Oksana Zarytska...one of those who stayed behind.
Oksana sat in the peaceful interior of the Osnova Baptist Church in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine. It could have been a scene from inside any well-appointed church in the US Bible Belt. Neutral-coloured walls, healthy pot plants, grey upholstered chairs, and a huge painting of a woman going towards the empty tomb, with the words from 2 Corinthians 4:14: 'knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus.' Words of great comfort for a distressed group of believers who feared for their lives on a daily basis.
But this is not Texas or North Carolina. It is Kharkiv. Ukraine's second city, less than an hour's drive from the Russian border, and while within these walls there is peace, outside and not far away there are bombed-out buildings and all the signs of a city where many of its inhabitants have driven away to as safe a place as they can find. Businesses in ruin, shell-pocked roads, and once-bustling streets with little life upon them.
By the time we spoke to Oksana, she and the others she had been helping for two months were seeing Russian foot-soldiers being driven back towards the Russian border. The BBC's Quentin Sommerville reported that sirens were going off less frequently than before; the pounding of shells and missiles was not as merciless. But during those two months of brutal attack it had felt as if Kharkiv could have fallen. Oksana, her husband Vladimir, and church deacon Anton were among those in the Osnova church, pastored by Chornoblavsky Anatoly Fedorovich, who were doing their best to help keep their most vulnerable church members (and others from outside the fellowship) alive. Oksana reckoned that 70% of the city's younger population had left the city, but she and others in the church were convinced that they had to stay. Stay, because they were the only ones who could get to the elderly, the weak, the ill, the disabled, providing them with food and medicine and encouragement whenever they could get out to do so.
'So did you shelter in basements during the bombing, Oksana?', we asked. 'No', was the firm reply. 'We had nowhere like that to hide. Five of us adults and four children stayed together in our home. When the sirens went off, we could only pray and pray.' (The extra adults and children had come to take refuge from incessant shelling in Saltovka).
Oksana could have left Kharkiv at any time at the beginning of the war. But she and her husband had elderly relatives, and disabled and infirm church members to think about, and they and their pastor were fully committed to caring for the weakest in the flock, despite the fact that Oksana herself had had a bad accident not long before the outbreak of war, and was still undergoing physiotherapy.
Her story sounds similar to many we have heard on the news. This is a business woman with Master's degrees in Law, Business Administration and Economics, who has had to adapt her skills to the dire situation in hand. Before the war, she was in a high-up position in an international firm. Now she is delivering nappies and advising people on how to fill in forms for government aid. She and husband Vladimir have experienced loss at close hand. Oksana's father-in-law was in an area being shelled unceasingly; he had a massive heart-attack, and died...of shock, they imagine.
The Russians may be retreating from the gates of Kharkiv, but the needs in the city are still immense. Infrastructure has collapsed, and although humanitarian aid agencies have been able to come in to start helping, there are thousands of people who are still in a dreadful state of helplessness in Kharkiv and the surrounding areas.
The church needed a better way of distributing aid than by means of a small ish car. Thus the purchase of a van, thanks to EMF's appeal funds, which are also helping Oksana and the church team buy food, hygiene products and medicine when these are available. Just a few days after we interviewed Oksana, Stanisław Marek ('Staszek'), from the Zagorna 10 church in Poland's capital Warsaw, travelled to Kharkiv and delivered supplies purchasesd in part by money from the EMF Ukraine appeal. Staszek said about the folk he met in the two churches he visited with aid 'It is Christians out there in this difficult and dangerous place who test their love for their neighbor and show their courageous hearts, full of faith that God is their shepherd. The men sent their condolences (sic.)and stayed in the city themselves and serve as volunteers to bring help and comfort to those in need. They take under their roof people who have lost their homes, drive with food and medicines into the most dangerous areas of m. in. to Sałtiwka, the eastern part of the city is still under fire. In a word they are heroes. I am very honored to have met them.'
We asked if non-Christians are noticeably more open to the Gospel. The answer is a very definite 'Yes' from Oksana. '70% of those attending our church are not Christians right now', she affirmed. 'When we visit the elderly with aid, some of them can quote Psalm 90 to us'. Oksana explained that this visitation is done in pairs, where one of the two visitors is responsible for providing spiritual ministry to the people being helped. New Testaments and other literature are received gladly, and Oksana explains that some of those they support tell them 'We all pray now'.
Anton and Oksana left a few messages on our Whatsapp groups as this article was being written. (Anton's messages in Russian, but DeepL translator is a great tool! :) )
For your encouragement, they express deep gratitude for your support. Anton says :'We received the car!!! Thank God for your hearts hearts to participate financially in our needs and in particular the purchase of beads!!! (..not sure of the word translated as 'beads!') ..May God bless and reward you all in a hundred times!' and 'Praise God, thank you all so much, God's grace is upon us, may God bless you for your sacrificial heart. Oksana writes: Thank God! We thank the Lord and everyone who helped!... THANK YOU to all!!!'
Pictures of vans may be a bit boring, it's true! But to the people these vehicles are helping, these vans are real gifts from God that allow them to provide physical and spiritual support to hundreds of needy people every week in Ukraine. And we know that you will rejoice with us as we see this happening.