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Ministry inside a war zone


WORLD Radio - Ministry inside a war zone

A Ukrainian Christian talks about his childhood, faith, and ministry

A woman walks with a bicycle passing a heavily damaged school after a Russian attack in Druzhkivka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022. Associated Press Photo/Leo Correa

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, September 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler.

The disturbing images of suffering Ukrainians have shocked the world. And for some Americans, it’s deeply personal.

Sergey Rakhuba is president of Mission Eurasia—a Christian training ministry working in 13 former Soviet bloc countries and the nation of Israel.

BROWN: Rakuba lives in the United States, but he was born and raised in Ukraine and lived in Russia for more than a decade. WORLD’s Jill Nelson recently talked to him about his childhood, faith journey, and ministry inside the war zone.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: In the months following Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, Sergey Rakhuba developed a new routine. First thing each morning he checked in with family and friends to make sure they were still alive.

RAKHUBA: You want to wake up, you can't comprehend. I could not take it. It was happening actually in reality.

Now he worries about his two nephews who deliver humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine.

RAKHUBA: Will never forget the call I got. That was my nephew, apparently. Uncle, I think the war just began.

Rukhuba was born near the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk that is currently occupied by Russian forces. His cousins from his mom’s side still live there. But they have pro-Russian sympathies and refuse to talk to the rest of the family.

RAKHUBA: They blame everybody, blames America. Everybody blames Nazis. We cannot figure out why.

That’s been hard on his extended family.

Rakhuba’s father has a unique conversion story. The German army captured him during World War II and shipped him to a prison camp.

RAKHUBA: He was captured by the Nazis because he was the son of the resistance commander.

He wound up in a refugee camp after American troops freed the region. It was there he heard the gospel through Slavic missionaries and became a Christian.

Rakhuba’s father could have moved to the United States but instead decided to take the gospel back to his homeland. He married a Ukrainian woman he met in Germany and together they had four children.

Rakhuba is the youngest. He remembers the 8-mile walk to church each Sunday and the city inspectors standing at the door.

RAKHUBA: Kids were not allowed in church until the age of 18. There was a special rule. It was a criminal offense.

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union at the time, and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev had banned teaching children religion. But that didn’t stop Rakhuba’s parents.

RAKHUBA: My dad grabs me, like this, so they would not let me in. He grabs me and breaks through to this, kind of totally takes me to church. So they would fine him and it would happen many times throughout the year. That fine was about half of his monthly income for violating the law of taking children to church and so on.

At one point, local authorities told Rakhuba’s family the four kids would be sent to an orphanage.

RAKHUBA: I was like, what, 3, 4 years old? I remember that. So that mom was crying like nothing could comfort her..

But the kids were spared after an internal coup changed the course of Soviet leadership.

During his teen years, Rakhuba questioned his faith.

RAKHUBA: When I was like 15, 16, I thought if that's for me or not. Maybe I should just not follow the path of my parents as a young boy, so teenager. I wanted to be popular.

He would often stay out late with friends. One night, as he was quietly sneaking into their small home after midnight, he heard his parents praying for him.

RAKHUBA: They were praying like it was an enormous tragedy imposed upon them because their youngest one is walking away. I was shocked. I realized if not my parents through all those years, if not their faithfulness, I don't know where I would be.

That moment prompted a change of heart, and he renewed his faith.

He met his wife Tanya in Ukraine and the couple moved to her home city of Moscow in 1983. Rakhuba got involved in youth ministry and church planting.

RAKHUBA: We were distributing smuggled Bibles, so taking all those risks and so on.

Rakhuba eventually helped establish 52 evangelism and church-planting centers in eastern Europe and Asia.

Now, he and his wife live near Wheaton, Illinois and have two grown kids and a young daughter. He has been a part of Mission Eurasia, formerly Russian Ministries, since the early ’90s. He travels to Ukraine, Russia, and other countries in the region four to six times a year.

He’s seen how the Russian war in Ukraine has damaged many of the relationships between Slavic people.

RAKHUBA: Our brothers and sisters in Russia, they're all victims of all this propaganda.

Russian forces in February made it all the way to a suburb of Kyiv called Irpin. They commited hundreds of alleged war crimes and took over Mission Eurasia’s Ministry Center. The building had a dormitory, a dining area, conference rooms, and a warehouse full of Bibles and Christian literature.

RAKHUBA: So we were told they just took it over and turned it into their, like a command outpost for their special force.

When Ukrainian troops retook Irpin in March, the Russian forces burned down the building as they fled. They also killed hundreds of civilians. A video shows bodies lining the street near the destroyed ministry center.

But Mission Eurasia’s work continues, and Rakhuba will soon make his fifth trip to Ukraine since the war began. He has witnessed the pain and trauma Ukrainians struggle to deal with.

RAKHUBA: What I saw was that enormous suffering. Everybody's sharing the same story: Our community, our house was destroyed, we lost family and so on.

That’s why his team isn’t just delivering tens of thousands of food packages to internally displaced people and refugees. They’ve also trained more than 800 camp leaders in trauma counseling. And those leaders worked with around 20,000 women and children over the summer.

RAKHUBA: The psychological or emotional trauma, it's enormous.

Rakhuba says Ukrainians have a long road ahead.

RAKHUBA: I can't comprehend and I can't explain what's good when people suffer and see that suffering. See children being uprooted, losing everything, being traumatized, falling asleep with fear bombs will fall. Hard to justify.

Still, he has hope that God will work through the suffering in his homeland.

RAKHUBA: But God is doing absolutely amazing work. And I think it's possible to see that's good only with the redeemed heart. The Church is becoming extremely powerful, exhausted physically, but unbelievably empowered spiritually to continue bringing the gospel amid this unbelievable tragedy, war, destruction, rising from the ashes of this destruction.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.

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