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Ukrainians carry Gospel from their homeland to Kazakhstan

PAVLODAR, Kazakhstan (BP)–Roman Gopanchuk gestures with his left hand and leans forward to explain a Scripture passage to his home Bible study group in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan.

Just outside the living room door, Gopanchuk’s 8-year-old son Timofey plays with Russian-speaking children. After a year of repeated asthma attacks, Timofey can finally breathe freely. And with their son’s health restored, so can Roman and his wife Viktoria.

The Gopanchuks first considered serving as missionaries in Kazakhstan after reading an article about Pavlodar in a quarterly magazine published by the Ukrainian Baptist Union. As they learned about the need for missionaries there, Viktoria says her son’s asthma played a significant role in their decision to move from their home in Lutsk, Ukraine.

“We were thinking and praying a lot about what to do because treating him and the medicine, they didn’t help,” Roman says. “Some people advised us to move from where we had lived.”

Roman and Viktoria contacted Franz Tissen, president of the Baptist Union of Kazakhstan, who invited the Gopanchuks to serve in Pavlodar.

“Living in the Ukraine, we were absolutely sure God wanted us in Kazakhstan,” Roman says. “And when we arrived here, one of the brightest examples is that our son has not had an asthma attack since we came here.”

Because of Ukraine’s wealth of religious freedom and its strategic geographic location connecting Russia to the West, Ukraine is commonly considered the “bread basket” of Christianity in the former Soviet Union.

In fact, since the collapse of communism 15 years ago, the Ukrainian Baptist Union has planted 1,900 churches. But despite the growing number of church plants, Bible institutes and theological education programs in Ukraine, fewer than 2 percent of Ukrainians profess to be evangelical believers.

“We still have a lot to do here,” says Mick Stockwell, International Mission Board strategy associate for Ukraine, Belarus and satellite regions. Until now, he explains, Ukraine has been a receiving culture. “Everything’s been about what people bring to them; what people do for them. They are just now working on what it means to go on mission trips, to be called, to search and know God’s will.”

Since July 2005, IMB missionary Joe Ragan has partnered with both Ukraine and Kazakhstan Baptist leaders to recruit Ukrainian believers like the Gopanchuks to serve as missionaries to Kazakhstan.

Because of Kazakhstan’s diverse population, Ragan explains, missionaries have a unique opportunity to reach a wide range of people groups with the Gospel. Just over half of the Central Asian nation’s population is ethnically Kazakh, while the remaining inhabitants are comprised of Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans and various other ethnic groups.

“For me, the important thing is for Ukrainians to discover there’s a world outside of Ukraine, and that they can be a part of that work,” Ragan says. “Many of them have probably seen American missionaries come to their country and do mission work. And so they never thought that they, themselves, could be a part of something like that and go to another country.”

The Gopanchuks are only one of several Ukrainian families who have spoken with Ragan about the possibility of relocating to Kazakhstan to serve as long-term missionaries. As Ukrainian believers begin to leave their homeland to share Christ in other parts of the former Soviet Union, Stockwell and Ragan agree Ukrainians have access to places where Americans might have difficulty serving.

“An American passport is not always welcome in every country simply because they know we’re a ‘Christian’ nation,” Ragan says. “But Ukrainians don’t have that history. So they have more opportunities to go all around this world, especially in countries closed to the Gospel.”

Although the Kazakh government has placed some restrictions on missionary work in the country, Ragan says believers can work within the context of those restrictions and still complete their missionary task of planting churches.

For the Gopanchuks, the primary goal is to plant churches in a city of 350,000 people, where only one Baptist church exists.

“If God wants us to create another church here in Pavlodar,” Roman says, “I don’t know how much time it will take, but I know it’s all in God’s hands, and He can do everything.”
Kristen Hiller is a writer-photographer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Dec. 2-9, focuses on missionaries who serve in the former Soviet Union as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

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  • Kristen Hiller