Ukraine Baptists seek one-on-one church partnerships to rebuild after war

INDIANAPOLIS (BP) – Igor Bandura remembers how Southern Baptists helped Ukrainian Baptists expand their reach after independence from Russia in 1991. He hopes for something of a repeat when the current war with Russia ends.

“When freedom came, many churches from the Southern Baptist Convention started to come, send teams, and there were partnerships between” state conventions and specific areas of Ukraine, recalls Bandura, vice president of the All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (Ukraine Baptist Union).

“People came and they helped us evangelize to plant new churches, to run summer Bible camps, to support our seminaries that we started, and to bring and distribute Bibles.”

The Ukraine Baptist Union grew from 900 churches to more than 2,000 within a decade or so, Bandura told Baptist Press, and amid the current war comprises 2,300 congregations.

This time around, Bandura hopes individual Southern Baptist congregations will partner with individual Ukraine Baptist churches to help the European congregations rebuild after the war. He came from Irpin, Ukraine, to host a booth in the 2024 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting exhibit hall to encourage such collaborations.

“We started to pray and think about doing something similar again,” he said of fellow Baptist pastors in Ukraine. “We don’t expect churches (to) send teams to Ukraine during the wartime; it’s risky. … But we are praying that maybe after the war, 200-300 Ukrainian churches would partner with 200-300 American churches, just church-to-church partnerships.

“And then, how God would lead them really to cooperate to rebuild Ukraine, rebuild our churches, and share the gospel in these difficult, difficult times of the war.”

Bandura wants churches to begin partnerships now, having them firmly in place by the war’s end.

Despite Russia’s persistence and size, Bandura and other Ukrainian Baptist pastors are hopeful and prayerful God will preserve the Baptist witness in Ukraine and greater Europe by maintaining Ukraine’s independence as a stronghold for religious liberty.

“When the war came, it was like evil interrupted everything we have done,” Bandura said, expressing the Ukraine Baptist Union’s desire for people to convert to Christianity and experience how the gospel can penetrate all societal spheres. “So for us – this is our country, this is our home – the war was unjust because it’s not like a conflict between two countries. It was unprovoked war. We didn’t expect that war.

“For us, it just is a matter of justice,” Bandura said. “God is the God of justice and we would like to stay there, to keep our presence, to witness that God is still with Ukraine, to minister to our people in the most difficult time, taking care for their souls and their bodies, mourning with them.”

Faith has persisted and grown during the war, according to statistics Bandura distributed in the booklet, “Called to serve in the wartime: Even the war cannot stop the power of the gospel.”

The 2024 snapshot of Ukraine records that 65 churches have been planted, some of them to serve internally displaced refugees, and 6,900 new believers were baptized in the first two years of the war. Almost 500 new pastors and deacons have been ordained. Ukrainian refugees in Europe have planted 105 churches since the war began, and have formed 21 Christian fellowship groups.

In Russian-occupied areas including Crimea, 110 of the 320 churches that existed before the full-scale invasion are now closed, Bandura said.

In the first year of the war alone, Russia murdered at least 26 religious leaders of various denominations, tortured others and imprisoned many, and heavily damaged or destroyed at least 500 churches and other religious places of worship, according to statistics released by the United State Commission on International Religious Freedom and other like-minded advocates.

At Bandura’s pastorate in Irpin, four members have been killed fighting on the war’s frontlines. The church’s 700 members evacuated during Russian occupation, with Bandura sending his to Germany as he remained internally displaced in Ukraine.

About two-thirds of the church’s members have returned to Irpin, Bandura said, since Ukraine delivered the area from Russian control, but he believes some Christians will never return to Ukraine because of the arduous task of rebuilding.

Bandura’s Irpin home survived Russian occupation.

“It was a miracle,” he told Baptist Press. “I didn’t expect it, but our house was still there. It was not destroyed.” He only had to replace six broken windows and repair holes in the roof, he said, but suffered lapses in utilities and clean running water.

Bandura encourages Southern Baptists to partner with Ukraine in prayer as the war continues. Those interested in starting partnerships to rebuild churches and ministries may contact Bandura at [email protected], [email protected], or 38-067-656-8052. Ministry updates are available at baptyst.com.

“This is what we know about God. God is always with His people, not only when everything is good, but especially when everything is bad,” Bandura said. “This we believe this is the best time for the gospel.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)

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