It was a beautiful, sunny, Autumn day in central Ukraine. These days are rare in the Fall and I was taking advantage of it by driving two hours to a church recommended by a colleague. The body of Christ in this small town had been reaching out to the internally displaced Ukrainians by providing shelter, food, medicines and the like. Not too many people in this town knew me so I took advantage of the opportunity to blend in so I could get a true picture of the impact of the church in this community. In order to blend in I had done my hair that morning without hairspray or any other product, my beard went untrimmed, I removed my glasses and most difficult of all, avoided smiling to hide my American-ness. I put on a blank expression and stood in the registration line for twenty minutes or so.
The conversation of the strangers in line was filled with questions, “Where are you from?” “And you?” “How long did you live there?” “What part of the city did you live in?” I joined in with the questions and answers, but I kept my talking to short, simple phrases since it is easier to blend in with one’s looks than with one’s speech… and above all – maintain the blank expression. People shared that they were from the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, etc. and the cities they hailed from were as varied as Mariupol, Krasna Luch, and Gorlivka. Each had their own stories to tell and the questions they asked and answered were mostly, “Was/Is it bad there?” speaking of the war.
The church sought to minimize the stigma of having to receive hand-outs by providing a festive atmosphere with music, cotton candy, hot drinks and activities for kids. Ukrainians are a very dignified people after all. After standing in line, I approached the pastor. I could tell he did not remember what I looked like as it had been several years since I had preached and sung in his church. But then I smiled.
“Ah Eric, I wasn’t sure you were going to make it today.” I told him I had been here for almost half an hour stealthily standing in line. We were talking for a while and he was explaining their process for humanitarian aid distribution and outreach. I was plenty impressed. They had their own way of doing things and it was working for them. Their priorities were clear: First – outreach to families of soldiers. Second – outreach to the displaced of war/refugees. Third – outreach to locals impacted by war and its aftermath.
Conversation with a soldier
As I was talking to the pastor, a soldier who was on leave to visit his family came and took part in the conversation. The pastor told us the man was going back to serve in a couple of days. “Where have you served,” I asked. He replied that he had been to a number of places. “I’m from Irpin,” I said, “Have you been to Irpin?” “I was in Bucha,” he responded, “I was sent there about the time the Rashisti retreated to Belarus.” Rashisti is a slang term combining the words Russian and fascists.
“That must have been horrible,” I responded remembering a friend telling me that the death and destruction in Irpin was greater than even in Bucha. The soldier told us that as horrible as it appeared in the media, it was much worse than they were showing. The media showed the corpses laying here and there, but in the words of this soldier, “Corpses were like the leaves in the forest.” I understood his hyperbole – he was saying there were corpses everywhere. My heart sunk, but it was what he said next that made me want to cry… and yell.
He continued, “My friend and I bagged (body bagged) 13 children.” I fought back tears. I asked the soldier how his soul was. He raised his arm and put his hand out flat, wobbling it slightly from side to side as if to say, “So-so”. “Can I pray for you,” I asked and having received confirmation, I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for him and for Ukraine.
At this point, I wanted to cry out, but I waited until later… in the car alone… only me and God. That is when I opened the floodgates and cried out to God in prayer for Ukraine and for justice. “Oh God!” I yelled. “How much longer? How many more Ukrainians must suffer and die? How many more women and children must be raped and molested? How many more widows and orphans will be made by this senseless and genocidal war?”
As I drove home, the sky was still blue and the temperature was still warm, but in my heart, the sun was not shining. In its place, was a renewed resolve and determination to help Ukraine by bringing hope and healing for the pain that is in her heart and soul.
The series “Highlights and Lowlights” is being written to share memorable events, impressions and conversations experienced by Eric Yodis during a recent three-month ministry journey in Ukraine and Poland. Have a question or comment? Leave it in the comments section below.