Worship according to the gospel
Roger L. Neumann
Ukraine has a deep history in Lutheranism, dating back to the Lutheran Reformation in the mid 1500s. After the Counter-Reformation and a union with Moscow in the 17th century, Lutheranism was preserved among the German colonists. Native Ukrainians, however, were forbidden under the fear of death to belong to any church body except the Russian Orthodox church.
From 1925 to 1939, when western Ukraine was a part of Poland, there were 25 Lutheran congregations with a total membership of more than ten thousand. But when Russia invaded western Ukraine in 1939, many Lutheran pastors, deacons, and laypeople were arrested and either murdered or placed into concentration camps. Lutheranism became an illegal religion, buildings were seized, and people were forced to practice their faith in secret.
In the Ukrainian Lutheran Church (ULC) today, almost everyone still has a story or a memory of the time between 1939 and 1991 that burns in their hearts and minds—of family members who were sent to concentration camps, had property taken away, or were killed by the KGB simply because they were Lutheran.
Some of the scars remain. Many today will not give out their addresses or phone numbers for contact information. These people have a fear—“Why do you want to know this?”—that still lives on after the years of oppression. That makes it difficult for the church to follow up on visitors or visit the homes of the children who attend vacation Bible school or Christmas services.
Stepan Ksiondzyk lived through some of those years. He still lives where he lived then—in Kremenets. He wasn’t Lutheran at the time. He was a deacon in the Russian Orthodox church when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. The church was ruled by the Communist overlords, and if church leaders didn’t do the bidding of their overlords they lost their parishes or their parishes were closed.
Stepan asked his bishop if he could conduct private services at his home and also be authorized to perform baptisms, marriages, and funeral services. His bishop approved, and Stepan then led services, often in the middle of the night. Some of those attending were family members of city officials of Kremenets. Some of these people were openly loyal to the Communist party. In time he thought it was possible to reopen their church building. Materials were donated, such as bricks, boards, nails, cement, and plaster, which were usually brought under the cover of darkness. But the local KGB major was determined to stop the project. This major arrested Stepan and demanded he give up the names of those who donated materials. He was severely tortured and let go with the warning that if he kept up his religious activities he would not live more than a month.
During that month, a woman came to Stepan’s door in the middle of the night telling him her husband had died and requesting the deacon to bury him. Stepan learned that this man was the KGB major. His wife said that he had repented and confessed the Christian faith, so Stepan buried the one who had threatened and tortured him. The Lord protects his faithful ones!
Stepan tells of his conversion to the Lutheran faith, “When I worked for the bus garage in Kremenets, the congregation of the ULC rented a hall in that building for their services. I stopped by to see how Lutherans worship the Lord, and I immediately noticed the difference between the Russian Orthodox and Lutheran worship. Lutherans worship God according to the gospel.” He added, “You can see this especially at the Lord’s Supper with the Words of Institution. I understood that they do according to the Word of God.”
Stepan knew that this was where he wanted to worship. He continued, “I left the Russian Orthodox church and began to attend worship services at the ULC congregation in Kremenets.”
He felt very welcome in this congregation. “I was invited to sing in the choir,” he says. “With time, they commissioned me to serve as deacon. For 22 years now I serve as a deacon, with the help of the Lord.”
I asked Stepan to describe life in present-day Ukraine. He said, “Life in Ukraine is very difficult for all people because of the war in the east. We thank the Lord that in his mercy he does not let war reach all the way here. But I suffer in my soul since they kill there, blood is shed, and people die. We pray to the Lord that he stops this war. Only he can do it and do it in such a way that all the people will marvel what miraculous things the heavenly and holy Lord can do.”
When asked about religious life and if he still felt that there was oppression to the church, Stepan commented, “Lately religious life in Ukraine has changed. As Ukraine became free, the life of Christians became better. People began to visit churches more often. Christians are not persecuted anymore.”
Finally I asked, “What do you want people to know about you now?” He said, “For me, my faith is life with God. Not once did I doubt that the Lord has been and continues to help me in difficult minutes of my life and the life of my family. The Lord has heard my prayers and has been solving all our problems. My family and I are sincerely grateful to the Lord for his wonderful care for us. I will try to serve my Lord with all my strength and love.”
Stepan and his wife are retired now and have a small garden where they grow fruit and vegetables.
Stepan is respected by all who know him, as a humble and faithful servant of our Lord. He, along with the many people of the ULC whom I’ve met, are a warm and welcoming people. I will pass on to you what I hear from them quite often, “Please tell your people in America, come and visit us in Ukraine some time.”
Roger Neumann, the World Missions’ liaison to the Ukrainian Lutheran Church, is pastor at Grace, Oskaloosa, Iowa.
Ukrainian Lutheran Church
Baptized national members: 761
Organized congregations: 18
Preaching stations: 3
Unique fact: The ULC only has five buildings for the entire church body. Most congregations worship in rented facilities or in homes. This is a major hindrance to church work.
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Author: Roger L. Neumann
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 2016
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