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Ukrainians, Southern Baptists connect amid war in Gospel-based online ESL group

Billy Hoffman and Valeriy Ryakukha in Kyiv. Photo submitted by Billy Hoffman

CHERNIHIV, Ukraine (BP) – As Russia declared war on Ukraine, Eunege and his wife Julia rushed to buy a car as their vehicle of escape from Chernihiv, ground zero of the onslaught.

Billy Hoffman, co-director of missions for First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., reached Eunege on the phone. The two were conversation partners in a Ukraine-U.S. English-as-a-second-language (ESL) group co-founded by Hoffman, a former International Mission Board executive.

“I just was feeling concerned one time, and I called them on What’s App, and they were actually getting in the car and leaving Chernihiv, at that moment,” Hoffman told Baptist Press a year later. “She was really panicked, being in the basement and everything,” Hoffman said of Julia, “and he was able to go buy a car and they left.”

Newlyweds, Eunege and Julia accepted Christ and were baptized together just four months before the war began. They have been discipled while honing their English through their relationships with members of Nashville First Baptist who serve as conversation partners from afar.

Eunege was among about 12 members of the ESL group who met on Zoom on the war’s first anniversary, including members from Ukraine and members of Nashville First Baptist. He has enlisted in the Ukrainian military and is stationed in western Ukraine while Julia finds safety in Japan.

“I remember sometimes at night was so light like the day, because every bomb, as I understand, was dropped on our city,” Eunege told the group as they remembered the war’s beginning. “Yes for me it was very dangerous, and especially for my wife.”

Eunege had grown up near a military base and was better equipped to handle the sound of war, but his wife was very afraid, he told the group. It was too dangerous to leave with Russian troops patrolling the roads, but the couple escaped after a few weeks by intricately evading soldiers.

The ESL group had last met on Zoom Feb 22, 2022, two days before the war began. The members were then scattered.

Ukrainian group members expressed shock at the war, but thanked the U.S. and other countries for their support.

Valeriy Ryakukha, who helped Hoffman found the ESL group before the COVID-19 pandemic, is now in Virginia after fleeing Odessa.

“Ukraine would be already dead” were it not for America’s support, Ryakukha said.

Hoffman met Ryakukha in 2010 when Ryakukha was enrolled in the one-year Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, a competitive international leadership program run by the U.S. State Department. Ryakukha was developing a program he could use in Ukraine to help middle school students avoid drug abuse. Hoffman and his wife Ruth served as Ryakukha’s American friendship family, about five years before Hoffman retired as director of development at the International Mission Board.

“When I first met Valeriy, I started a conversation about faith and his comment was interesting. He said, ‘I have feelings but no knowledge,’” Hoffman said. “He was exploring faith through the year, but he did not confess Christ until he went back to Ukraine.”

Olga lived amid bombing and street fighting in Chernihiv for weeks before finding an opportunity and means to flee to Europe.

“A lot of bombs. We hear a lot of weapons above our heads,” Olga told the group. “I understand every kind of weapon I heard. … A lot of bombs killed a lot of people from Chernihiv. … All my relatives say, we are from Soviet Union. Russia is our brothers. This not happen; it’s not real.” Every second, she supposed it would stop. “But it continued and continued, this time.”

Mykhailo Barabanov had no time to escape as the war began.

“Our village was captured the first day. Our village located the shortest way from Russian border, to Chernihiv Oblast then Kyiv,” he said. “I was shocked. I was scared. We did not have any chance to escape because all bridges were destroyed. We stayed in our village. Russian troops stayed in our village. They captured the center of village. Part of our village was completely blocked. We just thought how to survive these circumstances.”

Residents ate whatever food was not confiscated by Russian soldiers, Barabanov said, in the 36 days he remained before escaping.

“Russian troops robbed all shops. They captured small clinics in our village,” he said, although pharmacists were able to hide some medications to treat Ukrainians. “One man in our village was killed the first day, and then nobody was hurt as I know.”

Anastasia lived with her son near the Russian boarder. She knew the war was possible, but was shocked when a friend called in the early morning hours to say it had begun.

She and her son each filled backpacks and piled in the car with friends to flee, first to Kyiv and then further west. They stayed in the car the two days it took to find lodging.

“It was our little home. We were exhausted. We wanted to sleep on the bed, but it wasn’t possible.”

She and her son stayed in another city a week before fleeing to Poland. She was worried for her mother, who remained in a village under attack in Chernihiv. Her mother lived in a wine cellar with neighbors, the Russian military not allowing them to flee. Her family home was destroyed in the war.

“I was terrified at the beginning of March (2022),” she said. “But I couldn’t do anything, because I was in Poland. … I’ve lost my childhood house and we lost everything.” Anastasia lived with four others in a tiny room in Poland before finding a hosting family in the U.K., where she now resides.

Christina Bondarenko is the twin sister of Julia, Eunege’s wife. Bondarenko was in Germany when the war began. Afraid for her mother and sister in Ukraine, she tried to convince them to flee days ahead of the war. When the war began, Bondarenko said her sister cried daily.

“My sister, she called me on the 24th of February and said Christina the war has begun and we are hearing shooting. And I was absolutely shocked. I was so devastated. I could not believe it really happened and especially was angry with myself that maybe I wasn’t persistent enough,” she told the group. “I didn’t persuade them to come over to Germany and now they had to hide themselves in a very cold food storage.”

First her sister and then her mother fled the war zone, sharing a tiny room before her sister made it to Japan. “At least it was better than hiding themselves in that cold food storage, underground.”

Prayer offered Bondarenko solace.

“There was only one thing left. Praying. And I was praying, my sister she was crying. She called me and we talked and she said you know Christina, I feel like God doesn’t love me. She said God loves you, but He doesn’t’ love me because I’m … in this war,” Bondarenko told the group. “I told her to don’t ever, ever think that God doesn’t love you, and there is a purpose for everything and you must believe that. The enemy wants you to believe God doesn’t love you, because as soon as you believe in his lie, he will be able to manipulate you.”

Svetlana joined the Zoom reunion for a portion of the call. Her family is separated between Ukraine and Germany.

“Every day my family members, my relatives, my friends are alive, and their house exists,” she told the group, “it is good day for me.”

Hoffman’s friendship with Ryakukha gave him the notion that ESL conversations could be used to help spread the Gospel abroad. With Ryakukha, a licensed ESL teacher, the two launched the program in Ukraine. The group first met in a public library with Hoffman participating on Zoom. He recruited members of Nashville First as conversation partners. Hoffman continues to meet weekly with Eunege on Zoom, but others in the group are not always able to meet weekly.

Hoffman believes conversation partners could be used to spread the Gospel in places where Southern Baptist missionaries are already active.

“If all of our missionaries around the world who are teaching ESL as a way to spread the Gospel, if they would incorporate a way for Americans over here – since we can now technologically do that – to be conversation partners,” he told Baptist Press, “that would just be another voice of sharing the Gospel.”

Training, education and safeguards could be incorporated into the program.

“I know there are literally hundreds of thousands of Christians in America that would be happy to engage in that conversation and be able to share their own testimony and God’s love,” Hoffman said. “As far as being able to be a partner in 30 minutes a week, having a conversation with somebody and being able to share their story and hear (the other’s) story, and being able to be a friend to them, it’s amazing how your heart gets wrapped around.”