Can Anything Good Come from Donbass?


We sit around the table in a church basement, mid-morning light filtering through the ground level windows. With us are nine people, mostly men, bluish tattoos on knuckles and forearms, two brandishing crutches, one’s left pant leg hanging empty below the knee. “We are the Hepatitis C Church,” Denis jokes. He is a tall, well-built man with a shaven head and penetrating eyes. I have seen him twice before, from a distance, and found him both commanding and intimidating. Up close, his face softens when he smiles, the skin crinkling around his eyes. His gaze is earnest, sincere. I decide immediately that I like him. He does most of the talking, though the men each share a bit of their stories.

They are all former or recovering drug addicts, every single one of them, and they are all from Donbass. “Even before the war, Donbass was not a good region,” Denis tells us. The region has the highest percentage of the country’s prisons, and apparently after World War II, many criminals were sent to the area, often to work the mines. “So the region itself was created by bringing these types of criminal people there.” Poverty is high and so is disillusionment, “what they believe in is money and alcohol and drugs.” Denis explains.

“It is like Galilee in the land of Israel,” he adds with a laugh. Nathanael’s question from John 1:46 comes to my mind, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Can anything good come from Donbass?

Denis was, as he describes it, “a very bad egg,” prior to going through drug rehab. Afterward, he read about the man from whom Jesus cast out demons, “Jesus told him to go back home.” So Denis returned to his prior world, telling all of his former friends that another way of life was possible. “I started testifying to my friends and that was how our church was born. If God had not called us to himself we would most likely be a part of the conflict right now.”

Andrew asks him what he thinks is the root of the conflict now raging in Eastern Ukraine. “That depends on what point of view you look from,” he responds. He thinks the state of Donbass – the drugs, alcoholism, criminal activity, etc – gave birth to what is happening now. But it is churches that have done nothing that he also holds responsible. He tells us of pleading with churches in western Ukraine for help in reaching out to his fellow citizens in Donbass, for help in bringing hope and love and healing. But they were afraid.

“In western Ukraine there are churches in almost every neighborhood. There could be two churches next door and still they’re planting more and I look at this and ask their pastors, ‘Are you making fun of us? You could come to Donbass where we need churches.'”

He throws up his hands and shakes his head. “During one of my journeys [to the war zone] I was talking with one of the guys at the checkpoint. Many of the guys have badges on their shirts with the fish, the Christian fish. And I had this thought, Why didn’t those believer guys come to us in Donbass and work with us to try to revive the church? But now these guys are coming as military men, as soldiers. Now they’re not coming to preach the gospel but to shed blood. It would have been much better to experience some temporary discomfort and some little sufferings and to come and bring the gospel in themselves at that time than to come now and kill people. They could have been a living sacrifice, now they are just a sacrifice.”

He has been looking past us, past the men at the table, into a different future than the one Donbass seems destined toward. Now he turns to look at us directly. “But I think that this is not just the problem of the region or the problem of Ukraine, but the problem of the whole Church.”

Volunteers serve food to hungry citizens of Donbass. Photo credit: Sasha Khomych

Volunteers serve food to hungry citizens of Donbass. Photo credit: Sasha Khomych

I ask him what kind of response he would like to see from the international Church. “First of all, prayers,” he lists them off, “people, maybe some urgent needs like food or medicine. That’s all.”  Then he changes his mind, fixing those earnest eyes on me. “What we need is love and participation. Compassion.” His eyes crinkle into a grin, as he shakes his finger at us, “because you cannot hide behind your ocean.”

His eyes are kind but his rebuke is real, “If one member of the church is suffering, then the whole body suffers. This is why we try to work intensively there.”

Intensively is the right word for it. Denis and the elders of the church had decided to remain in the region as long as possible, but when the fighting became too severe they decided they could do more good by evacuating – but they did not abandon Donbass. They have set up a rotation where two families go to Donbass for two weeks and when they return, another two depart.

Yesterday, we met one family that recently returned from their rotation. Marina and Vitale laughed with us as they told us their story, their eyes bright and joyful despite the destruction they have witnessed.

“The night we left Luhansk,” Marina began, “standing at the railway station, there were thousands of people standing, waiting for the train. So we hear this sound, raise our heads and see this big ball of fire flying. Everyone fell on the ground, praying, ‘Lord help us!’ We were not standing at the main railway station, but another one. The shell hit the main station, which was close-by.

“At that moment everyone started running, forgetting their children, trying to get on the train. The people would not let us on the train, they wanted to check our tickets. The panic there was scarier than the shell itself, because if someone fell – nobody would care and that person would be trampled to death.”

“So, now we are here.” Vitale interjects, with a laugh at the sudden transition. The church is spread out, staying at three different church/school buildings in Kharkiv. “The pastor of our church has a new vision now,” he says, speaking of Denis, “he wants to go back to our home and serve people there.”

Two days ago Marina and Vitale returned to Kharkiv from one such mission back to Donbass. “The elderly people and mothers and children, they are all starving” Marina tells us.

“Many churches have helped us and we collected humanitarian aid. We bought food and took a truck-full of food to help. The way our ministry goes is every two weeks, two families load a car full of food and go home for two weeks. Then when they return, another family from here goes for two weeks. This is how we organize the work and food supply. We also use every opportunity to share the gospel there as well.”

“How did it feel to be back in your hometown?” I asked them, “How has it changed?”

Marina looks down and gives her head a slight shake, “There is no peace, you can not relax. It is continuous tension. While driving there, the things we would see from our windows were like films about war: destruction, people digging trenches, houses and land bombed; the earth is on the road from explosions; military equipment, military men, checkpoints. And you understand that somewhere, not far from here there, is a front line where there is actual fighting.”

Marina & Vitale, at the school in Kharkiv where they are staying

Marina & Vitale, at the school in Kharkiv where they are staying

Back in the church basement, I ask Denis the question that has been boiling in my soul since we first arrived in the country nearly a month ago, “What does Jesus’ command to love our enemies look like at this time in Ukraine?”

“This command will always be up-to-date.” He answers immediately, then continues with an explanation. “Look, I have friends who are on both sides: guys who are with the Ukrainian Army and guys who are with the rebels. They are all good guys, guys who are truthful who want to know what is right. So I don’t see the reason for the fighting, I can’t understand it.

We will have to make peace sooner or later. Neither of the nations will be completely annihilated, so in the end we will still have to live together, and this fight will have no point.”

He tells the story of a member of their church, Misha, whose brother was killed. “I told him, ‘you now have the opportunity to show people the example of forgiveness, you can forgive those who killed your brother, you can show your parents the power of forgiveness, what it means to forgive.'”

“We need to preach forgiveness.” He asserts pointedly. “But many people are disappointed in this word.” After studying Nelson Mandela and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, he is convinced this is the only way forward. He tells us Desmond Tutu’s words are as applicable in Ukraine as they were in South Africa, “there will be no future without forgiveness.”

As our time together draws to a close, I wonder again, can anything good come from Donbass? The answer comes from the unlikely company of criminals and drug addicts: Yes, resoundingly, yes.


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