Evgenii paused the conversation in our Zoom encounter. He had to plug in his phone, which was running out of ‘juice’. We were thankful that he could actually do this at all, for the day before the chat with this deacon from Zaporizhzhia’s Baburka Baptist Church, the huge nuclear power station there had been disconnected from the national power grid, after fires from shelling cut a power line to the plant. The realisation that we were talking to someone who was so physically close to a potential nuclear disaster was somewhat sobering.
Although we have not reported much on the ministry that Evgenii L'vov is involved in, EMF appeal funds have been used by his church to help support hundreds of fleeing refugees, and to buy one of those famous mini-buses that we seemed to tell you about almost every week in the first period of this stage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The bus has been in non-stop employment ever since it reached Zaporizhzhia, serving the church’s ministry to displaced people, collecting supplies for distribution to the more than one hundred people who queue up almost every day for an aid package, and carrying traumatised people to safety. Being so close to the front line in the east, this church, unlike others farther to the west, is still providing support for a steady stream of incoming refugees from the very worst areas of need; indeed, the van has been ferrying evacuees out of the war zone for months now. On any given day, even at this stage in the war, twelve to twenty people are housed in the shelter on the church premises. What were once Sunday School rooms were rapidly remodelled in early March to give a place of refuge to desperate people from places such as the almost-totally-destroyed Mariupol, or Berdyansk, Kherson, and Donetsk. These traumatised and literally shell-shocked travellers, mainly mothers and children, arrived at the church doors day after day, seeking the first safe place to stay en route to more permanent accommodation. What really surprised us in what Evgenii reported about the church’s shelter and aid work was that refugees had come to Zaporizhzhia from Russian-occupied Kherson, which is so much farther to the west. Why did they go east, into a risky area? Evgenii explained that those fleeing that region had few options other than to go to Zaporizhzhia first of all, as other routes out had been completely destroyed.
We asked whether people fleeing from these war-ravaged cities in the east, whose stories have been told in numerous TV reports, had spoken about their trauma. Evgenii was quiet; he seemed to wonder whether to share anything at all about this. All he could bring himself to say was that most newcomers said nothing at all for a few days, and then, little by little, began to give heart-rending accounts to trusted hearers. Though he is not one of the staff who have been most involved in counselling at the shelter itself, he has listened to horrific stories. Need we say more?
The urgency of the need, along with the despair of the refugees, could have meant that the church’s response would be so ad hoc that it would be, while well-meaning and compassionate, fairly disorganised. The church’s action has been anything but chaotic, however. Evgenii (who is also a lecturer in New Testament and Systematic Theology in the Zaporizhzhia Bible Seminary) set out the principles that undergird this ministry; these tenets ensure that this work has been efficient, full of integrity, compassionate, wise, and Christ-exalting. From the very start, Evgenii affirms, the church has aimed to keep its ministry Biblical, spiritual, and based on truth. The fellowship has been especially concerned to be accountable to those who, like EMF, have been sending resources to them regularly; their dealings with money are rigorously honest and open. A stable team of volunteers, composed of cooks, drivers, and cleaning staff, serves the shelter’s guests, while others in the church, whose membership is around 220, engage in the (almost) daily outreach and prayer.
The fellowship’s outreach is so well-thought-out. The greater part of their contact with displaced people takes place from Monday to Thursday, when representatives from around 50 to 70 families gather at the church. Their identities and refugee status documents are checked, to avoid fraud and to maximise efficiency. These people receive a package of aid, which includes food and hygiene products. Other agencies working in the city are providing food packages too, but the church has been distributing a range of items that may not be included in those aid parcels. Those who have requested aid come early, and queue up for around a couple of hours before distribution begins, so the church holds a short service during this waiting time. Evgenii tells us that this event, made up of prayers, songs, and short evangelistic messages, is attended by the majority of those who come for aid. Most of them are Ukrainian Orthodox, or lapsed Orthodox, in belief, but a few Muslim families also attend. There are always new beneficiaries, and the church tries to provide special support to large families and to those with disabled members.
The Baburka Baptist Church has not ‘grown weary of doing good’ (Galatians 6:9). Between 1,000 and 1,500 refugees have been arriving in Zaporizhzhia every day this summer. On the busiest days, numbers have been closer to 2,000. Meeting the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of these newcomers, who have often paid ‘big money’ to be able to escape the horrors of all they have been experiencing, has been this congregation’s constant concern for six long months now.
We asked Evgenii what his prayer requests would be. Before he told us of any needs, (outlined in the video accompanying this article) this father of two told us that he wanted to thank all EMF supporters for 6 months of support. Apart from the words in the video, he wrote to say:
'Each day, before we start the distribution of the packages, I inform people that everything that they get here is a gift from Christians who live in many countries of our world. Every true Christian, who heard what is going on in Ukraine prays to God for us and for the refugees! In fact, many people who received the packages asked us to extend their gratitude to all who pray and donated to help them.
Therefore, we consider all of you as our co-workers in this ministry for the Lord’s glory and the needy people, who hopefully find not only the provision for their temporal needs, but which is the most valuable, the eternal life through personal encounter with Jesus Christ. '
We told Evgenii that so many people were praying, and that we would especially remember him, his wife Marina, his son Ruslan, and daughter Angelina as they live 40-50 kilometres from the front line, and just forty-five kilometres from the Zaporizhzhia power plant (the largest in Europe) whose stability is in danger. They are in a compulsory evacuation zone (50 km radius) and MUST evacuate if there is any explosion there, though to be honest they lack the transport needed to get everyone out quickly. We see them stand courageously alongside the suffering people of eastern Ukraine, and we admire their compassionate and Gospel-centred ministry, which has, amazingly, helped around 12,000 people with food and hygiene packages, apart from giving shelter to the six hundred people who have passed through the church’s refuge. They want no fuss, they seek no honour, and they understate the effort they have expended over the last few months. We can only praise God for their faithful service, and be encouraged by such deep love for Christ and his cause.