February 24, 2023 marked one year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I remember being at home, in my bedroom, when messages started appearing on my phone from friends in Ukraine, that what we had all assumed would never happen, had actually happened: Russia was invading Ukraine.
I had tickets and was scheduled to fly to Ukraine on March 3, 2022, as I had been doing for several years, every March, for an annual pastors and leaders conference with Calvary Chapel churches from across Ukraine. We were scheduled to go to Irpin, of all places – a city which soon became famous as one of the locations of early atrocities committed by invading Russian troops. The Baptist conference center we had reserved for our conference became a bomb shelter: the very room where we had often held meetings to train pastors and elders was now filled with civilians hiding from bombs and home invasions.
Days later, I was on a plane to Hungary, in order to help receive friends and ministry partners who were fleeing Ukraine as refugees.
Over the past year, a lot has happened. Many people have died. The civilians who have died have all been Ukrainians, many of them women and children.
On this one-year anniversary, I asked two friends who are long-time missionaries in Ukraine, to share their memories and perspectives after one year of war:
Jon Markey – Ternopil, Ukraine
“I was woken up around 5AM by a call from one of my best friends Nate Medlong who lived in Kharkiv, Ukraine. “We’re coming to you guys, Kharkiv is being bombed. Kyiv too.” I didn’t have the capacity to process what he just said. It stood in stark contrast to the now eerie silence in Ternopil (Western Ukraine). I immediately grabbed my phone to see what was going on. Missile strikes all over the country. On local telegram groups there were false reports of our city being hit and invaded. This had the effect of creating panic. I watched my 6 kids sleeping peacefully, oblivious to what was going on. The weight of responsibility for their safety seemed an impossible burden given the magnitude of the attacks and the number of people that would be making their way to the borders. I started going into shock and nearly passed out. I could barely form complete thoughts, let alone words to pray.
The next few weeks are still a blur. It is still difficult to process or analyze it all as the trauma of this war is ongoing. I drove my family and my brother’s wife and 6 kids (15 of us all together) across the Hungarian border early the next morning. The church body across the globe was mobilized. We were ministered to by several pastors, missionaries and volunteers in Hungary who came to help in whatever way they could. Most of our Ukraine church family stayed in Ternopil. I decided to go back in to Ukraine to help bring aid and to evacuate people a few days after the initial attacks. I have to admit, that my motives at this point were all over the place. I was worried for my friends, I was overwhelmed by a sense of guilt that I was in safety, I was excited for how God was already using our church in Ternopil to minister to refugees.
I was probably more of a liability on that first trip back in to Ukraine than a help. I did end up evacuating a van load of people, but once back in Hungary, I knew I needed to take care for my family and figure out at least temporarily where we would be. We spent two months in Europe – Hungary and Poland. I did visit the church in Ternopil several times. For us as missionaries, this was an utterly disorienting time. Our hearts were in Ukraine, our home was in Ukraine, our friends, our memories. None of my kids had lived anywhere else. Many would encourage us to ‘take a sabbatical’, rest. How? Where? We’ve never lived anywhere else as a family. We aren’t Americans. Not really.
The greatest lesson we learned over the course of the next few months won’t sound like anything profound. Patience. I kept probing, seeking, trying to find my place in all of this, but God wanted us to slow down. What am impossible idea during a time of war. Slow down? This is a crisis! But the more I pushed, the more frustrated I became. My wife’s mom was diagnosed with lymphoma around the time the war broke out and we spent several months in the states until she went to be with Jesus in August. In September the Lord called us back to Ukraine. Without the time, prayer, counsel we received in those months, there is no way we would be able to back in Ternopil long-term. The Lord continues to grow us in patience, in waiting on Him. We are learning to say “I am your servant”. This frees us from the sense of guilt, the pressures of what others expect, or simply reacting emotionally to needs. It doesn’t mean we have everything figured out, but it’s putting one voice, one will above a million voices and opinions. This is what it means to pray ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth…'”
Nate Medlong – Kharkiv, Ukraine
“I remember going to bed late on the 23rd of February, 2022. It took hours to fall asleep. We had finally made the decision to leave Kharkiv, and drive to Ternopil in Western Ukraine. It was still hard to believe that Russia was actually crazy enough to attack Kharkiv, but the Lord was making it clear that we needed to be ready to go. The desire to be safe and far from this danger was pushing up against our concern and care for those in our church and school that God had entrusted to us.
I slept for 3 hours until around 4AM. I checked my phone and saw that Putin had announced the invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly everything went into fast forward. I woke everyone in my family up and told them to finish packing, we were leaving, Russia is invading. We packed as fast as we could while writing and calling everyone possible in our church and school. The order we gave was for everyone to leave the city as soon as possible. Pretty soon we started to hear bombs and shelling in the distance. The stress started to overwhelm me and I was fighting back a panic attack. We finished loading our vehicle. I locked the door of our house and took one last look at our home that we had only finished building 5 years earlier. We prayed some very desperate prayers that God would spare us and our friends. This was the start of the longest 72 hours or my life.
Within a few few kilometers of our house there were already helicopters and fighter jets flying low over our car and the thousands of other cars clogging up the road out of town. I will never forget the desperate prayers for protection of my family in those moments as we waited to hear if the sound of those jets would be followed by bombs and gunfire.
During those three days driving to the Hungarian border, prayer took on a different dimension than I had experienced before. Mainly short prayers begging, demanding even, that God would honor his promise to be a shield to us. The closest I can compare it to was just one year earlier, laying in the ICU in a Kharkiv hospital, begging God to keep me alive so I could see my children grow up. Only this time, my children were on the same danger as me.
God is faithful. He led us every step of the way. He kept His promise. We went through some very difficult moments, but that experience equipped us to help many more people get to safety.
In the first few days of war, all the news we were hearing was that all hope was lost. Russia was destroying everything, it was going to be over soon. Thank God that wasn’t true! We saw His faithfulness. As dark as the days were, we saw so much of God’s work. Many have been saved.
After several days in Hungary, we evacuated to my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
After a month of getting settled, I started the first of many trips back into Ukraine to serve the people I love so much.
We continue to serve and come along side those that serve others during this difficult time. It is a privilege to be a part of God’s continued work in Ukraine. My family and I are also working towards returning full time in the Lord’s timing.”