God’s grace and a decision by church members to focus on mission rather than politics has spared the Seventh-day Adventist Church in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine, a local church leader said.
Lev Vertylo, president of the Eastern Ukrainian Mission, said other Protestant denominations took political sides after the conflict erupted in 2014, and many of their churches have been closed as a result.
The Adventist Church, however, has lost only five of its 101 church buildings, and baptisms have more than doubled.
“The only reason why we are still existing is because we haven't taken political sides,” Vertylo told Adventist Church president Ted N.C. Wilson at a weekend lunch of Ukrainian church leaders in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.
A total of 517 people have been baptized in eastern Ukraine over the past two years, including 256 people in 2016, as a direct result of church members making mission their priority, Vertylo said. Many of those who were baptized sought Bible studies after seeing that Adventists were reaching out to their communities with food, children’s events, and other assistance.
“We directed all our efforts toward community outreach, and the Lord has blessed us,” Vertylo said.
Today the Adventist Church has 2,700 members worshipping in 96 churches in eastern Ukraine, compared to 3,700 members in 101 churches three years ago.
Of the five churches lost in eastern Ukraine, one was completely destroyed during nighttime shelling in 2014. No one was in the church at the time. The local pastor and his family, who were holed up in the basement of their nearby home at the time, escaped unhurt and have since been moved to another church in Ukraine.
Three other churches suffered minor damage in fighting, but they were closed rather than repaired after all local Adventists moved to other cities in Ukraine or in neighboring Russia.
The fifth church was seized and turned into a funeral home.
“The conflict is a great disaster,” Vertylo said. “It is a tragedy for society as well as church members. We as Adventists are only existing there by the grace of God.”
In recent months, it has become more difficult to share the gospel after Russia passed a restrictive religious law in July 2016, he said.
No Adventists have been killed in the conflict, but several have non-Adventist family members who have suffered injuries, said Stanislav Nosov, president of the Adventist Church in Ukraine. More than 9,700 people have been killed in the nearly three-year conflict, according to United Nations estimates.
Michael Kaminskiy, president of the Adventist Church’s Euro-Asia Division, whose territory includes Ukraine, Russia, and much of the former Soviet Union, praised the faithfulness of church members in eastern Ukraine and said he hoped for peace.
“I am praying for peace and the freedom to share their faith,” he said.
Wilson called on church members to remain faithful witnesses for the Lord.
“We are so grateful for God’s continued protection of His people,” he said. “We will pray for the continued spreading of the gospel, which will truly bring fulfillment to their lives.”