Imagine yourself driving across Ukraine. Its larger than Texas, and most of the roads are akin to the secondary highways in Germany or America; you won’t find many Autobahn or Interstate-class highways. As you enter each village, you’d typically see the town name on a simple white sign, and when leaving you’d see the same town name on a black sign. In 2009, I saw bunch of the white “welcome to ____ ” and black “you’re leaving ____” signs as my team leader and I drove through a number of little towns outside Kiev, through thirty to forty kilometers of flat wooded pine forests, on our way to Klavdiievo (Клавдієво) where the Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Kiev was holding classes.
Later that week I saw the same white signs welcoming me as I walked up the stairs to enter the Chernobyl museum in Kiev. Countless Ukrainians lives were changed forever when catastrophe struck reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear plant April 26, 1986. The museum told the story of the disaster, and cataloged the responses of people worldwide. If you’d been there with me, you would have seen a diorama of the disaster, models of the town and the plant, paintings and poetry by Ukrainian artists reflecting on the ruins and the radiation, newspapers headlines from global cities, and letters children sent to Ukrainian kids from all over the world. You’d see photography exhibits of deserted villages in the exclusion zone today, a bright-red doll against a grey wall, abandoned where children left it, books laying open on people’s tables, or dishes left from interrupted meals. Leaving the museum, as you exited down the staircase that brought you in, you would see those familiar black “you’re-leaving-town” road signs, except there was a bright red slash through each village: obliterated, you’ll never see them again.
Even today, twenty-six years later, the effects of the radiation from the plant are on-going, and a new construction project is underway to build a new sarcophagus to cover the ruins of the explosion and the old crumbling sarcophagus. The works of man’s hands often crumble, and the best of our intentions can end in disaster.
The Chernobyl disaster is only one event. Ukrainians have faced a long, difficult history. Three Ukrainians I met may give you a brief glimpse of Ukrainian’s bitterness:
- A early thirty-something carpenter from eastern Ukraine, and a non-Christian, told me in 2009 he wasn’t proud of his country: “We’ve longed for freedom for hundreds of years, but after 18 years of freedom, we don’t know what to do with it and we’re not better off than under the USSR. In the west, they say they’ve got culture and cafes, but in the east, we build things!” He was bitter, looking for hope.
- A twenty-something Ukrainian guy who’d worked as a life-guard in Boston, also not a Christian, told me he was upset by the high levels of corruption he saw in business and government in 2009, and the way people didn’t care for the environment. Yet when he has kids he wants to raise them in Ukraine, because he said most Ukrainian kids are still care for their parents when they’re older, but in America once kids are 18 they ignore mom and dad. His cynicism was real.
- Ukraine has been divided east and west along ethno-linguistic and religious lines since at least the time of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and the Russian Empire in the sixteenth century. In 2007, one of my English students, a university student from L’viv in patriotic west Ukraine, told me her rock band only sings Ukrainian language songs, and if she hears people speaking Russian on the street she’ll tell them to quit speaking Russian–this is Ukraine. Her ethnocentrism was understandable, but ugly.
Yet there is a source of hope in the face of Ukraine’s harsh realities. When God’s people were captive in exile, thousands of years ago, God answered Daniel’s prayer in an impossible situation, sparing his and his friends lives, and giving a promise about the growth of God’s kingdom: a stone not cut by human hands would grow and fill the entire earth, smashing the empty kingdoms we set up (Daniel 2). That living stone is growing in Ukraine, not by the works of human hands, but by the grace of God.
Two out of every three Ukrainians may be atheist, but the gospel of Jesus’ grace is growing, changing hearts and attitudes in the people of God. The third person above, one of my former English students, was also a follower of Jesus. When I asked her if she only worships in Ukrainian, she said that she’s happy to worship in Russian, English, or Ukrainian, because God is the God of all peoples. That’s the living hope of the gospel, the growing stone of Christ, beginning to crush her ethnocentric-kingdom and replace it with a heart for the world. As Bono sang, “… Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.”
Christ himself is the living stone (1 Peter 2), and because he lives I have hope in the face of Ukraine’s difficult history and hard present. He’s called me to serve there and is calling you to pray and give to send me.