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I arrived in Ukraine in late August, six months after the Russian invasion began. For a week, a journalist colleague and I visited liberated areas and conducted interviews. The war still rages in eastern Ukraine, and despite encouraging signs, it is far too soon to know how it will conclude. But everywhere we went, we met Christians who are leading the difficult work of recovery and reconstruction.

In Lviv, we met Pastor Yuriy Tsimura of the Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith. He told us he has been helping with refugee relief at the border since the first day of the war, bringing tea, borscht, and sandwiches as well as New Testaments. He sent his wife and children out of the country as soon as the conflict began. “They cried, worried, prayed, did not know if we could meet again,” he told me. “I did not sleep or eat for three days.” But as the pastor, he had a responsibility to stay and prepare his church for the conditions of war. “We immediately started fasting and praying. We have a prayer group that has been fasting every day for eleven years—this is a chain of fasts where people constantly fast and pray. We have been praying for Ukraine since 2013, and when full-scale war broke out, very serious fasting and prayer began.”

Tsimura and his church members collected supplies for refugees such as sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, toilet paper, and gasoline for generators. They started a Telegram group to centralize their efforts. The crisis came with a spiritual opportunity. “We shared the gospel as we went to the border to bring food and beverages to people,” he said. “We handed out magazines, New Testaments, and prayed with people. Only one woman gave us back the Bible. People are very open to the gospel—they prayed with tears. We preached Jesus Christ to thousands of people during this time.” A Bible verse was written on each jar of stew that Tsimura's church distributed. Now, the pastor and his parishioners are focused on sending supplies to eastern Ukraine, where help is desperately needed. The Sunday school children write cards for soldiers.

In the liberated areas, reconstruction has begun in earnest. A doctor from Makariv took us to the areas destroyed by Russian bombing and artillery during the Battle of Kyiv. As we drove down a fresh asphalt road, he showed me a video of the same street a few months earlier. In the video, the road was hazy with smoke, littered with cracked trees and shattered houses, and chewed up by tank treads. There are still scores of broken buildings, from a gutted grocery store to charred, skeletal houses—but the trees have been cut down and pruned and the roads have been repaired. When we visited, workmen were halfway finished laying the bricks for a new home. At an apartment complex in Irpin that sustained heavy damage, people were beginning the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding: sweeping broken glass, mowing the grass, painting banisters in front of an apartment with shattered windows.

In Bucha, the Church of the Holy Apostle Andrew became the site of a mass grave that was discovered when the Russians withdrew. The church has now committed to exposing the crimes committed in Bucha and remembering their victims. An elderly woman let us into the sanctuary, which now contains a display of large photographs set up on easels. The photos tell the story: a murdered man with his hands tied behind his back, black-bagged bodies lying in rows, dead civilians in a basement. Pictorial evidence of some of the most horrifying cruelties—one exhumed corpse appeared to have been beheaded—have not been put on display. The townspeople have been reinterred in the local cemetery, and a metal cross has been placed where the mass grave was. Candles and a pile of teddy bears and flowers have been placed in front of it.

In Chernihiv, the Russians bombarded several apartments with rockets. The cardiology building of the local hospital sustained a direct hit. When the war began, the hospital staff soon started treating up to fifty people an hour. At one point, they lost electricity and water. The medical directors said that in the weeks following the invasion—the Russians occupied a semicircle of territory around the city—they were soon dealing with the maladies that set in when civilization grinds to a halt: diarrhea brought about by unwashed hands, sickness brought about by the freezing cold. Ukrainian forces destroyed surrounding bridges to halt the Russian advance, and this meant that some people could not be reached by ambulance. We ourselves had to cross a pontoon bridge to reach Chernihiv—the broken bridge was swarming with workmen. The medical staff we spoke to were angry but resolute. Their hospital, with the exception of the bombed cardiology unit, has been restored to pre-invasion function. When I asked the medical director what worries him the most going forward, he gave a one-word answer: “Winter.”

Some Ukrainians have already recovered their peacetime exasperation with the government. We spoke to a soldier standing sentry in front of a school that was badly damaged during the fighting over Hostomel Airport. There is temporary refugee housing next door, and the school is pocked with shrapnel and broken windows. “This is Ukraine, not America,” he said. “Things take years here. Who knows how many years it will take before any of this is fixed.” As he spoke, he stepped aside and let a handful of schoolchildren toting brooms, dustpans, and buckets up the steps and into the building. 

 At a little village church on the way to Kyiv, we met a priest and his daughter and asked how they were faring. The daughter, a young mother, said that the Russians are hard to forgive. She had heard many stories of atrocities. Then she asked us to pray for peace. Even in war, she said, nothing must distract us from the fact that what matters most is having God in our hearts.

Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist.

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Image by Ministry of Defense of Ukraine licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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