Prayers of a Revolution

2_1_Donbass

Scenes of Selma and songs from Les Miserables played in my mind as we walked the streets of the Maidan – the revolution that rocked Kiev and the rest of Ukraine a year prior with men and women who had joined the masses in confronting a government fraught with corruption. The feeling of change, of possibility, of history being made swept through us as our guides recounted the story of the protests that ended in the resignation of a president in whom these Ukrainians had lost all faith.

Left on the streets are memorials and pictures for the ‘heavenly hundred’ – the name they’ve given for those killed in the clashes, lit candles laid in the shape of the Ukrainian ‘Trident,’ and holes where snipers’ bullets ripped into buildings and pavement, through street lights and human flesh. Our guides showed us where they stood waving Ukrainian flags, where they warmed up in tents in the dead of winter, where they made sandwiches for the masses, and where they prayed for safety and for a new day in Ukraine.

A year after the Maidan revolution, candles are lit in memory, and for those losing their lives in the Donbass. photo credit: Rebecca Ulasich

A year after the Maidan revolution, candles are lit in memory, and for those losing their lives in the Donbass. photo credit: Rebecca Ulasich

Remembering the 'Heavenly Hundred' - the activists and protesters killed by state violence. photo credit: Rebecca Ulasich

Remembering the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ – the activists and protesters killed by state violence. photo credit: Rebecca Ulasich

At a nearby coffee shop we spoke with Oleg, a youth pastor of an Evangelical church in Kiev who ran an interdenominational prayer tent that operated continuously throughout the months of protest. He told us of his experiences at Maidan.

“That first evening maybe 100 people showed up. The next night almost a thousand showed up.”

When President Yanukovych decided the protests had gone on long enough, he sent in riot police to clear the streets. Oleg had already gone home for the night, but when he woke up and logged onto Facebook the next morning, he was shocked by a video of the chaos that ensued the night before.

“When I saw it I couldn’t believe this was happening here in Ukraine. I was there 8 hours before. I stood there with my youth [from the church], we would go there and pray. So when I saw this… it was brutal. Police were really tough, chasing kids on the streets and beating them. It was bad. I think 4 people are still missing from that night.”

Students ran first to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in Kiev and were denied entrance. They then ran to another Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyivan Patriarchate) where the priests admitted them, and then closed the gates on the riot police, ending the night’s violence.

“That morning I woke up and read these Facebook posts asking for help – food, medicine – if you can, please bring them to this cathedral, so I jumped off my bed, went to the pharmacy, bought some supplies and bread and took off to the cathedral.”

When he arrived, riot police had long left and the gates were open. About 200 people were inside, wounded and bloody. Oleg joined people from all over Kiev who had come to help, sorting food and medicine. By early afternoon, over a thousand people had responded to the call for help and arrived at the cathedral to support the students. They gathered in the church grounds and determined they were at the Maidan to stay. With the violent crackdown, the government fanned the flame of anger and resistance and the number of protesters swelled.

The church in Kiev that welcomed and gave refuge to the student protesters fleeing the brutal crackdown by the riot police and state-supported militia. photo credit: Rebecca Ulasich

The church in Kiev that welcomed and gave refuge to the student protesters fleeing the brutal crackdown by the riot police and state-supported militia. photo credit: Rebecca Ulasich

The courtyard of the same church, where the Maidan supporters determined the protests would continue. photo credit: Rebecca Ulasich

The courtyard of the same church, where the Maidan supporters determined the protests would continue. photo credit: Rebecca Ulasich

That evening, Oleg scrapped the message he had prepared for his youth group, and instead opened a discussion on how Christians should respond to the protests and the state violence. They decided that, being Christians, prayer was the appropriate response. Every night at 8 p.m. they gathered amidst the protests to pray for Ukraine.

“It was cold,” he said. “Like, cold. -20 celsius or something, so we would pray 30 minutes max.”

Before long they set up a tent on the square where people could take shifts in prayer, turning 30 minutes into round-the-clock, continuous prayer. But the prayer tent soon became much more.

“Protesters would come to get hot tea, to talk to people, to get prayer, or just to get warm by our heater. Everyone was welcome – whatever their reason for coming. During one hour we could have up to 100 people come.”

Meals on the Maidan. Photo credit: Alexandr Kalinchenko

Meals on the Maidan. Photo credit: Alexandr Kalinchenko

Revolutionary Sausage

Sausage dinner on the Maidan. Photo credit: Alexandr Kalinchenko

On January 16th the government passed anti-protest laws. Oleg explains:

“For wearing a gas mask, you’d go to prison for 7 years.
For wearing a helmet, 5 years.
For putting up a tent on the street, 10 years.
For having more than 5 years driving in a column. These are just a few.

I would go to prison for 26 years for everything I did.”

That was the moment, Oleg told us, that things spiraled out of control. The people refused to give in, mocking the absurd ‘anti-terrorism’ laws and openly defying them.

“The riot police became really, really bad. On January 19, the first guy died, he was shot. They were supposed to use rubber bullets, but they used real bullets. And that’s when it became worse, because it made people really, really angry.”

Religious at the Revolution. Photo credit: Alexandr Kalinchenko

Religious at the Revolution

Riot Police on a snowy Maidan. Photo credit: Alexandr Kalinchenko

Riot Police on a snowy Maidan. Photo credit: Alexandr Kalinchenko

Those days the prayer tent saw another transformation. People didn’t just come for tea, or even simply for prayer. When people started dying, people wanted to know why. They came to the prayer tent seeking counseling, answers to unanswerable questions, someone with whom they could process the grief and anguish they were feeling.

“We had to find a lot of solid Christians there who would just come and listen to people. That was a challenge because most of the guys who would come to serve at that tent, they weren’t the right people for that, because they would start leading them to the Lord. All those people needed was people who would listen to them and just cry with them, so it was hard. But we had solid people working there 24/7.”

Throughout the protests-turned-revolution, the prayer tents was a constant presence on the Maidan. They determined to be the last tent to leave the square. Oleg estimated that by the time they took down the tent in June, they had given out a quarter million copies of the New Testament, along with countless cups of tea, bowls of soup, sandwiches, and prayer to fuel the revolution. By June, Viktor Yanukovych had long fled Ukraine, and a new President had been elected. As the tents came down, the pray-ers of the revolution had a new question with which to grapple: how should Ukrainian Christians respond to the War in the Donbass?

 

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