My notes for Panel Discussion on The Ukrainian American Community and Religious Life (Moderator: Andrew Sorokowski). “Ukrainian Historical Encounters Series”. Special Event:
Celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Organized Ukrainian American Community. Princeton Club of New York, September 21 2019
Today we celebrate our freedom, freedom to be different in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion. And for us as Ukrainian-American Evangelicals religious freedom seems to be the cornerstone of all other freedoms and rights. We are minority without illusions or ambitions to change this status. But we want to be influential minority and fulfill our specific mission.
The combination of these words “Ukrainian-American Evangelicals” is rather complicated. Ukrainian evangelical community integrates well into American life, accepts and respects spiritual and political culture of their new homeland, and at the same time doesn’t forget about Ukraine. I must say that the key word for evangelical Christians is not culture but mission. We define ourselves in terms of mission, not culture or ethnicity. Without denying our ethnic identity we are focusing on our mission. In this way we recognize our responsibility before God and people to fulfil our Christian mission and through it – fulfil the moral and historical duty to the people that share our land, blood, language and faith.
I represent the evangelical community here in three ways: as a minister of a Ukrainian Baptist Church, as a leade of a Christian missionary agency, and as a Protestant theologian.
Already, this list contains something typical for us as evangelical believers. We profess the principles of holistic mission of the church in the world – when preaching the Gospel, church pastoral care, diaconal ministry and Christian education complement each other.
Ukrainian churches used to focus on the first point. They preached Gospel of personal salvation without engaging public sphere. Revolution of Dignity brought a lot of changes. Churches got rid of their self-focus, self-absorption in their own world and acquired a new impulse, new understanding of their mission in ministry in their distant homeland. Organization that I work for, sent hundreds of containers with clothes and food, most of which were collected by local church communities and delivered by young volunteers from evangelical Churches.
But we understand it now that it’s only part of a bigger holistic mission. We can distribute millions of food packages but sooner or later we’ll have to ask ourselves a question, why did this all happen and how can it be ended? It’s essential here to raise Christian awareness. During the Revolution of Dignity we distributed over half a million of copies of Scripture and other Christian literature. But not everyone can read, understand or implement these sacred texts. We need to provide training programs for a widest possible range of people so that Christian values and principles, and overall understanding of Christian worldview would become an asset of our entire nation. Of course, we have to teach how to be a patriot, but first of all we have to learn and teach what does it mean to be a good Christian.
The same applies to humanitarian aid. Not only do we need to distribute aid, but integrate these people into communities. Not only do we need to extend a hand of help but a hand of fellowship. First of all, to children, teenagers, and young generation. I have just returned from Eastern Ukraine and can say that our most successful projects are children’s clubs. These are communities where they help each other and grow together.
We need to have more projects that bring people together. When we show compassion, solidarity and cultural engagement through these projects, old traumas and divisions will be healed. First Ukrainian evangelical Christians in the US opposed traditional religions, especially Orthodox. They still remembered the persecutions that they suffered in Ukraine from the imperial church of MP. But they – Ukrainian evangelical Christians – had more fellowship and understanding with the churches that were independent from Moscow. I remember when during Ukrainian prayer breakfast in Washington a leader of Ukrainian Baptists called the head of the UOC KP “Our Patriarch.” By the way, this prayer breakfast is a wonderful platform for meeting people, being in a fellowship and praying together. A new community springs up there – a community that is united in their Christian care for Ukraine. Every year we help honorable delegates from Ukraine and diaspora to participate in the presidential breakfast in Washington. Part of this program is the Ukrainian prayer breakfast. All our guests say that the Ukrainian prayer breakfast is more interesting than the presidential one.
As for “our” “patriarch.” Back then, in the period after Maidan, we all thought that all Ukrainian Christians are brothers and sisters. We thought we entered a new phase in the relationship of protestants with the Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. We still live with that sentiment. At the same time, we have become more careful in our attempts to draw closer. As you know, the relations between Ukrainian churches have entered a new phase that can be conditionally called “after Tomos.” This is the time when many things have been revealed, including unhealthy ambitions of well-known church leaders. But at the same time, new possibilities of closer ties between churches and their joined ministry to our people open up.
Our churches are called evangelical. And this expresses our main value – we don’t want to only believe but also live according to the gospel. If each church tradition can set an example of living faith and faithfulness to the gospel we will be closer to each other and will be able to serve our people better. We believe that only when we turn to the gospel, its truths and values, our nation will truly be free and unified.
Yes, we build international partnerships and try to serve our country with a wide range of resources, but above all, we remain faithful to our Christian mission. Church should be the heart of public life for Ukrainians and the gospel should be the heart of personal life.
Alas, but I don’t believe in merely political ways of resolving the military conflict in the east of Ukraine. In spring of 2015 a Ukrainian politician called me and said, “Michael, we need to call for international protestant diplomacy. Something needs to be done. It smells like disaster.” And we called for diplomacy and gathered not only politicians but primarily leaders of public opinion, intellectuals, and moral leaders in London, Istanbul, Kyiv, and Washington. And all of them told us the same thing, that confrontation lines lie in religious breaches; that it will be very hard to heal the wounds of conflict in Eastern Ukraine because this region is nominally religious and people don’t truly know the Gospel and its values. And then we used local protestant and Orthodox churches to get help to people and make churches the centers of help and hope. All of that caused such hatred of MP that a number of local protestant leaders were tortured to death and their churches lost their premises and all other possessions. For example, combat units from Russia are placed at the campus of Donetsk Christian University. They set up cells for prisoners-of-war in the basement of the dormitories. And they destroyed the university collection of English books on theology as incompatible with “Russian world” and its Orthodoxy.
Thinking about all this I think not as much about our enemies but rather about spiritual state of our people. It would be hard to help people who lost their faith. If our people stop reading the Bible and forget how to pray, all other traditions will lose meaning and their spiritual foundation.
Along with this, our churches are quite conservative and respectful of traditions. This is our positive distinction from most modern Western protestant movements. We are characterized by the fear of God, awe and reverence before God, deep commitment to the mission of God in the world and His Holy Church. I think that this brings all Ukrainian denominations closer and makes them stand out amid others. I so wish this would be kept and passed on to our nation as a beautiful heritage. I wish that our long-suffering people would not merely receive some help from church but a good pastoral admonition; that they would not merely live on bread alone but on God’s Word; that they would not merely receive from Church but would go to church; that they would not merely remember about God at times of need but would make faith and church as the center of their life – both personal and public. Ukrainian diaspora, as well as Ukraine, lives its Christian faith, its Christian mutual support and its Christian unity. And in all of this evangelical Christians have a special mission – and that is to keep the gospel as the core of our faith, teach it to simple people and demonstrate it in deed, through charity and enlightenment. In comparison with Orthodox and Greek Catholic traditions, we are not as rich in history and culture but we know and keep the living gospel, we remember and value our special mission. And we are happy to use this precious gift to serve God and our nation.