Close to the conflict, Southern Baptists move to prayer over Ukraine

It doesn’t require a personal connection with the country of Ukraine to pray on its behalf. But for many Southern Baptists, the ongoing invasion and fighting there has made it personal nonetheless.

Those prayers were lifted on the outskirts of Cleveland at Mercy Hill Chapel, a Southern Baptist congregation that features sermons in both Ukrainian and English. Pastor Oleh Zhakunets’ message Feb. 27 was based on the book of Matthew and didn’t address his native country directly. But it is evident, he said, that the situation in Ukraine is never far from congregants’ minds.

“I would describe it as a ‘heavy’ atmosphere in church right now. And though what I preached yesterday wasn’t particularly somber, there would be language or terms that affected people and made them think about Ukraine,” he said.

Zhakunets was four years old in 1988 when he, his brother and parents escaped the former Soviet Union in a minivan, making their way to Austria and then Italy. His father later helped other family members escape. They eventually joined others settling in Cleveland.

He has extended family in Ukraine, but spends the majority of time checking in with ministry partners there. Confusion contributes to the tension, as differing media reports can paint various pictures of the situation.

“They’re trying to know what to believe, and what you believe affects how you react,” he said. “Some are leaving with their families, but others are wrestling with whether they should stay. Others struggle with how the church should be involved. Should they take up arms? All of that is being processed.”

Frank and Suzanne Bennett became linked to Ukraine when they adopted two brothers and a sister from an orphanage there in 2012. Bennett serves as pastor of Lake Pointe Church in Emerson, Ga.

“We’ve very heartbroken about everything that’s going on,” he said. “We love the Ukrainian people. They’re very rich in family and culture, and very determined.”

While preaching on a mission trip to the country, he recalled a group of older ladies who had walked five miles to attend. He was struck by their resolve and hunger for the Word of God.

“I’m not surprised at all by the determination of [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy] and the people,” Bennett noted. “They love their country, and the world is seeing it.”

That love of country takes a twofold meaning for the Bennetts, who had three biological children prior to adoption. One of their Ukrainian sons recently joined the U.S. Marines and added a new tattoo reflecting the phrase “Who can stand against” from Romans 8:31.

“They’re very proud [of their Ukrainian heritage]. They’re Americans, but have dual citizenship,” said Bennett.

Pastor Bogdan Kipko of Forward Church in Irvine, Calif., led his congregation in prayer for strength, courage and perseverance in Ukraine as well as for safety amid threats and imminent conflict.

“We believe that when the nations rage and the people plot in vain, [that] God, we know You are in control,” prayed Kipkin, who emigrated to the United States with his parents – like his wife, Victoria, did with hers – from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

“God, we don’t have to fully understand everything, to fully trust You with everything. And so … we bring to You the country of Ukraine in our prayers,” he petitioned.

Support was shown not only in prayer, but in song. At Forest Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, Andrew Causey sang a verse of “You Are My All in All” in Ukrainian before being joined in English by his father, Wayne, who serves the church as associate pastor of music and worship. Andrew Causey is a member of Rocky Valley Baptist Church in Lebanon, Tenn.

Forest Hills has knit itself to the country through mission work as well as adopting children from Ukraine, explained Wayne Causey. Andrew talked of his friend, Bogdan, whom Andrew met while doing street drama there. Over a messaging app, Bogdan said he would be watching the Forest Hills service.

“I want Bogdan to know that we’re praying for him as he hopes to evacuate his wife,” said Andrew. “He hasn’t been able to get back to her, and this is a story of thousands [of people].”

Singing it together connected fellow believers not just across distances, but across times, he added.

“We’re singing it with our brothers and sisters who have sung and will sing this song,” he stated.

Gary Chadwick, a Southwestern Seminary alum and minister at Life.Church in Norman, Okla., flew to Poland over the weekend to marry his fiancé, Oksana, who left Ukraine by train. The two met in 2019 when he was in the country doing mission work, something in which he’s been involved since 2010.

Because the American embassy in Ukraine has been shut down, Chadwick told BP he can use a neighboring country’s embassy services — in this case, Poland.

Oksana’s elderly parents and brother are staying in Ukraine, Chadwick said. Their city of Yuzhnoukrains’k has not seen fighting yet, but expects it at any time due to it being the home of the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant.

“The city is very tense,” said Chadwick. “Her father was in the military for much of his life and a carpenter.”

“I’m hurt, and I’m sad,” added Oksana. “I’m angry, watching these things happen to my country.”

Zhakunets agreed that while there is belief that God is in control, there is also a frustration among Ukrainian Americans.

“They’re trying to figure out how to be faithful Christians despite the anger they feel. The most prevalent feeling is powerlessness. People go to rallies and try to do things to show their support, but then they call loved ones and hear that they’re hiding in their basements.

“There’s not much we can do on our own,” he said, “but this drives us to the Lord and prayer.”

— Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.