Crimea secession talks not stopping ministry

A Crimean Tatar pauses to pray. The man, who wished to remain unidentified, is a church planter to his own people in Crimea. (photo by Chris Carter, IMB)

A Crimean Tatar pauses to pray. The man, who wished to remain unidentified, is a church planter to his own people in Crimea. (Photo by Chris Carter, IMB)

Ukraine (BP/MNN) — Stakes in Ukraine are even higher now. The Crimean parliament voted to hold a referendum in 10 days to give the people of the region a vote on whether or not to join the Russian federation and to nationalize state industries.

The United States condemned the move, calling it a violation of the Ukrainian constitution. President Obama called for international monitors to be allowed in to Ukraine to ensure the rights of the people. Russia says it will wait to make any decision on the move until after the referendum.

Despite all of the uncertainty, ministry continues in full force, says Shannon Ford, a missionary with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. “The response from the churches has been fantastic,” Ford says from Kiev. “It really has been a time for prayer: not simply saying we’re going to pray, but actually going and being seen and guiding other people to pray,” even in the far east, near the Russian border.

Is the church unified? Ford says, “In this past few weeks, we’ve honestly seen a greater unification of the different evangelicals, and they’re standing alongside the Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches in support of the people and their spiritual needs.”

What does unity look like? “They’ve basically stood before the people and called people to pray. There is a depth of hunger for connecting with God and understanding the situation. The other side of that is the sheer number of Bibles and New Testaments that have been distributed.”

Ford describes the distributions: “Literally, as soon as you open up cases of Bibles, people begin walking by and begin talking to those who are with the Bibles, answering questions, asking to pray with them. We haven’t seen anything like this since the early 90s.”

According to the Baptist Press, even though talks of secession in Crimea are taking place, IMB work in the region continues. “The churches are still active. One of my good friends is a Ukrainian brother. It’s been fun to watch him post pictures of prayer walking, pictures of [him] and others talking to people that are milling around or just standing around to see what might happen,” says Ford.

People of faith are regarded highly today, Ford says. “Those who are known as believers are actually being sought out and are actually being listened to. It’s a neat thing to see.”

Ford told the Baptist Press that he doesn’t downplay the dangers facing Ukraine from both inside and out, or the agony the nation has experienced in recent months as protesters battled police and blood flowed before the government changed hands. He has served there for more than 15 years and feels the pain of Ukrainians more than most foreigners.

What Christians have been able to do in the last few months, in Ford’s view, is an outward sign of the maturing of evangelical work since Ukraine gained independence from the dissolving Soviet Union.

At the moment, however, the crisis at home demands the full attention of Ukrainian Baptists, PB reports. One of them is Oleksandr Turchynov, who was voted interim national president by the Ukrainian Parliament until new elections take place in May. He took office after President Viktor Yanukovych was removed Feb. 23 and later fled to Russia. (Russia’s incursion into Crimea followed within a week.)

Turchynov “has been a lay preacher in one of our Baptist churches, and he has brought a demeanor of trust and respect to the acting government,” Ford said. “So it’s really been a great time for the churches to be doing what we ought to be doing. They’ve not hidden. They’ve actually activated and gotten more visible during this time of stress and tension.”

Now, as divisions increase between ethnic Ukrainians in the western part of the country and ethnic Russians in the east, Christians are focusing on bringing people together.

Unity is the word that keeps being used,” Ford reported. “The [Baptist] brothers and sisters in eastern Ukraine mostly use Russian. Many of them have Russian heritage. But they are the first ones to speak up and say, ‘There’s no tension between us and the Ukrainian speakers.’ Those in western Ukraine, even in a city that is very nationalistic and Ukrainian in language and culture, declared a ‘Russian language only’ day. They actually took to the streets and used Russian to show we’re one country. Language is not the thing that divides us.”

Unless circumstances force a change in plans, Baptists and mission workers anticipate a full schedule of summer camps, evangelistic outreach events, and other ministries this year. In fact, Ford hopes Southern Baptist volunteers come to work alongside them.

“It may sound like a fool’s errand, but we still think you can come and serve because we’re still here, and we’d like you to come and join us,” he said. He also challenged Southern Baptists to use the current situation as a way to reach out to ethnic Ukrainians and Russians in American communities.

Ford said he and other IMB workers have been overwhelmed and greatly encouraged by the many e-mails and social media posts from Southern Baptists expressing concern and promising prayer.

“It’s kind of strange. We’re in a sense of alert, but we’re also very much at ease,” he said. “Our #1 prayer is not necessarily for our safety, even though we of course want that for ourselves and for our people. Our #1 prayer is that we make use of this opportunity to be purveyors of the Gospel light. There’s just a lot of opportunity, and I’d hate for us to miss it.”

(Thanks to Baptist Press and Erich Bridges for contributing to this story.)