Chaplain and volunteer from Kyiv: “Our most important work is listening to people”

The Poltavets family, clergy of the Kiev Messianic Jewish congregation, Valerii – chaplain, Marina – volunteer, received a revelation from God to stay home in Kiev from the first days of the war.

They started as volunteers in the queues of shops and pharmacies, taking aid to the elderly with “crisis” backpacks on foot. Displaced people were served at the main railway station in Kyiv. They were among the first to visit the Kyiv region with humanitarian and psychological aid after de-occupation. And even later they opened the so-called home group near the front line, constantly visiting a unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the eastern part of the country.

– Do you remember what you experienced that day, February 24?

Valerii: “Sadness. Didn’t think it could happen. As a normal person, I was afraid. I asked myself: what to do next?

On the first day, I was very worried about our soldiers who were under fire, because among them were boys I served with when they were still teenagers.

On the second day of the war, a Russian armored troop-carrier drove around near our place of residence, but it is the outskirts of the city, then we heard heavy shots. That’s how we understood that the war had started.

We prayed together with our congregation online. After that, I felt peace, fear disappeared (and it hasn’t to this day), everything became clear: where God has put me to serve, that’s where I have to be.”

Marina: “We were in a constant state of prayer. In the first few days, I remembered that for 15 years we had been praying and asserting God’s authority on our area.

I remembered that at the congregational level, on Hannukah, for several years in a row, we prayed at all the entrances to Kiev so that nothing ungodly would enter the city.

A few years ago, we prayed like this at the crossroads of Irpen and Gostomel. We symbolically placed palm branches there and welcomed Yeshua.

When I remembered this, I was sure that no one would enter Kiev. As long as we are here, at least for our sake, God will keep this place.”

Did you thought about moving to a safer place to live? Why did you stay?

Valerii: “We could leave because we have an empty apartment in central Ukraine. I think we stayed here because of God’s revelation. God showed Marina that everything is covered by prayers and for me the disappearance of fear was indicative when, after this prayer with the congregation, I reacted less emotionally to everything that was happening.”

– How did your volunteer work begin at the beginning of the war?

Marina: “The first thing we thought at the beginning of the war was that there are people who need help. We found a group of volunteers in our district on social networks.

In the early days of the war, when there was no land transport and pharmacies and shops were open at limited hours, we visited people with health problems, some with a critical lack of medicine… We started standing in lines instead of them to buy what they needed.

Half the day I worked and half the day I volunteered on foot in our area. Later we were offered a car. Then we cooperated with other volunteers and together we were more effective.”

– Marina, in the photo on social networks, I saw you many times at the Kyiv Central Railway Station in a police uniform and wearing the emblem “Psychologist. Kyiv police.” So how did you manage to help internally displaced people?

“Through a friend, I ended up serving people at the railway station. She also became a volunteer. Someone wrote somewhere that the station needs psychologists because there is a very large influx of people with children from different regions and they are under a lot of stress.

There is a unit of psychologists in the Kyiv police, but their number was not enough. Moreover, the section should have 24/7 service in shifts. And they recruited volunteer psychologists, I have experience working with people and I’ve also taken psychology courses.

At the station, we mainly talked to people, because they were waiting at least half a day for the evacuation trains. When we had the opportunity to communicate for a long time, we offered the opportunity to pray together. People readily agreed because, as they say, there are no infidels in war. Most people were quite open and asked questions. First, we tried to talk less and listen more.

I believe that the primary task of a Christian volunteer is to be able to listen. Our most important job is to listen to people.

Adults and children drew a lot at the train station. Their drawings showed what they were thinking and experiencing.”

– What kind of emigrants’ story about the “railway station” do you remember the most? Share.

“I heard a lot of scary, interesting and amazing stories there.

I was stunned by the story of a young girl who lived in a basement in Irpin for two weeks. She kept repeating: “I got the coronavirus, I got the coronavirus.” She kept walking around saying that she had a headache because she got the coronavirus.

She did not trust any psychologist or medical service. We made her an anti-cold drink that she didn’t want to drink, suspecting that we had added something to it… We made the drink again in front of her and she drank it. We put her to sleep … I don’t know if she got better, but she stopped repeating the same thing.

It was the most painful story. All other stories are the same. Basically everyone was happy, although many were confused and didn’t know what to do. A large flow of people came from Bucha, Irpin, Chernigov, Kharkiv: everyone felt relieved that they no longer had to hide in basements.”

– Already since April, after the liberation of the Kiev region from the Russian invaders, you started traveling with humanitarian aid to the villages in the Irpin and Bucha regions. What helped you to sustain yourself and support people after the terrible consequences of the occupation?

Valerii: “For the first time in my life, I visited the de-occupied territory. I have never seen such an amount of destroyed military equipment. I have never seen corpses lying on the streets in my life… Of course, all this left a mark on my soul.

But in the process of helping people, such things became secondary, because I was focused on fulfilling my mission – to come, talk, support and listen to people.

Of course they needed humanitarian aid, but everyone wanted to talk about their experiences. And it was necessary to listen… Then the first civil aid was only material, but psychological support from the state came later.

They spoke about everything: how they lived, when the invaders came, who killed who, how they killed… There were very terrible stories about how people sat in basements, how they killed a man who just went to get water.

It didn’t make sense then and even now it doesn’t make sense to me, how can people be killed just because of someone’s whims?

We were on this very street in Butcha, Yablonevskaya, in the photo that the whole world saw. It was there where Russian invaders killed territorial defense soldiers. For us as believers, it is important that people open themselves to the Lord. We prayed with the people. They turned to God. To this day, we build relationships with several families.

You say I experienced stress then? Yes, I was stressed! But I didn’t notice that it had a strong effect on me. I think God saved me from that. He held our emotions. Of course, it was all a real horror… When I saw the severed leg of a Russian soldier in the column of destroyed equipment, it was terrible… You don’t see that every day… On the one hand, I could have rejoiced, but I was sad.”

– Marina, in one of her Instagram messages wrote: “Many people write that we are great, that we go to Irpin, Bucha to take food to people. But no, we’re not great… I can’t help it. My conscience does not allow me not to do it.” How do Christian principles help you live, especially in difficult times? Share.

Marina: “I can’t imagine how it is possible to even stay sane without Christian principles! How not to start hating? I hear from many unbelievers that they cannot sleep at night and tremble at any sound. I can’t imagine what state I would be in if I didn’t have hope in God, if I didn’t understand that I can pray to Him in any case and He will hear me.”

Valerii: “We are much further from all this, because we live by faith and know what happens in the spiritual world and what the end will be like. And death itself is for us a transition from earthly life to eternal life. This foundation gives us an understanding of our existence on Earth. I remember myself as an unbeliever: I relied on myself or others, I worried and my soul ached. I often tell, especially to the military, how my life has changed since I met God. Now I don’t even remember what heartache means. This is very important because God really gave us freedom.

People who do not know how the spiritual world works, why the war started and who do not know the truth that the Lord is stronger than the evil that has come to Ukraine, it is more difficult to live and watch these horrors of war. But for us who believe in Christ, on the contrary, the knowledge of the truth encourages us and gives us strength to act. All believers have this power, but it must be released by trusting God.

In all this time since the beginning of the war, we have not had a single sleepless night. Yes, we woke up early, we were woken up by explosions, but we slept soundly. Since then we have had inner peace.

Through the Word of God, more has been revealed to us, and therefore it is easier for us to overcome difficulties and live on because we have different values.”

– I understand that your task as Christian volunteers is not only to meet the basic needs of people, but also to touch people spiritually through prayer. How did the people receive the prayer and the gospel?

“In difficult circumstances, people are mostly open to God. There were those who themselves told us that they were praying. But there were also those who did not want to hear anything about God.

People especially accepted the Gospel in those cities where they experienced a terrible occupation lasting several months. In Lyman, eastern Ukraine, all 30 people who approached our truck loaded with groceries when we first arrived there welcomed the gospel with joy and prayed earnestly.

We understand that a prayer of repentance by itself does not guarantee that a person will immediately go on the right path, so we always think about how to bring such people together with the local congregation or we try to contact new converts ourselves to support them.”

– Tell us about your first trip as a volunteer to Donbass. So what did you experience?

Marina: “Through acquaintances, we got the contacts of the Kramatorsk church, whose pastor stayed with his team to serve immigrants in the city. Unfortunately, to this day, quite a few people have remained in the Donetsk region, even though the region is in a state of humanitarian disaster. If pensioners still have some form of state support, young people will lose their livelihood.

It was the first time we went to them with humanitarian aid. Many people came for the food and stayed for the service. The church building can hold 800 people and the hall was filled weekly. Rather, they came looking for help, but they still heard the Good News.”

– Were you not afraid to go to Donbass? Is the front line still close?

“The front line is not as far there as it is at home. The distance is the same – 20 km. We lived in Kyiv under the threat of invasion and shells. We will go east in body armor.”

– Valerii wrote in his Instagram post that you constantly visit one of the units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Eastern Ukraine. How do you manage to serve our soldiers?

Valerii: “The word “continuously” is very important. When you come for the first time, the guys treat you with caution and look at you carefully. On the front lines, they are very sensitive to other people and look with penetrating eyes. They are real there. They have a brotherhood and these are not empty words. They experience losses and joys together, the same feelings – when death is near, when they bury their brothers. The first trip is always an ice breaker.

For them, volunteers are those who only come to help once. But if you keep coming, they have a completely different attitude, like friends. They start to trust. When we first came to the fighters, they were preparing for the front line. I saw how scared they were and how hard it was for them. We communicated with them and prayed that this unit would come back in full force.

And on the very next visit, the commander of this unit said that three weeks after our last request, they had no casualties.

These things inspire not only us, but also the soldiers who see the power of prayer with their own eyes.”

– How do you feel about the soldiers you constantly serve?

“One of the boys addressed me as “Father Valerii” (laughs), I had to ask to be called “a brother”.

We have visited this particular combat unit that I am responsible for as a chaplain at least five times. We go to them first of all with the Good News.

Second, we bring them humanitarian aid and the things they need. Because of this care, they are open, waiting for us and happy to see us. I am in correspondence with them when I am at home. They used to be embarrassed to ask for help, but not anymore.

I am very worried about them, I pray if there are any events there. I’m looking for clothes and shoes for everyone. We sent one soldier size 48 winter boots. Thank goodness they fit, we are so happy! But before that, the man fought in galoshes.”

Marina: “Valerii is like a real Jewish father. About one of the soldiers, he says that he doesn’t know how to treat him: either like an older son or a younger brother (laughs).”

Valerii: “We go to a certain unit, but if we meet soldiers or policemen at checkpoints on the way, we also help them if necessary. We get to know each other and build relationships.

In Lyman, we met a whole unit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces at the crossing, who were heading to the front line and we gave them cards with prayers. The commander allowed me to pray with them. I could see that they were very worried, there was tention in the air. They all prayed as one man… I believe it was sincere. I remember their faces and eyes… I was happy that at that time 17 soldiers heard the Good News and turned to the Lord. I don’t know if we will see them again, but at that moment I knew that this is the way to act.”

I see you have greeting cards. Making gifts for your unit? Share.

Marina: “Not only to our unit, but also to other soldiers. The essence of this promotion is that everyone can cheer our military and organize a party for them. We want to collect 120 gifts.

Anyone can join the project. We plan to personally hand over the gifts to them because we are celebrating the New Year with them.”

– The volunteer front has become a kind of  heart call for you. How hard is it to fight to win?

“If we had financial support, we would travel and help more. For each trip we need to gather resources. We look for food and medicine for civilians, uniforms and specific things for the military, it can be quite difficult. One trip to the east costs 10 thousand hryvnias (€255) – you need to buy fuel and coffee for the drivers. When it was possible, we drove there every 10 days.

At the beginning of the war, it was easier to get money than it is now. People, and we understand them, do not have unlimited possibilities.

In addition, people exhaust themselves, but we cannot afford to be exhausted. And how could we be exhausted when we are in a fairly calm atmosphere and have jobs? We certainly don’t have the right to say that we can no longer donate or collect resources.

Sometimes you meet people who have complaints. Some ask for money. I respond to such requests that we can send a package with things and food. One day I received threats in response. This is unfortunate. You pray and let go. We volunteer not for salary or thanks…

However, I will describe another unpleasant moment: the daughter asks her father what he did during the war. To which the father replies that he rented an apartment to emigrants for two thousand dollars.

Unfortunately, there are people for whom their own income is a priority. They don’t even give token discounts. In general, the country is coming together and many are ready to invest and help, but there are those who continue to live as if there is no war… I can’t even imagine how difficult it is for soldiers who sacrifice their health in the war, at least in the trenches.”

Valerii: “It is believed that the guys on the front line earn a lot and should buy everything for themselves. In fact, they buy everything themselves. In addition to ammunition, they buy logs, linoleum for the construction of field defense buildings, fuel, gas cylinders… Stoves for cooking… Even if they earn a lot, they also spend it there.

In the east, people have no income and when our soldiers come to the village to rent housing, the prices increase tenfold.”

– What do you dream of as a volunteer today?

“Find some kind of a fund … unlimited (laughs). We want to buy a car. And the money is there, but we have to find one that meets our needs and is comfortable for long trips.”

– Share what your plans are “after the war.”

“To celebrate the victory with the country and go somewhere to rest.”

– Crimea?

Marina: “Hmm… I’m more interested in places we haven’t been to yet. I’m not ready to go to Crimea with a Russian accent.”

Valerii: “There are many plans, but at the same time there is a lot of work in military hospitals. Post-war problem is psychological help. In our congregation, a ministry is already being formed to help military personnel adapt to normal life.

I think it should be done by volunteers and chaplains who went to the front and saw everything for themselves. It is easier for military personnel to trust such service members and it is easier for them to understand the pain themselves. We already have the experience of military service since 2014.

Military personnel perceive chaplains as a subdivision of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, i.e. to them, they are their own people.”

Marina: “Soldiers need friends who understand and support them. And if not us, Christians, then who can and should do it? Our life is Christ’s letter to people, therefore our way of life and friendship with them is sincere. If a person does not turn to God, we do not stop communicating with him, but we hope that God will give him repentance in due time.”

– Thanks for the conversation.

The interview was prepared by Anna Pozvyata