Interview with Oleksiy Denisov, chaplain of the Interfaith Council of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and the Military Chaplaincy Service of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

At the KEMO spring prayer retreat, we talked with Oleksi Denisov, chaplain of the Military Chaplain Corps of the Christian Salvation Service, an authorized representative of the Interfaith Chaplains Council under the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, the Chaplain Service of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. We talked about the beginning of the war and the chaplaincy, the difference between military chaplains of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and volunteer chaplains, answers to prayers and God’s miracles in the lives of soldiers.

Alexei, tell me, when and how did you come to God?

It happened when I was still in the army, in 1991. There, a sergeant, a religious and orthodox guy preached the gospel to me. During the guard, I talked a lot with him.

I asked him many different questions – of course he did a great job, humbly and sincerely trying to explain everything to me and the way he understood things. Of course, the religious life did not attract me in any way. Well, we finally agreed that when I’m 33 – like Jesus Christ – I’ll come to God.

Until then I will sin – and then he will find me and I will turn to God and repent. But despite this, God touched my heart and already in the army I started to turn to Him and pray about various problematic situations, and God answered me in such a way that everything was resolved in my favor. Thank God!

I remember the moment when I played the guitar and tried to sing to God out of gratitude for Him.

Then, after the army, my mother tried to invite me to her church, which she had started attending. I asked: “Do you wear crosses there?” She said no, then I replied: “Go there yourself, I’m not interested.” I went on with my life, but God did not leave me, I periodically met religious people on my way who told me about life with God.

And yet, I repented not at 33, but at 25, and it was in the church my mother went to, but I came there through a friend of mine and God gave my mother a pleasant surprise! And when I was 35, I remembered the guy who was supposed to find me when I was 33. I wondered why he didn’t look for me? In general, later it turned out that he apostatized and became a drug addict… Sad story.

Then came the Bible Institute and worship in the church. Ten years later I was in Israel and I asked God what the church was like in the beginning. God pointed me to the book of Acts.

I opened the Acts of the Apostles, read about the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-41: “On that day about three thousand people were added to the number of believers”) and I had a revelation (many times before that I had read this verse, but had not paid attention to it): it turned out that they are all Jews! And the Jerusalem community was completely messianic, made up of Jews. That means it was the first church.

While living in Kiev, I did not know and could not even suspect that there was a Jewish messianic community of Kiev. In a seemingly random way, through a friend of acquaintances, God brought me to KEMO. With the consent of the pastor of the parish, I settled in the community. And I am very grateful to God for His mercy and blessings!

Since 2010, I have been engaged in inter-congregational service in the community and I also participate in the prayer service.

That means you had nothing to do with military affairs or chaplaincy until 2022?

No, I volunteered and episodically helped our chaplain boys. I, unlike some of our brothers, did not have friends who fought and were in the military units since 2014 and who needed to be supported and visited. For some chaplains, this profession came about as a result of helping friends in the military.

Were you in Kiev on February 24, 2022, when the war began? What do you remember from those early days?

Yes, I was in Kyiv with my wife and children. We didn’t panic, we decided to continue working and helping people. We have a small water filter shop and a purified water bottling point. People came for water, queues formed. Military, police and volunteers came. Many said: “Coming to you, it feels as if there is no war.” Thanks to God, He filled our hearts with faith in His power and it affected people.

In the housing complex where we live, there were very organized residents who welded almost all the entrances and exits. Everyone armed themselves with what they could, they were on guard around the clock to protect the complex. They helped organize a heating and food station in the parking lot.

At the same time, I talked to a brother from our congregation, who was already a chaplain, to also get involved in this important matter. It was at this time that my friends organized humanitarian aid from Canada and other countries: ammunition (unloading, berets, tourniquets, medicine, etc.). Together with the chaplain from the parish, we began to share all this in a targeted way. In fact, that’s when my ministry as a chaplain began.

I also met an old acquaintance of mine who was involved with the authorities, to understand what to do and how I can be useful. At the meeting, they asked me: “Do you have a gun? No? Open the trunk, now they will give you … “And I answered: “Stop. I have to consult with the boss … “. But shots were fired, guys came from battle positions and left – in general it was a military situation… I stepped aside, praying: “Lord, maybe take a gun just in case? ..” God asked me: “Are you looking for this “in case” to happen?” I replied that I wasn’t looking for that and realized that I didn’t need to grab a gun and the Lord would save me. And thank God, He saved and continues to protect me! I returned to the person and said: “I’m sorry, but I was told not to take the gun.”

However, I am not sure if he understood which chief I was talking about… He saw that I had a “chaplain” tag, but apparently he still did not understand who chaplains were. By the way, I remember that at the beginning, many people with whom I crossed paths thought that “Chaplain” was my calling. I had to explain to people who chaplains are and what they do in the military.

Thank God that we became so active in the first few days! Many soldiers needed support, both materially and in prayer. Some of our believers took up arms and went to the armed forces, intelligence and TRO (territorial defense forces) of Ukraine. We prayed, and God’s miracles were born: people really miraculously escaped from a large shell, siege and various situations.

Did you have to travel closer to the war zone, for example to Eastern Ukraine?

No, mostly we were in the Kiev region. Yes, and there was and is a lot of work in Kiev itself.

Due to the nature of my activity, I was able to move around during the curfew, which allowed me to receive humanitarian aid, deliver necessary things to the men who were protecting Kiev, support and pray for them and also solve other problems that I encountered at that time.

To date, I have completed various trainings in psychology, law enforcement, home care and tactical medicine for the sake of completeness of the chaplaincy. Together with other chaplains in the community, I serve in the hospitals of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, I also serve as a chaplain in the Kyiv Metro Police Department and conduct meetings at various levels of government.

And how many chaplains are there in Ukraine today?

If we talk about direct military chaplains serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, there are almost 200 of them in full-time positions, not including TRO (they have a separate military chaplaincy service).

According to DESS (Ukrainian State Service for Ethnopolitics and Social Freedom) quotas, the staff positions are mainly Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, some Roman Catholics, Evangelical Churches, Muslims, Orthodox and Messianic Jews.

But there are at least twice as many volunteer chaplains and they are mostly Christians from evangelical and Protestant churches and messianic communities.

But let’s say that for the officers of the military chaplaincy service of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, chaplains like me are civilians and volunteers. But this, of course, does not diminish the role of chaplaincy in the slightest, because a lot depends on such volunteers. And there are many such volunteers in Ukraine. For example, Christian Salvation – an interfaith ministry with Messianic Jews, Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics – has about 300 chaplains. But there are other associations of chaplains and separate ministries in other evangelical Christian associations.

However, most volunteer chaplains are Protestant and evangelical Christians. However, chaplains in evangelical churches depend more on volunteer service. Messianic Jewish communities have also actively joined this ministry.

By the way, it is an interesting fact that Messianic Jews are involved in such a thing. After all, sometimes we still hear from the fringes, including our brothers and sisters, about Nazism, anti-Semitism rampant in Ukraine … And here Jewish Christians who believe in Jesus are serving in the Ukrainian armed forces …

They should not listen to what they are told there. Rather, they could directly call their friends living in Ukraine and find out what is really happening here.

And thank God that today in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine there is a chaplain from the Messianic Jewish community in the office of the General Staff of the Service of Military Chaplains, and we can serve the military!

Yes, that’s for sure. You serve in the military and closer to the front line and in hospitals and beyond – how do the soldiers generally react to you? After all, many are just unbelievers, they have not asked the question: “Who else are these Messianic Jews?”

Of course, I sometimes half-jokingly when entering a building with military personnel say: “Shabbat shalom, Orthodoxs!”, because basically people identify themselves as Orthodox. But when communicating, it turns out that a person does not go to any church, but was simply baptized in childhood, and therefore considers himself Orthodox. But we do not immediately introduce the denomination at all, rather already in conversation, privately, if we are asked, we would say that there are such and such Christians, but where do you belong. And yes, many people are hearing about the existence of Messianic Judaism for the first time. But it is still weighty for the gospel and the Jewish component of the Body of Messiah. When people realize that the Jews are not somewhere on the sidelines, they are in the middle of it all, they are with everyone – that is very good.

And how are you generally treated by the various authorities? I mean senior officers or, for example, the management of the military hospitals where you serve.

From the first days, there were so many different needs and when we talk about hospitals, we talk about medicine and different equipment – so everyone was very grateful for any help. Basically, everyone understands the importance of the chaplaincy.

Although I have heard several stories that the commanders of individual military units sincerely do not understand why these chaplains are needed at all. Therefore, in the meetings of the military chaplain service of the Armed Forces of Ukraine we discuss on how to train commanders in this matter, giving them an understanding of the importance of the chaplaincy.

Can you say anything else about the differences between the official chaplains of the armed forces of Ukraine and the volunteer chaplains?

The chaplain of the armed forces of Ukraine is a full-time position, he does not need to be in a position, and even more likely, on the contrary, he should not be there, since he is a staff officer, well, chaplains serve in the armed forces of Ukraine without weapons. He must be assigned a chaplain’s assistant, for this purpose, according to the standards of the NATO army, it can be a simple soldier, a kind of security guard. And of course, the chaplain can go to the “front line” instead of “zero” to raise the morale of the boys and meet them. The chaplain simply intervenes in the same place where direct hostilities are taking place. Likewise, our volunteer chaplains do not go to “zero.” Yes, it happens that they drive close enough, conditionally 5 km from the enemy’s position, to give our soldiers the necessary things, prayer books, speak the Word of God and pray with them.

Voluntary chaplains, as I call those who are not in full-time positions, do a lot of humanitarian and pastoral work, which most of the full-time chaplains of the Ukrainian Armed Forces do not actually do today, because they are not trained in it. We continue to communicate at various levels of government, and in the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine we raise questions about volunteer chaplains so that they are not left out, because such chaplains really do a lot of useful work. Everyone understands everything, but everything is not so simple, after all, we are not dealing with military chaplains, and in principle, such questions are not resolved so quickly. Well, what about us? We have to go…- we do what we do.

It turns out that evangelical believers have become, as it were, an example of how the Body of Messiah is involved in the service of all the people of Ukraine. And our authorities understand that this is of great help today…

Yes, exactly. We have various examples of material aid as well as spiritual, moral and psychological preparation, even health care, such as a mobile dental service that works constantly on the front line. Requests are constantly being received – recently there was a call asking to go to the presidential brigade to treat the teeth of the guys who were replaced from Bahmut. And in the police department, where I serve as a chaplain, our dental chaplains treated the teeth of guys who arrived from the front and rested for a day, who are being prepared for counter-attack brigades.

Finally, share something about God’s direct action in your ministry, perhaps some testimonies and miracles from the Lord.

Such things happen a lot. Everything we do is God’s work!

I prayed for a guy who had his leg amputated… and a lot of them have post-traumatic stress disorder and phantom pains, they can’t sleep… and when these guys are in the hospital, they’re given painkillers and when they leave, some of them start drinking, maybe a pint drink vodka just to fall asleep… So, we got to one of these guys and I looked – because he was constantly sweating, it became clear that he was drinking alcohol. We talked and as I was leaving I said: “Let’s pray that God will help you sleep without all this…” And the next day his friends wrote: “Thank you for your prayers! This is the first night he was able to fall asleep without vodka and he slept soundly!”

God does all kinds of miracles and incredible things. We know real stories when, through prayers, enemy tanks got stuck in the mud and couldn’t leave until they were finished with mines and how the Lord keeps our soldiers in the course of the bombardment; how mines land beside them but don’t explode. I was told that people have seen real angels in the trenches that were not impervious to bullets and shells – the angel was like a shield…

I remember one of the first cases from my visit to the hospital – a guy was lying on the bed, he had lost both his legs above the knee, without an eye … he didn’t want to talk, he was depressed … he didn’t know at all why he survived in such a state … And I just went in and like I should something to say but don’t know what to say to a person in such a state … His mother sat silently beside him and turned her face towards the wall and was also silent. And I leaned over to him, hugged him, thanked him and said: “You know, if you’re still alive, God isn’t done with you yet…”.

Well, later on, our other chaplain guys visited him, talked to him, established a relationship. And our Shura Vyatrzhik told him: “Yes, you will still go to America, they will put good prostheses on you, you will be running again!” But then he answered: “Well, I’m from a village, who needs me in this America?…” Well, now he’s in the United States – a foundation was found that took him under his guardianship, he was given high-quality modern prostheses – in other words, God is moving. When believers are around, the Lord blesses people through us.

Interviewer – Alex Fishman.


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