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Helping a neighbor as a sense of life

One of the most dangerous ministries at the moment is traveling to settlements on the front lines. Ministry in the Donetsk stretches back to 2014, shortly after the outbreak of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Sergey, a pastor and one of the founders of the Mennonite church in Avdiiivka, has been regularly going to the Donetsk region for almost 8 years bringing with him edifying words and humanitarian aid. He shared his experience with us.

Sergey, what did you do before the Russian invasion?

- I believe that the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in 2014. Back then, from the very first days, we began work in places bordering the occupied territories. These are Avdeevka, Ocheretino, Netaylovo, Umanskoe and many others. We took humanitarian aid there and organized the work of a training center. There, we taught Christian ethics to young people, and conducted seminars for teachers to increase stress resistance and improve team-building skills. The children's ministry was also actively developing: we had several children centers there. In parallel with this, we worked in the spiritual field, churches were being born there, people would get baptized and live a Christian life.

How has your ministry changed since February 24 this year?

- We tackled evacuation of people from Avdiivka, Ocheretino and other cities in the region where we have churches. Later, there were also people in Zaporozhye, who also needed to be picked up. We would pick everyone up and take them to Western Ukraine. From here we would take humanitarian aid and get it to the Donbass and to other ruined cities, such as Akhtyrka, Kharkiv. Wherever hostilities have been or are being fought, we deliver food, medicine, everything people might need. Then again, we would take people out of there. So this is kind of a flow of events we’re spinning around. My life is now taken up by trips from one end of Ukraine to the other.

What do civilians experience living under shelling?

- Fear. What they experience is fear, horror, the constant threat of death and uncertainty about the future. If you take Avdiivka, the gunfire there is day-to-day: they shell from morning to evening every day. People never see the daylight, due to the fact that they are constantly in bomb shelters. Within a short break [between the shelling], people have to cook up some food and store some water. They cook on campfires: there is no electricity in the town...

- There are those who do not want to leave, although even volunteers from the local authorities are urging everyone to move out. Why won’t they leave? I cannot tell. Maybe it’s the fear of abandoning property, although many don’t have it anymore, maybe the fear of the unknown, when they don’t know where to go, and there are those who are simply opposed to Ukraine.

Have you gotten under the shelling?

- Yes, more than once. During the last trip to Avdiivka, I had to lie in a recess on the side of the road for more than half an hour, waiting for the gunfire to cease. If you hear a shell whooshing, then you know that it is not flying at you, but nearby, but you still fall to the ground, because the fragments shatter very far. The locals didn't even want to come out of the cellars. They do not react the way we do, they are inured to it. And in 2016, there were shelling right during our youth meetings. It's always like this in Avdiivka: the was rages, but life must go on. Although now everything is much more intense there, a lot of destruction and victims.

Were there situations when you knew that a miracle had happened?

- Yes, it happened exactly that time when we were waiting for the shelling lying on the side of the road. Before that, we had a choice: continue to go to deliver the aid or to leave. We drove to the village of Tonenkoe. 10 minutes before arrival, I became anxious, and I decided to clarify, what if this village is already under the control of Russia. I call my friend, talk to him for about a minute and a half. “Yes, you can go,” he says. We drive further and as we enter the village; a shell hits some fifty meters in front of us. If I had not spent some time on the call, I think we would have been right in the kill zone. I realized that it was nothing but God's hand that saved our lives.

What are the results of your ministry?

We see that the help we bring is being used by people. People are not starving, thanks to this help. We are doing everything that is necessary, according to our common vision of this situation. I personally have already evacuated more than 100 people from hot spots. In total, more than 50 tons of humanitarian products have been delivered to places affected by the war since the beginning of the conflict. This includes food, hygiene items and pieces of Christian literature as part of iCare boxes, and also medicines. In addition to food, we give people copies of the New Testament and children's Bibles. We understand people's need for a kind word and God's love, and we try to support them in this aspect. That's all I have to say about the results of the work so far.

What does the church need now?

- Integrity. Families were divided, churches got empty because the people had left. Both those who left, and those who stay are starting a new life. The leadership of the churches will have to solve the issue of building communication and maintaining unity. Or maybe this is God's providence, and He will build something new on the ruins. Because not only buildings are collapsing, but also the connections. War, like a rocket, hit our unity. How to solve this issue? We try to keep in touch online, with those who are abroad, and we travel to those who have not left the country to keep in touch in person. This is what we are doing to address this issue right now.

What are your prayer requests?

- Most of all I wish for life to return into its peaceful course. They can take my son into the army; I don’t even worry about myself as much as about him. My wife and daughter are abroad. I want them back, but that will only be possible when it's all over. Of course, I ask you to pray for a ceasefire, for reunification in our churches. Against the backdrop of the coming humanitarian crisis, please pray for resources to continue serving. We already see this need, which is only just gaining momentum over time.

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