All followers of Christ are called to forgive, but few are put to the test like Christians in war-torn countries. Ivan Rusyn, President of Ukranian Evangelical Theological Seminary, says his country’s prolonged conflict with Russia has given believers in Ukraine a new perspective.
“What does peacemaking mean when your loved ones are dead in a war?” he says. “We spoke loudly about peacemaking because we hadn’t paid a price. Ukrainian Christians still believe in forgiveness, but when we speak about it now, we speak very slowly and quietly, because we know how hard it is.”
Rusyn recalls doing ministry in nearby Azerbaijan and speaking naively about forgiveness and love. “Azerbaijan has had a very long conflict with Armenia, and each time I visited Azerbaijan, Azeri people would ask me, ‘What do you think about war?’ I was so quick to give them spiritual answers—that they have to love and forgive, that they have to be peacemakers—because I didn’t know what those things meant,” he says. “After Russia attacked us, I realized that the theology of peacemaking and pacifism we had been preaching was empty because it was not born in the context of war.”
A Dangerous Faith
Although Ukraine is experiencing its first armed conflict since World War II, Christians older than 30 remember hardship and persecution under Soviet rule, which ended in 1991. Rusyn remembers reading the Bible aloud to his grandmother as a child and attending underground church services with his parents. He received his first Bible from a relative who smuggled it across the border from Hungary. “It was a small one, but I felt kind of special because I had my own Bible to read. At that time, you had to be very rich to be able to buy a Bible.”
During the Soviet era, owning a Bible also could be dangerous. Rusyn’s family lived in a small village, so even though the church there was secret and moved its meetings from house to house to avoid raids, other villagers generally knew which families were believers. Christians often refused to wear Communist party symbols like the star of Lenin.
“One day, two police officers came to our door, and when they saw the big family, four kids, I think they had mercy on us. Instead of searching the house, they only checked the passports of my parents and my grandparents,” Rusyn recalls. “If they had searched the house, they would have found and confiscated that New Testament. And my parents would have had to pay a big fine, and might have lost their jobs.”
Others in Rusyn’s church did suffer the consequences for being found with Christian literature, and one pastor was sent to prison for 10 years after he was caught hosting a church gathering in his home.
As a boy, Rusyn knew his Christian faith would keep him from attending college. “Because my family refused to join the Soviet Union party, my first years in school were hard. I didn’t understand why I experienced a negative attitude from my teachers. But to them I was a second-class citizen,” he explains. “Christians were very marginalized. They were not allowed to study at the universities. I knew that I would probably be a driver, or a carpenter, or an electrician, but I had a deep understanding that I wanted to be a minister.”
Discovering His Mission
Religious freedom came to Ukraine with the 1991 independence initiative, which separated the country from the collapsing Soviet Union. Christians no longer had to hide Bibles or fear police raids, and they were no longer barred from higher education. Despite financial hardship, Rusyn’s parents sent him to Kiev to obtain a bachelor’s degree at Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary (UETS). On track to becoming a New Testament scholar and pastor, Rusyn’s career path was interrupted when he read a partial translation of Perspectives, the textbook for Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.
“While reading that book, I realized that mission is very important, and I felt, this is my calling—to study mission and to teach mission and to be involved in mission and education. And I decided to continue my work in the seminary.”
Fifteen years after his enrollment, Rusyn became the seminary’s president. The school draws students from almost every former Soviet nation—not just historically Christian countries, like Russia, Moldova, and Belarus, but also Muslim countries, like Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
“The students coming from a Muslim context are trained for that context in our seminary,” Rusyn says. “We have a special emphasis on mission, cross-cultural ministry, cross-cultural communication, and Islam as a religion and culture. And now our graduating students go back to their home countries to serve there.”
Since some students are unable to travel to Ukraine, UETS also developed a program in which professors go abroad to conduct classes for pastors in a specific region or city.
Rusyn and his colleagues at UETS take seriously Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. They also work to impact their own city of Kiev, where the evangelical church is small. “We represent only about 1 or 2 percent of the population,” Rusyn says. “But we are very active in ministry and in our society, so I would call it an influential minority.”
The students at UETS are required to serve at a local church. Rusyn says that the demand for ministry workers in Kiev is greater than the seminary can provide. “Volunteer work is part of how we train our students. They can get practice and experience and we can support local churches, especially the smaller ones that maybe couldn’t afford to hire more staff,” he says. “The local government asks us to send our faculty and students to run special Christmas and Easter programs for children and elderly people. Having an official invitation from our government has given us unique moments to preach the gospel in many places.”
Peacemakers in War
When the conflict with Russia began in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, displaced residents of the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk began heading west to Kiev, the capital. UETS, which provides meals for needy seniors, was flooded with refugees from the east. “We were not prepared. We didn’t have a budget or a place to house them,” Rusyn recalls. “But we had recently published a journal promoting integral or holistic mission, and we realized that this is God’s lesson for us to practice what we are writing about. We provided accommodations and meals.”
Two families from the city of Lugansk stayed temporarily at UETS, and later, after they had found permanent housing, they sent a minibus loaded with vegetables and bread along with a letter saying, “You helped us, and now we want to help you help others like us.”
“I am very happy that the seminary was a community where refugees could find comfort,” Rusyn says. “We had so much bread given to us that we divided it with other places hosting refugees.”
The ability to share bread is particularly meaningful for Rusyn and his colleagues at the seminary. “For Ukrainians, bread is very significant. In 1932 and 1933, we had the Holodomor—a man-made famine. Up to six million Ukrainians starved to death,” he explains. “Because of this, bread is sacred in our culture. You can’t throw bread away. The metaphor of Jesus as the bread of life has a lot of meaning for Ukrainians, and the image that the Bible is bread for our souls is very important. We use this to help others understand how vital the Bible is to our lives.”
Rusyn says he and his colleagues have been challenged to show the Bible’s relevance to an entire nation traumatized by war. “Ukraine is wounded and distressed. People have post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ve realized that it is not enough just to read the Bible for people. The gospel compels us to serve,” he says. “Our hospitals are packed with wounded soldiers. Our seminary has started a training program for chaplains going to a front line of war, and they spend time with soldiers and serve them.”
The fighting also has energized Rusyn and other Christians to engage in ministry with greater urgency and boldness.
“Our old theology was that people have to come to us. We waited for people to come visit our churches, listen to our sermons, and then repeat the sinner’s prayer. But the war has brought a shift in our destiny,” Rusyn says. “Our challenge now is how to overcome fear and become active. We have to go out with the gospel, even to the front line in a conflict zone.”