In the midst of the war in Ukraine, the mission of the church remains

A bombed-out school in Opytne, a village in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, reflects the devastation of war. (Getty Images)

By Cheryl Magness

On Thursday February 24, Russia launched an early morning invasion of Ukraine. As the conflict enters its second month, members of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) continue to pray for those affected and seek opportunities to help.

A coup and an invasion

LCMS has been working with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (ELCU), an emerging partner church, for four years. The Rev. Serge Maschewski, ELCU Bishop, studied in the Russian Project at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, in the 1990s. He led ELCU congregations out of the Deutsche Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche der Ukraine ( DELKU) – which is affiliated with the German state church, the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) – when the EKD ordered the Ukrainian church to accept the ordination of women. and the LGBTQ agenda. Over the past two years, the EKD, in cooperation with others, has carried out a coup against the ELCU, taking over the ELCU headquarters in Odessa, Ukraine, and seizing its bank accounts . Maschewski, his wife and their two sons were forcibly removed from the building and thrown onto the streets.

The Reverend James A. Krikava, Associate Executive Director of the LCMS Office of International Missions, notes that the coup against the ELCU occurred before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Before the coup, a couple of LCMS missionaries taught English in Odessa and Dnipro. Theological seminars for pastors were held monthly, and another missionary family was preparing to deploy to Ukraine to help carry out this work. But for health reasons, the couple had to leave the field, and when violence broke out against the church, the family had to be diverted to Romania. They are now helping with the relief effort there.

Meanwhile, the LCMS still had a family of missionaries working in Russia, even after the assault on Ukraine began. Reverend Jerry Lawson taught at the Bible Institute of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia, a partner church of LCMS. Lawson, his wife, and their two children lived and served in St. Petersburg, away from the fighting, and Krikava watched over them daily.

As the war in Ukraine escalated, however, notice came that all Americans must leave Russia. This proved to be a challenge, as flights from Western countries were prohibited from entering Russian airspace. To leave by plane, the Lawsons would have had to fly to Turkey or a country in the Middle East to return to Europe.

Eventually, the Finnish consulate in St. Petersburg offered to take them on a diplomat bus traveling from St. Petersburg to Helsinki. The crossing of the border was not easy, because in addition to the Russian border guards, there were many Russian soldiers, heavily armed, thoroughly searching all the luggage.

“Praise God,” Krikava said, “that the Lawsons got out of Russia safe and sound.” Once they arrived in Helsinki, they were welcomed by pastors and friends from our partner church, the Evangelical Lutheran Missionary Diocese of Finland. They traveled to Riga, Latvia, where, for the time being, Pastor Lawson can continue to teach his theology courses at the Russian Bible Institute, as well as help with the [Lutheran Livonian Project] in Riga.

“Tears of Relief”

Elsewhere in Europe, other LCMS missionaries are also caring for refugees. Reverend Dr. Christian Tiews, LCMS missionary in Germany, provides pastoral care to several Ukrainian families on the run. He recently met one of the families, a mother and her teenage daughter, at the Hamburg train station (the husband/father had stayed behind to help defend his country). Tiews said he wasn’t sure how to identify the women, so he held up a homemade blue and yellow sign with their names on it.

“As the Lord willed,” Tiews said, “[they] landed right in front of me…with tears of relief streaming down their faces after five days on the road. Tiews said he helped the women find their host and accompanied them to the host’s vehicle.

“When we got there, I asked…would they mind if we had a prayer of thanks for their safe arrival,” Tiews continued. The host looked “skeptical,” saying, “Praying isn’t really my thing.”

But the Ukrainians agreed and Tiews prayed with the group, noting that after the prayer the Ukrainians made the sign of the cross. The next day, Tiews said the women’s host called to let her know they were fine. Before hanging up, she added, “Thank you for praying last night. I’m not really into all that religion stuff, but in a way, praying to God made me feel good. It gave me peace.

A “miraculous” outpouring

Krikava said the situation in Ukraine remained “serious” and “became more tense every day”. Asked about the role of the church in times like this, he replied: “It is always the same role, except in extreme conditions: to bring to the people of God their gifts of Word and sacrament. I talk every day with people in Ukraine by video. They are starting to look ragged. Their fear is more noticeable. Yet their faces express the depth of their conviction and their faith. They remain resolute and relatively calm. It’s hard to imagine everything they go through.

Of the Synod’s missionaries in Eurasia, Krikava said they “deserve an A+. First there was COVID, then the persecution – not only in Ukraine, but against our partner church in Finland – and now this war, which affects so many people. Up to 6 million refugees are expected. But our missionaries are doing well. Our partner churches in the area are also helping, and the outpouring of prayers and donations from the people of LCMS has been miraculous.

Learn more about the situation in Ukraine or find out how you can help.

Read previous stories about the crisis in Ukraine:

Posted on March 24, 2022

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Charles K. Eckert