There are a number of images from the war in Ukraine that most of us will carry with us for the rest of our lives. Do you remember that bridge in Irpin? The one that was shelled mercilessly by Russian troops while civilians were desperately attempting to cross to safety? Reporters from all over the world witnessed the death of the members of a family, and we later learnt that the young man who lay lifeless beside them was a member of Irpin Bible Church This is a congregation that has been receiving support from EMF’s Ukraine Emergency Appeal funds since we received a call for help on their behalf via our trusted missionary Vitalii Mariash.
One of the seven pastors of the church, Vasyl Ostriy, recently told us more about those days early on in the war, when tanks moved against this city in the Kyiv Oblast province in their attempt to advance towards the capital itself, with Russian forces shelling the buildings and streets incessantly. Those citizens of Irpin who had cars in the city left if they could (no buses or trains were running, though that escape by car was a dangerous journey along dark and perilous back roads, aiming to avoid Russian fire along the main highways).
And so it was that a large part of the population was trapped in this war zone, with the authorities absent. Some of the terrified residents of the city tried to flee to safety across the River Irpin, gingerly stepping on precariously-placed planks that formed a makeshift bridge over rushing water before being helped onto buses. It was March, you will recall, and the civilians whose feet were desperately trying to avoid stepping into the freezing stream included elderly grandmothers, disabled folk on crutches, and entire families who were carrying a few belongings, bags whose bulk made crossing even more of a challenge.
By this time, the church members in Irpin were organising themselves to be of assistance to their fellow citizens. One of the young men who went out to risk his life on that most dreadful of March days, offering help to the struggling evacuees, was Anatoly Berezhnyi , who had been involved in the IT ministry in the church. He had already managed to get his wife and family to safety in the West, but returned from the safer city of Rivne (where Pastor Vasyl had also taken refuge at the start of hostilities, along with his wife and four daughters), to assist others. As Anatoly (26) was helping Tetiana Perebyinis, (43), and her two children, Mykyta, (18), and Alisa,( 9,), Russian mortar fire hit this young father, and he lost his life alongside the Perebyinis family.
Vasyl Ostriy tells us all this in a tone that is utterly devoid of melodrama. Yet it is a remarkable account. The fact is that days before the Ukrainian government arrived back on the scene (this did not happen until early March) to try to help rescue the inhabitants of Irpin, where half of the city was occupied by Russian troops, Irpin Bible Church in Ukraine’s ‘Bible Belt’ had been almost the only place to which many desperate people could go to for help, and the only organisation helping evacuate traumatised inhabitants when this city felt utterly alone.
It was a refuge for 200-300 people when there was no electricity in Irpin, for, with the foresight of a man who had been watching events unfold with pessimism, Vasyl, even before the war broke out, had encouraged his church to buy a generator, fuel, and food supplies. For the first two weeks, frightened citizens who sought shelter on the premises were fed and protected, even when they heard Russian tanks draw near, and as they felt mines explode around the premises.
During this terrifying time, the pastors and members cried with their neighbours, loved them, fed them, and counselled them. The scenes that met Vasyl on his return — for ‘return’ is , amazingly, what Vasyl did — from the relative safety of Rivne to the horrors of Irpin, were apocalyptic. He said that even the dogs on the street looked absolutely devastated. A few traumatised folk wandered among the debris, and Vasyl and his church team hugged them and brought them into the warmth of the church shelter.
Then, when things were ‘quieter’ (this is a relative term), the church leaders organised a remarkable evacuation effort. From the churches in Rivne and with the helpp of volunteers from Chernivtsi, Ternopil and other towns and cities, cars and vans were mobilised in a kind of ‘Dunkirk’ operation. The drivers risked their lives to bring out an astonishing number of people — some 3,500 in all — in a short time, relaying evacuees to safe half-way-houses, setting up their own re-fuelling and rest stations along the way, and organising shifts that ensured a rotation of helpers, so that no single person was carrying too much of the load.
We tried to imagine the hopelessness of this situation.
It made us wonder how these people found the strength to carry on.
‘What kept you from despair?’ we asked Vasyl.
This is no super-man. He at once confessed that he often felt alone with the frightening thoughts that assailed him, and he knew he was unprepared for such a mission as had been thrust upon him; night-times were hard; there was a deep fear which reached his very core, a sensation which only diminished when utter exhaustion allowed him to get a few hours’ sleep. But Vasyl explained that a friend from the U.S. had once given him some advice, which came back to his fraught mind in his lonely hours, when leadership burdens felt overwhelming.
He cited the words that had helped him. They are extremely simple pieces of advice, but Vasyl clung onto them.
‘If you think you have lost everything:
· The Lord is alive, and is with you, and knows everything.
· Trust the Lord in your situation.
· Think about one small thing you can do, and do your best.’
So it was that he and his colleagues took several small steps of faith each day, but these steps of faithful trusting service helped the team to have the confidence in their God that allowed them to lead others through the storm of war. This Christ-honouring confidence has also led Vasyl and the Irpin Bible Church, along with volunteers who moved to Rivne to support the refugees there, to set up a church for displaced believers in Rivne, and to keep two Sunday services going in Irpin throughout even the worst days of the siege. The most amazing fruit is perhaps the opening of 6 volunteer centres, two in Irpin, and the rest in other areas such as Borodyanka and Hostomel, places whose names are sadly all-too-familiar to us. These centres distribute aid of all kinds, work with children and young people, give psychological support, and are ‘prayer centres’, in which evangelistic events also take place. In one of the centres in Irpin, forty to sixty unbelievers attend each Sunday.
A book could already be written about the fruit they are seeing from this ministry.
More centres in the future?
Vasyl seems totally fired up by all of this. He wants to open two more centres,though admits that other colleagues urge him to slow down a little. Nevertheless, he is more zealous than ever, praying for church planters, and for the volunteer centres to become the bases from which evangelism takes place and on which new churches are established. He is sad that some believers have opted out of this mission, but tells us that he is also thankful to the Lord that other new helpers are stepping up to the plate, with vision and enthusiasm. They still need support for humanitarian aid, of course, but Vasyl’s prayer requests have prioritised spiritual needs. (See prayer pointers below.)
This a story that has not reached the headlines. But it is an amazing feat by people whose only desire was to be faithful to the Lord they loved at a moment of crisis that has tested their faith to the limit. We have not even been able to hear it until very recently, as Vasyl and this group of believers have been far too busy to spend much time chatting on social media! We know you will be as excited as we are to hear what the Lord has been building amidst the destruction and debris of Irpin.