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New identities and traditions: An interview with two Christian pastors in Ukraine

In early March I led a retreat on “Theologies of Risk and Suffering” with seven Ukrainian pastors outside Kyiv. From remarkably different backgrounds, Alexander Nikolaeev and Robert Shpontak described their work in a free-flowing conversation. Alexander lived for nearly 40 years in Ukraine as part of the U.S.S.R. Robert, a boy when Ukraine declared independence, remembers little of that time. Currently Robert serves as a pastor and teacher in peaceful western Ukraine, while Alexander is a lay pastor near the eastern conflict zone. Thanks to Rev. George de Vuyst for translating.

New identities and traditions: An interview with two Christian pastors in Ukraine

In early March I led a retreat on “Theologies of Risk and Suffering” with seven Ukrainian pastors outside Kyiv. From remarkably different  backgrounds, Alexander Nikolaeev and Robert Shpontak described their work in a free-flowing conversation. Alexander lived for nearly 40 years in Ukraine as part of the U.S.S.R. Robert, a boy when Ukraine declared independence, remembers little of that time. Currently Robert serves as a pastor and teacher in peaceful western Ukraine, while Alexander is a lay pastor near the eastern conflict zone. Thanks to Rev. George de Vuyst for translating. 

Christian Courier: Alexander, during our introductions yesterday you said you’d spent years as an atheist.  

Ministry amid conflict

Ministry in Ukraine has become ministry amid conflict. Pastors, especially those ministering in eastern Ukraine’s occupied territories, feel this acutely. One such pastor and friend is Yuri Ochkalov, working in the occupied city of Donetsk. We met when he attended a Timothy Leadership Training (TLT) in Cherkassy, Ukraine. He immediately saw the program’s value and arranged a training session for me to lead close to the front lines of the tension between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists. We met in a church camp that was turned into a centre for internally displaced people. On the way we were escorted through three military checkpoints and alongside fields posted with signs saying, “Caution! Land mines!” every five meters.

The leaders who gathered from both sides of the front lines received the training well and began to implement their plans. The number of trainees continues to grow. But, sadly, the conflict has also grown. Yuri lives in his Donetsk church; separatist missiles destroyed his home in 2014. 

Tensions this year have increased; people can no longer travel freely across the front lines near Donetsk. But that hasn’t stopped Pastor Yuri from practicing what he learned, as a living witness of 2 Timothy 2:2, TLT’s foundational verse: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Pastor Yuri now leads his own group of trainees inside occupied Donetsk.  Together they are learning and growing in “Caring for God’s People,” “Christian Stewardship” and “From Harm to Honour in the Family.”

Please join us in thanking God and praying for Pastor Yuri, for peace in Ukraine, for God’s Kingdom to come and his will to be done here in Ukraine and around the world.

    Rev. George de Vuyst has been a missionary with Resonate Global Mission to Ukraine for many years, working in pastoral leadership training across denominational lines as well as in a ministry of reconciliation and restoration.

Alexander: After my second marriage I kept trying to convince my wife’s family God didn’t exist. I was militant, fiery. I even wrote an angry poem ‒ unfinished ‒ about why God didn’t exist. 

Yet today you’re a church worker. What changed your life?
Alexander: A few times in my life everything turned around abruptly. My wife was working all day; I was cooking while listening to the radio. The speaker said that Jesus had reached a high level of Buddhist consciousness between ages 12 and 30. So, when he was crucified, he didn’t suffer. 

Suddenly I was convinced this was baloney and as suddenly I accepted Jesus as truly the son of God, who suffered, died and arose ‒ as I’d heard from believers. That was how God evangelized me. I immediately I called my wife’s family and told them I was a believer. They said I had to repent, but I wasn’t ready yet. 

About six weeks later I went to their home. God drew me to my brother-in-law.

No one told me to do anything, but I prayed with him and stood up realizing that God had forgiven me. From that moment everything changed. It was a Tuesday in December 1991. 

But our village had no church. Our “church” was reading the Bible with my wife and two sons. Two and a half years later, I went to church for the first time on another Tuesday; I was baptized on a Sunday, though.

Robert, was there a time when you weren’t a Christian? 
Robert:
That’s a long story. My grandmother and mother were Reformed, my father Orthodox. I was baptized Orthodox, since customarily boys go to their father’s church and girls to mother’s church. My mother didn’t want her children separated, so my sister was also baptized Orthodox.

My mother and grandmother couldn’t worship often, because in Soviet times there were few pastors. They never knew if there would be a service. People would go to church, waiting for a pastor who might show up or not.

This was also when government officials kept tabs on people who went to church. They’d hold meetings at school, saying how terrible it was to go to church. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a new young pastor came; he’d been trained in Hungary. We went with my mom to the Hungarian Reformed Church. My father asked, “Why are our kids going to the Reformed Church, if they were baptized Orthodox?” Mom said, “Go ahead, take them to the Orthodox Church.” He never asked again. 

Did you have any church school education?
Robert:
Youth work started after Ukraine’s independence. I played with Hungarian kids from the Reformed Church. They invited friends to catechism, but with mixed motives. 
The teacher assigned Heidelberg Catechism questions to memorize. The more students, the fewer questions to memorize. I made profession of faith when I was 14, but didn’t understand anything. 

Later at youth camp I heard fear-motivated sermons: If you don’t accept Jesus, you’ll be condemned. Though it was bad motivation, that prodded my curiosity to examine the faith, to seek Jesus. Still, not until I was 20 did I make a conscious decision to follow Jesus.

Did you have trouble getting Bibles?
Robert:
I learned the Bible because our neighbours were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They gave my grandmother an audio cassette Bible. Grandma was a clever evangelist; she claimed she didn’t know how to use the cassettes and made me listen to the tapes with her three or four times.

Do you remember times of tension about religion before independence?
Robert:
When my grandmother began to work, she moved from her village to Uzhgorod in western Ukraine. She didn’t understand Russian, only Magyar. She had to take an orientation and propaganda class and afterwards sign a book. She asked what the book said. The instructor said, “There’s no god.” She said, “Why should I?” He answered: “After I talked for two hours, everybody else signed. Why not you?” She didn’t sign, but got absolute minimum salary. 

For centuries, Ukraine was a vassal state of different empires. Has that affected Ukrainian national identity?
Alexander
: Until perestroika people in eastern Ukraine identified as Soviet citizens. Propaganda condemned western Ukrainians as nationalists, followers of patriot Stefan Bandera. So we had a low view of western Ukrainians. Until the 2013 Revolution, very few in eastern Ukraine had a sense of Ukrainian identity. 

Most people didn’t like government. Jokes mocked communist officials. With Ukraine’s independence, many, but not all, were happy. I was a commercial artist and had to make banners celebrating the government. I wasn’t critical. In fact, I was ready to become communist after Gorbachev came to power. I believed what he said. After I became a believer bigger things changed in me. 

Robert: Here’s a telling story about Ukrainian identity. A newspaperman asks an old man, “Tell me the story of your life.” He replied: “I was born in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. I went to school in Czechoslovakia. I got married in Hungary. I went to work in the Soviet Union and retired in Ukraine. 

“Wow,” said the reporter, “Your life story covers the history and geography of Europe.” 

“Maybe so, but I’ve never left Mukachuvo [in western Ukraine].”

The mentality of Ukrainians today began taking form in the 16th and 17th centuries because of oppression by three powers: Catholic West/Poland, Russian and the Ottoman Empire. So what’s our identity? “I’m not that, that or that.” 

Jesus said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” What did that mean during Soviet rule?
Alexander
: In Soviet times, I gave whatever I gave to Caesar and nothing to God. I did military service, voted in elections. In 1968 when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia ‒ combined with their 1956 Hungarian invasion ‒ I had a negative view of government. But Ukraine was still better off than other Soviet Bloc nations.

Oddly, when I became a believer, I no longer wanted to leave Ukraine ‒ even though nothing had changed. 

Robert: I didn’t live in the Soviet Union very long. I don’t know anyone who lived by Jesus’ words; there was no way to escape Caesar. The state took whatever it wanted. Here the ideology was “to serve in the army is good.” Some didn’t want to, some went because of duty, some because of honour. 

Now I pay taxes as my civic duty as a faithful religious worker. But that’s not part of our culture. People have no idea why they pay taxes; there’s no history, no sense of taxes doing anything. 

Government doesn’t have a history of accounting how it uses “our” money. Only since the 2013 Revolution are people talking about what government is doing. But accountability is virtually non-existent.

Recently citizens began thinking, “If a law’s bad, change it.” Before, the idea was, “If a law’s bad, find loopholes.”

How do you develop a Christian lifestyle?
Robert
: We’re stuck between two extremes. In some churches, nothing is allowed ‒ no TV, radio, musical instruments, birthday celebrations; women must be completely covered. Another extreme permits everything ‒ free sexual activity, excess drinking. 

For me, here’s the discernment principle: “Nothing must have power to harm me or others.” That’s not easy, but if I’m asked, “Is drinking or smoking sinful?” Well, if it’s your last kopek ‒ yes. But given a context, wine too is a gift from God. 

The greater problem, though, is that people want pastors to give orders. That’s “party mentality.” Soviet policy never allowed people to think, to judge, but merely to give rote answers. The Communist Party had the answer.

Alexander: Trouble is, people who don’t know how to think are susceptible to authoritarians from the West. I’ve seen self-serving American church leaders come to a village, put on a show of giving “humanitarian aid,” then head to other villages ‒ with all the same people following. That doesn’t help anyone. It seems those leaders want to deceive themselves, to feel good. But they never dig out the common people. 
 
How do you teach your congregations to make informed choices to live for Jesus?
Alexander: Our handbook should be Scriptures, with traditions founded on Scriptures. If Scripture doesn’t speak concretely, we shouldn’t create detailed codes. Some insist that men don’t wear ties, because ties point downward ‒ “to hell!”  Principles of “no offense” are much more useful, but not easy to codify. Still, if Scriptures don’t speak, don’t invent. 

Such legalism is a legacy from the whole system. Dogged people who didn’t conform were hunted down, rooted out and, in some cases, killed. This happened within churches too. That is, one couldn’t become a pastor unless they conformed to party wishes for church behaviour. 

If a church was independent, it wouldn’t survive. Conformity was the easier way. Also, church leaders who were accepted by the government began to lord it over others; their leaders behaved like government leaders.

Robert: In such a situation, when people made a decision the legalist church wouldn’t accept ‒ like a woman marrying a man outside the church ‒ she was shunned. The church couldn’t think through such issues. I’ve begun to learn how to break down such fixed positions. 

I come with open questions, asking people to explore, express what’s going on inside. I don’t have to make a decision; the people must. Even if I don’t approve, I will show respect, while they deal with consequences. 

That’s not easy. Neutral, open questions are hard to frame, but they put responsibility on the person, not on outside power or a source of authority. Too often leaders come with answers, but never listen. It’s hard to change that habitual closed-ness. 
 

About the Author
New identities and traditions: An interview with two Christian pastors in Ukraine

James Dekker

Jim Dekker works part-time for Resonate Global Mission, a wonderful job that occasionally takes him overseas to meet more of God’s wonderful people.

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