One Year of War: Reflections from Friends in Ukraine

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.”

Heading That Way

Source: NBCnews

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was scheduled to be in Ukraine this week to visit ministry partners in Kyiv and Kharkiv, and speak at a conference in Irpin. Instead, many of the people we were going to work with are hiding in bomb shelters, basements, and metro stations because of the Russian attack. Others have left their homes for safer locations in western Ukraine or in neighboring countries.

I am so impressed with the courage and resolve of the Ukrainian people, as well as with the leadership of their president. I pray for justice to prevail, for an end to these attacks, and for peace in Ukraine.

Just today, Russian military shelled a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv, killing at least 11, and injuring others. The reality is, even if everything were to end today, what has been done so far has already caused suffering and loss which cannot be reversed, and has caused damage which will take years to recover from.

Today I am flying to Hungary with 2 other pastors who served for many years in that region as missionaries. We are going to visit our missionaries who have fled there from Ukraine, take gifts and supplies for them and their kids, and explore potential opportunities for outreach to refugees, as well as ways to help those within Ukraine who are serving displaced people.

So far over 500,000 people have fled Ukraine, and that number is expected to reach up to 4,000,000 according to the UNHCR. This is a time for the church to shine, and for us to step up and be the hands and feet of Jesus to the world. Those I am in contact with in Ukraine and Hungary are doing just that, and it is noteworthy and beautiful. In addition to the immediate needs now, there will likely be many opportunities to help in the months and years to come.

How to Help

If you would like to give to our Ukraine Relief Fund, those funds will go to purchase needed supplies, fuel, medicines, and provide shelter for displaced people.

Adoption, the Gospel, & Practical Theology: with Nate Medlong – Podcast Season 2, Episode 1

In this first episode of Season 2 of the Theology for the People podcast, I speak with Nate Medlong, a missionary and pastor in Kharkiv, Ukraine, about adoption, the gospel, and practical theology.

Last year. I started this podcast really at the urging of two friends, Ocean and Aaron, who were, separate from each other, both encouraging me to start a podcast. I decided to give it a shot, and I’ve been amazed at the response to the podcast, as I’ve watched the analytics and how many people have been listening.

For Season 2, I’ve made some improvements, including new intro music by Dávid Payne. I plan on releasing episodes weekly, so please subscribe if you haven’t already.

In this first episode of the season, I speak with Nate Medlong about our personal experiences with adoption, how adoption is a picture of the gospel, and how practical theology actually is: the reason Christians practice adoption is because of our theology, but as we live out our theology in this or any other way, it causes us to grow in understanding and appreciation for the theological truths we believe.

This episode also includes a lot of jokes about Cleveland, and a hot take on Utah’s license plates. I hope you enjoy it!

Click here to listen, or listen in the embedded player below.

Adoption, the Gospel, and Practical Theology – with Nate Medlong Theology for the People

Nate Medlong is a pastor and missionary in Kharkiv, Ukraine. He and his wife Diana have fostered and adopted several children, and in this episode Nate and I discuss how adoption is a picture of the gospel. Not only is adoption a picture of the gospel, and the practice of adopting children is an outworking of the gospel, but we discuss how parenting adopted children helps a person to grow in their understanding of and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ, by making us his children and adopting us into his family. Make sure to check out the Theology for the People website as well for more content.

Calvary Chapel Ukraine Leaders Conference

For the past week I have been in Ukraine to work with Calvary Chapel churches here. On Friday and Saturday Mike Payne and I spoke at the CC Ukraine leaders conference in Irpin, near Kyiv.

I taught on discipleship pathways and leadership pipelines, and Mike spoke on leading in a supporting role. There were also a few Q&A sessions where leaders from different churches were able to ask questions about things they are facing or are curious about.

On Saturday evening, after the conference, Mike went to Ternopil in western Ukraine, while I took a train to Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, and we both spoke at churches in these cities on Sunday.

The pastor of Calvary Chapel in Kharkiv, Victor, contracted measles and got very sick, to the point where his life may have been in danger. He is doing better now, but is still under quarantine. I spent the weekend with the assistant pastor, Nate, who also leads a ministry called Fostering Hope, which provides a home and family for several children. To find out more about Fostering Hope Ukraine, click here.

I am currently on my way back to Kyiv for a series of meetings tomorrow, and after that I will head to Budapest on Wednesday, where I will speak at Golgota Budapest and then spend a day in Eger, where my wife and I lived for 7 years and planted a church. On Friday I will be heading back to the US, just in time to preach on Sunday at White Fields.

God is continuing to do a great work here in Ukraine through these churches. Pray for them as they plan to plant new churches in Kyiv and develop a Leaders Training Program in Kharkiv.