with that pain, so I worked with the Lord on forgiveness of what was done under communism to my family, many of whom were murdered in the Stalin era. For me to come, I had to clean all that out.”
Wasylyshyn was physically and emotionally tired that night when she was eyeing the nearby restaurant. At that moment one of her team members called her over and mentioned he wanted her to meet a street vendor who was also Ukrainian.
“I said, ‘I’m hungry, I’m going to get something to eat first,'” Wasylyshyn recalled. But one of the vendor’s toy helicopters fell into her hands as she began to walk away.
“This little piece of plastic came flying into me, and I knew immediately that this was the time to speak to this person,” Wasylyshyn said.
The vendor ran over to her and apologized that the toy fell on her. As she spoke with him, the topic turned to Ukraine and the current conflict stirring in the country. His face fell with an expression of hopelessness and sorrow as they discussed their homeland erupting in violence. Wasylyshyn then shared the Gospel and the hope that can be found in Christ.
“We discovered he was open to the Lord, and we prayed with him to accept Jesus. We told him we’d connect him to a body of believers,” she said.
Wasylyshyn’s Ukrainian-American identity opened many doors for her to reach out to Ukrainians during the Olympics. She said she saw grief build behind the eyes of a store clerk when she told him she was Ukrainian. They spoke about the rising tensions, and he appeared sad as he shared with her that he had been calling his family in Kiev every day to see if they were safe.
After listening to him, Wasylyshyn offered to pray for his family and told him about Jesus Christ and the hope found in Him. The clerk asked if he could pray to receive Christ.
“We prayed and he understood everything in terms of accepting Jesus into his heart,” she said. She wrote down his contact information and promised to pass it along to other believers living close to him so he could be connected with them.
Wasylyshyn said most Ukrainians she encountered in Sochi were ready to hear a message of hope once conversations moved past surface level.
“I see that once the guard comes down, the hearts are very soft,” she said. “I see it, and it’s very, very hopeful.”
During her time at the Winter Games, Wasylyshyn said she saw God at work in people’s hearts preparing them to respond to the Gospel. She asked for continued prayer for the people of Ukraine during the coming months.
“Pray for the leadership in the government,” she said. “Pray for everyone who does not walk with God, and pray … that they would seek the Lord instead of man for hope.”
Evelyn Adamson is an IMB writer based in London. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).