Choosing not to flee
Benjamin Morrison strokes his beard a little as he tries to explain what has led him to ignore the advice given by the US consular office, who recommended that he and his family should evacuate to safety in a friendly country. Benjamin and his wife Lena (she is Ukrainian, from Svitlovodsk, the city they now work in) have two children. They could have fled; around 30 of the members of their congregation have already decided that they should leave, and nobody could blame them for doing so. Benjamin and Lena chose to remain, however, to look after those who stayed, and to welcome those who were running towards the shelter of their church (Calvary Chapel) in their flight from Kharkiv and other eastern locations under attack from Russian missiles. In a moment of personal dealings before the Lord, as he weighed up the costs of refusing to flee, Benjamin had prayed these words written by C.T.Studd
Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
And when I am dying, how happy I’ll be,
If the lamp of my life has been burned out for Thee.
The city of Svitlovodsk sits on the Dnieper river, which runs through Ukraine towards the Black Sea. Lena and Benjamin knew no one there (apart from Lena's family) when they arrived in the city in 2005, to start up a work with Calvary Chapel. Their first days there were encouraging. A number of young people professed faith, but very soon numbers dwindled, and at one stage only a mother and daughter were left in the congregation Benjamin was pastoring. The couple considered leaving then, but, just as now, they decided that they would 'fight on', by God's grace. The evangelistic efforts were blessed by the Lord, who has added dozens of new believers to his church in that city.
As missiles fell in the east, and as cities like Kharkiv saw thousands flee, many of the internally-displaced people re-located to places like Svitlovodsk, since it is a relatively more secure place than other larger cities nearby (as proven by a recent missile attack on a shopping mall in nearby Kremenchuk).
Many of the 'safer' places in western Ukraine are saturated with displaced people by now, and there is a feeling on the part of many that 'we shouldn't go too far away from home in case we can return soon'. The first refugees began arriving, and the little church in Svitlovodsk pastored by Benjamin Morrison did what they knew they had to do, placing the building they had only recently opened at the disposal of the folk who kept on coming. Like a multitude of other congregations across Ukraine (the churches in Chernivtsi, and those in Ternopil, which we have reported on many times), the fellowship set about providing food, shelter, medical aid, a listening ear, and, as Benjamin emphasises, hope. Especially the hope given by the Gospel. To date, they have housed around 350 refugees in the church, evacuated over 200 out of hot spots, and are feeding 2,000 people a month.
'But God meant it for good'
Benjamin, Lena, and their children, along with the church team, have rested little over the weeks since the war began. There have been dozens of displaced people at a time staying in the church premises. As in other places we have reported on, mattresses had to be sourced, food cooked, hygiene ensured. Some of the first refugees who requested help were from middle class families, with up-market cars that allowed them to evacuate fast, and further west. But those who arrived later were the more traumatised, the poorer, the ones with more limited options; they had tried to hang in there, but in the end they simply had to give up trying. Some of these amongst the latest arrivals now have rented accommodation in the city as they semi-establish themselves in this place of relative safety. At least here those husbands who have not yet been called up to military service but who are forbidden from leaving Ukraine in case they have to join fighting troops can stay with their wives and children in the meantime. That family togetherness is a 'luxury' that the externally-displaced families have had to forego.
When Benjamin listens to the stories these people tell, when he witnesses their trauma, their loss, their grief at the utter devastation they have lived through, he knows that unfettered, hellish evil has run rampage. He and others have had to bring out dozens of desperate people by mini-bus. Their accounts are harrowing.
'You have heard and seen about Bucha' says Benjamin, assuming, rightly, that we have been shocked to the core by the carnage there. 'There are a thousand Buchas right now in Ukraine.'
Is God powerless in all this, simply looking on as barbaric acts take place and innocent lives are taken so unjustly?
Benjamin Morrison is clear on this point. His face, so grim when talking about the war, transforms into a smiling visage when he tells us that 20 of those who have passed through the church's doors have professed faith since the beginning of the war. That rate of conversions is an unknown phenomenon in Ukraine's most recent past, explains this US-born pastor who loves this European nation with evident passion. As he looks at the camera, it is almost as if Benjamin is addressing Putin directly, rather than us, his Zoom interlocutors, as he cites Joseph's words in Genesis 50:20:
'As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today'.
With all the godly confidence of someone who believes that the Cross itself was not a tragedy, but rather a glorious turning-on-its-head of Satan's purpose of bringing many to everlasting destruction, Morrison points out that this time of the apparent triumph of evil is bringing a 'harvest for God's glory'.
Benjamin Morrison's 'normal' ministry of helping train church planters across Ukraine in the 'Incubator' programme run by City to City Ukraine stopped completely for a while, but it is now up and running again, online. There are workers preparing to fight on for Christ's kingdom in the war against the Devil and his plans. We who live far away from the reality of Ukraine may be beginning to feel compassion fatigue. Those who are ministering there can not afford any such let-up in their commitment, and we praise God that He has raised up workers who are being given the strength to battle on.
Air raid sirens sounded during our interview with Benjamin, and we were reminded that the threats to his safety and that of his family and those they care for are all-too-real, in spite of the distance from the front line. We urge you, our readers, to pray on for Benjamin, as well as for our EMF workers Vitalii and Liudmyla Mariash and Volodia and Oksana Kostyshyn, along with their families, and their churches. Please carry on interceding for all those others we have introduced you to over these months and who are still in the thick of the battle, whether inside Ukraine itself, or in the surrounding nations.
P.S. Benjamin has his own page for anyone wishing to donate to this cause. https://bit.ly/give2ukraine
This is not linked to the EMF Ukraine Emergency Appeal in any way.