Pastor Gennadij Prosyanko seems to us all to be a brave man. Since 2014 he has served as chaplain to Ukrainian forces fighting against Russia in the Donbas region after the annexation of Crimea by the super-power. He has driven into danger throughout the intervening years, and as far as he is concerned, the current conflict is only a continuation of that first invasion. While he and Volodia chatted in Ternopil, filling the van with aid that would disappear within hours of reaching its destination in the east, Gennadij told his fellow-pastor about his ministry in the war-zone. (The men confessed to us later that though they had never met before in person, they immediately bonded in Christian fellowship). A few years ago, Gennadij relates, he arrived at the checkpoints on the border of the war-zone. 'Oh, we knew you were coming!' the Ukrainian troops said. 'How could you possibly know I was coming?', asked the pastor. 'I have told nobody'.
'Oh, we heard the Russian snipers talk about you on the radio'. Sobering.
There was a price on his head, even back then, before this war. Russian soldiers were given a bounty of $1,000 for the killing of a chaplain to the Ukrainian troops, and Gennadij's name is on the list. 'I don't know how far down the list I come', he tells us with a slight grin. Travelling around this area handing out aid, even if it is only to civilians, is a dangerous task.
But at the moment, Gennadij explains, he is not able to go near the front lines (you need special permission to do that anyway,of course), as now that there is so much fighting in his region, and so few supplies getting through, he is kept busy distributing aid to the folk in his town, Pereshchepyne, 70 miles north of Dnipro. He knows that the very poor people left in the beseiged villages need help, but he is helpless to do very much right now. There are normally 12,000 inhabitants in this town where he is the Baptist pastor, but 2,500 more people have sought refuge from the very worst of the fighting). They need help, and Gennadij often has to go and look for the aid that is needed! Thus the trip to the hub in Ternopil, 1,000 km. away from home. That is where the trucks from the Netherlands and Poland off-load their goods. Generators, washing-machines, warm underwear, foodstuffs that won't perish, and hygiene products for babies, for ladies, for the elderly. It was a four-day round trip for Gennadij and his son Victor. No wonder that they so appreciated the warmth of Volodia's welcome when they arrived at the warehouse, exhausted. For travelling to and from Ternopil requires vigiance and planning, if you are journeying along roads in the east. There is hardly any diesel, so you have to fill up containers, carry them with you, and stop at any place you can find along the way that will sell you some of the precious fuel. They will only let you have 10 litres, though!
Gennadij made it home again, and thanks all those who prayed with and for him and Victor as they travelled. On the way back they had to cross the Dnieper river at Dnipro. They used a particular bridge, not knowing that around the same time a nearby bridge had suffered a hit from Russian shelling. Their van went straight to the church building for unloading. Within a matter of hours the small team was making up relief packages. With a few hours more, queues had formed, and the relief packages had all but disappeared. 120 people/families had been helped that day. Giving out aid is tiring in itself. You have to distribute wisely and justly, as even refugees can be greedy at times, Gennadij admits to us. T
Regarding this trip to Ternopil to collect goods,'Gennadij laments: 'I was able to bring back so little, really'. We asked if it would help if somehow a depot were available nearer to where he is in eastern Ukraine. He told us that it certainly would. The logistics of bringing that about are certainly complex. Please pray that there may be some way of helping this faithful brother to have aid more readily available, some way of getting generators through to those villages and areas with no supply of energy. Some way of helping him and his team not to burn out : 'We are always running. No rest', Gennadij confesses. We believe him.
Gennadij never leaves a conversation without highlighting that although this is a horrific, unjust, and barbaric war, the Lord is doing great things. People are more open to listening to the Gospel. They are taking literature and they are praying in their despair. They are reading the New Testaments they receive. They see the witness of believers who are giving so much, and they are noticing the reflection of Christ in their lives. Gennadij is tired and over-worked. But he is not a broken man, because he is witnessing the sovereign work of his God all around him.
We then asked Volodia to tell us how things were going in Ternopil now. As in other areas that have received displaced people, the floods of people seen in the first days are now a stream that is easier to manage. But the issue is that there is no work for incoming refugees. What can they do in a town that already had its fair share of unemployment? Some men tried to go back to where they had fled from, such as Kyiv and its surrounding villages. But the truth is that these places are not yet ready to build an economy, nor is safety assured there. So they return, dejected.
Volodia and his wife Oksana have developed a ministry to families with disabled children over the years, having had to learn what it means to bring up a severely disabled child. Their son Zechariah is now 17, and requires around-the-clock care. As you may have seen on the news if you live in the UK, there have been cases of children being 'left behind' when their parents/carers fled to safety, these people felt their child would be an impossible load to carry in another country or region. Volodia and Oksana and their church, with their special burden for the disabled and the elderly, gave out 2,000 aid packages around Easter time to families of relatives whose needs have created dependence, or in many cases an inability to be mobile and take shelter when air raid sirens sound.
It is true that Volodia is extremely busy in the organisation of the aid hub in Ternopil.But he is a husband and dad in a home where the needs created by 24/7 care for their son Zechariah and little energetic Oleksii are immense for him and his wife Oksana. And he is a pastor who is concerned to look after the spiritual needs around him. He told us of a neighbour 'Paul', who is the father of three children, now called up to fight. Though not a true believer, he asked Volodia to pray for him before he left. This pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Ternopil grieves for his country. The bloodshed is killing some of its finest citizens, the ravages of war are destroying its economy. But Volodia told us he also grieves for the children who have left Ukraine and who may never return. He mourns the loss of a generation from his beloved Ukraine.