By: Scott Armstrong
In the past weeks we have witnessed the devastating effects of the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine. We call all Christians to pray for the people of both Ukraine and Russia and for a halt to this violence and war. I have friends in Ukraine, some who have fled as refugees and others who have somehow decided to remain amongst rubble and decimation. Sixteen years ago I had the privilege to participate in a formative missions trip in Turbov, Ukraine. After my return, I wrote down the following testimony, but for some reason had never posted it. Now is the time. May it be a reminder that God is always moving in other cultures and countries, even when it is difficult to perceive how or where.
Turbiv is a city with about 6,000 people located three hours west of Kyiv, Ukraine. During a mission trip in April/May 2006 I had the privilege of joining participants from ten different countries in construction, evangelism, and children’s crusades in that town. There was such an impact that, as we visited homes on the fourth day, everyone said to us, “Yeah, we know, we have heard about you all. Who are you again?” When the mayor’s office began to take notice as well, we felt a little like Paul and Silas when the leaders in one city said, “What do we do with these guys? They are turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
When we arrived, the Church of the Nazarene had around ten members. Evangelical churches were rare. Thus, not all the translators in Ukraine that were with the Church of the Nazarene for that event were Christians. At one meal I was sitting with Helen, a young lady who was translating for me so I could get to know a Ukrainian guy named Dema, short for Demetrius. As we were talking, I asked him how he came to know the Lord and he told his testimony.
He had been in prison two times. The first time was warranted because he was a druggie and thug – his words, not mine. When he got out, he accepted Christ through a Nazarene rehabilitation center, but the authorities ended up putting him back in prison for the same crime. He said it was totally unwarranted and should have shaken his faith as a new Christian. However, Dema viewed it as an opportunity to witness to the druggies and thugs like he used to be. Before long, he had started a church in the Ukrainian prison!
Demetrius was persuading so many guys, and such a large amount were becoming Christians in prison that the authorities said, “We can’t have this,” and they let him go. His best friend came to know the Lord, and – get this – he was the PASTOR of the church plant in Turbiv where we all were ministering for the two weeks! Demetrius was also studying to be a pastor.
Remember: as he is telling this to me, the translator is interpreting every word. Dema gets to a point where he looks at Helen and says, “Do you know the Lord?” She had been clearly moved by the story, but she acts indifferent and says, “No, that is not for me.”
As a natural evangelist, Dema says, “It needs to be for you, because if Jesus can do what he did for me and transform me from drug addict to pastor, he is worth following. Do you go to church?”
“Only on Easter,” she says.
“Do you have a Bible?”
“Two,” she says, “but they are dusty and never get read.”
Dema and I start to pray for Helen multiple times each day. Every night after service, we meet in the big dining hall (where lots of others are) and we talk about Jesus.
I give her a Ukrainian Bible, and I tell her to read John. I circle it in the table of contents and tell her it is the fourth book of the New Testament.
The next day she comes to me and is so frustrated. She had never heard of New or Old Testaments and just went to the fourth book of the Bible, Numbers, and read four chapters. She made it through four chapters of lists and names because she was so hungry for the Lord and for truth and wisdom!
After she finally started reading the gospel of John, we talk about chapter six where many followers left Jesus because he was not who they thought he was. She says her head hurts because she is so stirred and knows following him means total commitment. “If I were ever to do this,” she says with intensity in her eyes, “I would have to do it 100%. What this man is calling everyone to cannot be done half-way.”
Wow! I tell her I agree completely, and we talk about chapter 3 of Revelation and how God wants us to be either hot or cold, not lukewarm. She has come so far in just a few days. She began the mission trip ambivalent, if not antagonistic, to Christianity and merely needing some extra money she could earn from translating. Now she is making statements like, “If I ever were to do this…”
The last day in Ukraine we celebrated the opening of the new church in the city of Turbiv. Beforehand, we held a service in English, Spanish, and Ukrainian to focus on God and pray for the new congregation.
The Lord’s Supper was prepared, and pastor Les Moore from Idaho Falls, Idaho was organizing the service. Just before we receive communion, he shares that he feels God is leading him to do something. He announces that he normally reads from 1 Corinthians 11 before the Lord’s Supper, but that he is feeling led to read this time from a different book: the gospel of John.
He asks the leader of the mission trip, Doug, to come up and he says, “Brother, I have no idea why I should do this, but the Lord told me I should today…Take off your shoes.” Doug had been doing construction and was wearing some tattered sneakers. He shook his head in disbelief and took off his shoes and socks. Many of us started crying as Pastor Les washed Doug’s feet in front of everyone.
Helen was in the service and the night before had read John 13. She knew what that meant and who started that ritual!
She starts weeping. She does not know what is going on. And yet, she knows exactly what is going on.
She has witnessed two weeks of 150 Christians from ten countries serving and sharing the gospel. Hours earlier, she had read about and now was experiencing “the full extent of his love.”
After the service, I ask her, “What is the Lord saying to you?”
She admits she needs to follow Jesus, but she also wants to pray and think more. Pray and think more? She had never said a single prayer before the last two weeks!
I tell her that I don’t want to force her to do anything, but the Bible says that now is the day of salvation. She says she knows, but that she needs to count the real cost if she is going to do this 100%. I pray with her, and she states, “I know you want me to make this decision right now before you go home, but just know that I am on the way.”
I affirm that I appreciate her honesty and that I will pray for her. Although we may never see each other again on earth, I look forward to seeing her in heaven.
This trip was before social media took off and before smart phones were a thing. I lost track of Helen, and though I have tried to locate her and Dema this last month, I don’t know where they are or how they are reacting to all that is happening in Ukraine right now.
Some may declare that we also don’t know what Helen’s final decision was; perhaps that’s fair. And yet, I DO KNOW! God changed her! Just as she was on the way sixteen years ago, I believe she is now, as the early Christians declared themselves (Acts 24:14), a follower of The Way.