Half-way through the Zoom call, Vitalii turned towards the window and remarked 'That's the all-clear siren'. The interview was taking place in the days following the renewal of attacks on Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities, in which Iranian drones were being used to create fear and chaos, killing civilians, destroying homes, and maiming energy infrastructure.
Home on leave, and in military chaplain's uniform, Vitalii looked well, his smile belying the fact that he has witnessed harrowing scenes that no normal broadcaster would screen; he has had to bury the dead, comfort the traumatised, and find resources to deal with human suffering of a kind that was unknown to him in his role as academic dean at Kyiv Theological Seminary.
He joked about how before the war he had made some comment in a Bible study in Exodus, saying that the church could very well grow. ' I am a prophet!' , he laughed.
The reality is that this church on the left bank of has indeed grown! Though in a way no-one would have predicted.
The services that in pre-war times had a congregation of around 35 are now attended by around 300 people, most of whom are displaced people who initially came seeking food and clothing, but who stayed on to hear a message and to receive Christian literature. Although half of the members evacuated at the beginning of the war, those who remained saw that the Lord was giving them the opportunity to bring the Good News to despairing, needy fellow-Ukrainians. Liuda tells us that there is now no unoccupied or disinterested member in their church. Everyone is engaged in the tasks involved. Even the Mariash children Marianne and Mark have been busy, helping to hand out hot drinks, and putting aid packages together. Liuda, according to Vitalii, 'tries to help everywhere'. She admits that they are all very tired and over-burdened (if extremely happy to see spiritual interest among their fellow-citizens!), and says that they really need help in the different ministries as they reach out in children's work, teenagers' meetings, larger meetings for all ages, and so on.
Vitalii again makes an amusing comment, this time about the church growing in his absence. Martin Tatham reminded him that ths happened to Robert Murray McShane, in whose Dundee church a revival had broken out while he was far away! Vitalii himself has spoken at some of the church's meetings on his return, and must have been tremendously encouraged and strengthened by the notable spiritual concern as he prepared for his return to the front. He has spoken to one lady in Kyiv, for example, who at first had told the church volunteers 'I'm Orthodox; you won't change me!' But she has since started attending baptism classes! She had been impressed, initially, at how all the Evangelical churches were doing so much, in comparison to her own religion.
Like most of the other causes we support, the Bible and Life Church has given out literature on a scale that they have never seen before. Bibles and children's literature disappear from the tables as soon as they are set out.
'We need more Bibles' is the feedback from every church and every worker we speak to.
Liuda's latest work has been to help source, purchase, and hand out blankets to hundreds of families. Hundreds more are waiting to receive a blanket, as the church has run out of supplies. This winter is one that everyone in Ukraine is fearing, with energy cuts already a daily reality. There will be huge demands for alternative ways of helping displaced people (who receive a very small state hand-out) to keep warm, cook, and keep essential means of communication going, so as many solid fuel stoves, generators and power banks as possible will have to be supplied, and warm clothes and bedding must be distributed with some urgency. In Kyiv, though many tried to go home when the latest missile attacks happened in the capital, new refugees have arrived from the eastern cities. Those who come to Kyiv rarely find jobs; Liuda tells us the newcomers have hardly any income, and carry on their shoulders a burden of fear and despair.
(The Mariashs' friend Sasha, whose tireless work with refugees in Chernivtsi has so impressed many of us, was also on this zoom call, and he told Martin Tatham that the need for aid is not diminishing, as the Ukrainian authorities are urging citizens in the east and south-east ( especially from Kharkiv and Nikolaev,in the case of the refugees who come to Chernivtsi) to make sure they get out to somewhere safer soon. The volunteers who work in Sasha's team see new people arrive all the time, even now. And yet there are others who just can't face any more months away from home and familty. They start back for home in the east, and the 'Heart of Jesus' Evangelical church in Chernivtsi tries to make sure they take supplies back with them for what will, without a doubt, be a return to a desolate, war-ravaged town or village.
STOP PRESS: Vitalii has gone back to the front...
On 2nd November, we received a short, poignant message from Vitalii
' I am back to the army now. Time spent with family was great but to depart from them - very painful.'
And on Friday 4th November Liuda sent this message:
'The service of help continues, thanks be to God and to all those who help. We distribute more blankets now, as the lights are turned off 3 times a day, we even work under lanterns. We will buy more food items. Immigrants are very surprised where we have so much opportunity. We testify to them about God, what the Lord is doing through Christians all over the world. People are so moved that they often cry. Thank you very much again! Pray for awakening and victory so that all people can return to their homes.'
We can only imagine just how hard for all of them this latest farewell has been, and how tough these days of power cuts are. We are grateful for everything the Mariash family (and their colleague Sasha) are doing for the cause of the gospel on different fronts.
We know you pray for them. Thank you.