When Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, the lives of Stefan (South Africa) and his family turned upside down. For three days, they stayed inside their home in Ukraine, afraid and not sure how to respond. But on the third day, they asked themselves: “Are we going to sit here in our house the whole time, or can we start serving and helping people?”
They began by mobilising the international church in Odessa. Believers helped students cross the Moldovan border to safety, started sending supplies to other cities and spent time caring for westbound refugees staying in a halfway house. Before the war, Stefan used his skill with numbers to provide financial feedback to donors. Now, he spends much of his time reporting on donations that support the team during this crisis.
Serving in Ukraine was not the life Stefan expected when he was younger. He grew up in Pretoria, South Africa, and did not know Ukraine existed until he was in college. Stefan and his siblings were raised to attend church every week, but he remembered they lacked a personal relationship with Christ. When Stefan was 13, however, his parents radically changed. One Sunday, a Jesus follower from Belgium stood up before the church and spoke about how he preached the gospel so people would be saved. The message caught his parents’ attention. “They started thinking about this question: What does salvation mean?” Stefan said. After questioning others and examining themselves, they understood and believed in Jesus’ words in John 14:6, when He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (ESV).
About a year later, Stefan’s parents decided to work full-time in missions. Their choice began another shift in Stefan’s world, and he began questioning what Christianity was and how it fit into his life.
That same year, Stefan attended a Christian youth camp. In one session, he remembered thinking to himself: “You can preach old man; I’m going to sleep.” But Stefan soon noticed the deep conviction as the man warned about the consequences of sin. As the preacher named specific sins, Stefan realised they all described his life. When he heard how such sins saddened God, he remembered his father’s words: that everyone has to decide for themselves to follow Jesus, and at that moment, he understood what he must do.
As he closed, the preacher invited people to give their lives to Christ. Stefan stepped forward. When he opened his eyes after praying, he found his brother and sister beside him. “It was probably the biggest, best day of my life ever,” Stefan said.
From questioning to obedience
Several years later, in 1994, Stefan was studying theology at the University of Pretoria when friends invited him to go on a short-term outreach to Ukraine. This was the first time he had heard of the country, but Stefan decided to go after hearing it was part of the former Soviet Union. For three months, he spent time with people there, supporting and watching the ministry. “There was a hunger in Ukraine in the early 90s that you cannot explain,” recalled Stefan. He saw thousands gather around those who preached the gospel in the streets. When Stefan returned to South Africa, he told his girlfriend (now wife) that he longed to serve full-time in Ukraine.
For more than 19 years now, Stefan has served in Ukraine with OM, gaining a love for the language, culture, food and, most of all, the people.
When the invasion began, all of these things were threatened. Now, there are constant dangers from air strikes, risks in travelling to escape and questions about whom to trust. There is also the ever-rising cost of living. Stefan said the price of almost everything has gone up by 20 to 100 per cent. Gas prices have nearly doubled. Millions of people are displaced from their homes and families. These challenges have impacted people regardless of where they are––at the front lines or on the other side of the country. In the storm of trials brought on by the war, Stefan constantly sees God’s provision so he can serve others.
In the early months of the war, Stefan and his wife regularly used their personal van to drive people to the border. Shuttling people between towns was not normally something he would have done. “Some of us had to serve in new capacities, but we did that because we really wanted to make a difference,” Stefan explained. One day, when other workers were driving people to the border, the engine sized up, leaving the car completely unrepairable. “That’s the only vehicle we had,” said Stefan. “We had that bus for almost 15 years.” Not only was this a blow to Stefan’s family, trapping them in their town but also meant they could no longer give rides to others.
Stefan said he was never concerned because he knew that God would provide a vehicle. However, he had no idea where help would come from. When he found out OM leaders in Europe gave the go-ahead to purchase a new car, he said: “I was without words, and I had no idea what to say because we didn’t expect the leadership to do that.” He plans to continue using their new vehicle to serve others by driving people and supplies wherever they need to go.
With increasing costs and a lack of quality medical care, many OMers need personal help in Ukraine. Stefan is thankful that he can use some of the resources to help meet those needs. He explained that if he could not meet the current needs of his fellow workers now, it would harm their ministry to the community in the future. In the middle of a crisis, every gift given to support the least reached in Ukraine brings a fresh breath to the Jesus followers who serve them.
In the midst of this evolving conflict, there is an opportunity for believers everywhere to respond to the critical needs of Ukrainians fleeing their homes and homeland, and to demonstrate God’s care to the hurting. Find out more here.