Pastor and military chaplain Valeri Alymov: “The need for chaplains is still great”

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many Ukrainians have been united by volunteer work, one manifestation of which is chaplaincy among the military.

How did pastoral care revive at the front in Ukraine? Which path has been taken? How to make a connection with the military? What does the chaplain talk to the military about? Can a believer pick up a gun?

Valery Alymov, a professional soldier, chaplain, pastor of the “Tabernacle of the Living God” church in Kyiv, spoke about it.

Valery Valeryevich, please tell us how you became a chaplain.

My story is quite long. I am a fourth generation soldier. My family lived in a military town, my father was a bomber pilot in the bomber air force. Since childhood I was among the military, I wore a military uniform that my mother had sewn for me.

I walked on the shooting ranges and between the planes. My toys were children’s pistols, machine guns and swords. During school, I often participated in military sports events, at the same time I studied in the aviation-cosmonautics detachment, entered a military school and then served in the army. A military environment is my vibe.

When I became a Christian, I realized that as an officer I had to do more than just military duty, with weapons in hand or wherever orders I received. The military is made up of people and I have always wanted to help them emotionally and morally. From my first years as an officer in the early 90s, when I served in the army, I always preached the gospel. Therefore, the statement that I became a chaplain in 2014, when hostilities in eastern Ukraine began, is not true.

A chaplain is a person who cares for the souls of military personnel, helping them understand the spiritual and emotional component of their lives. Therefore, there is a need for clergy who can do this. During the service, I performed my immediate tasks and at the same time I was an adviser to the soldiers and officers, and as a chaplain I preached the gospel, explained what was written in the Bible and how to behave correctly in life. I didn’t know that the job was essentially chaplaincy, but I acted that way from my first years as an officer.

Then I came to Kiev, entered the military academy and got into the church. There I started a new Christian life, but remained in a military environment. After graduation, I continued to serve and interacted with soldiers and officers again, solving various life and moral issues. I performed these duties as a chaplain, although I did not hold an official position. Then I became a pastor, performed a pastoral function and at the same time remained a professional soldier.

I did not leave the armed forces of Ukraine during my six years of pastoral service. You might think that in the army, outside of religious services, I was a chaplain.

I helped many soldiers and officers in both personal and family matters. A dozen families stayed together only because I served them. I did not force them to go to church, but served them like soldiers.

Did this happen in peacetime?

Yes. I was demobilized from the armed forces of Ukraine (the Ukrainian army was greatly reduced) and at the same time I actively contributed to the creation of a Christian servicemen’s association in Ukraine, where I was one of the founders. One of the ideas was the formation of a chaplain service in the armed forces of Ukraine. Then it seemed almost impossible: they laughed at us and actively fought against us, did not allow the clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate to move in it.

And then 2014 came – hostilities began in eastern Ukraine and it was necessary to react. My wife was actively involved in the humanitarian aid process: many vehicles were formed and sent to the East to support the military and civilians. As a military reservist, I started traveling there: I put on a military uniform and established my first relations with the soldiers. We started calling it chaplaincy.

How did the country react to such an initiative?

There was no official call for help from the state. We saw that at that time the equipment of the troops was poor. Half-dressed soldiers needed military uniforms and food. Morale was the lowest after fierce battles in July-August 2014: raids behind enemy lines, Volnovakha, Ilovaisk, Saur-Mogila…

Were you there too? Please share the details.

I wasn’t there, but I met soldiers who were there and survived when they left the siege under fire. I worked as a chaplain in an air assault brigade since September 2014.

I had to mentally and emotionally serve the boys who took part in the battles near Ilovaisk, defended the Lugansk airfield and took part in the raid on the enemy’s rear in the Lugansk region.

We visited them at their temporary workplaces and saw how they lived in small tourist tents and dug-out dwellings in the middle of the fields in October-November, when the first frosts had already begun. Civilians were afraid that if the troops came to their village, they would die under the shells because of the soldiers (at that time, the enemy was very actively shooting at such villages). We came to them with a tent to be closer to them, we stayed with them to show that there are people who care about them.

I remember November, when the soldiers could not settle in their homeland, because the population in eastern Ukraine did not accept them, because they considered them usurpers. The soldiers were stationed in dilapidated, windswept cowsheds near the villages – they did not want to antagonize the locals. We helped them organize their living space. I saw their morale drop because of the loss of their colleagues.

We talked about provocative topics: who are we protecting? Aren’t civilians shooting us in the back? Why do we have to be here, maybe it’s better to retreat? Those civilians whom we want to protect don`t need us and keep the unity of Ukraine.

There were many controversial issues that needed to be worked through with staff. This is how real chaplaincy was forged and developed, which was needed eight years later. I see that chaplaincy has become professional, but there is still a great need for chaplains.

How did you initially get in touch with the military?

Circumstances worked out and requests for help were received. We were in the army and came into contact with them. I have a reserve officer clearance. It is much easier for me to find a common language with the military. I have no questions about how to build a relationship with them – I know I am one of them. Now I do chaplaincy as a volunteer and freelance chaplain.

How did you answer the question: Can a believer pick up a gun?

Being a professional soldier and conscript, I had many questions. As a cadre, I did not have to use weapons against people, although I was involved in the war in 1991-92.

I returned to Ukraine from Azerbaijan, where I served in the army of the former USSR and transferred to the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. During my years of service, Ukraine was not at war with anyone. God had mercy on us. But deep down, already a believer, I asked myself and God questions: “What if?… Can I use a gun? Is it a sin for me?”

Did you prepare yourself..

Yes of course. Soldiers and officers asked my opinion about weapons. Among evangelical believers there are those who teach that a Christian should not take up arms. In prayer, I asked God questions: “Lord, what should I do? What should I say? I meet soldiers, I go to different garrisons, I preach the gospel and officers, unit commanders ask me directly: “You preach the gospel, our soldiers begin to believe, lay down their weapons, stop obeying military orders, what should we do with them after that?” I answered them, “The Bible does not call for the laying down of arms. There is no such concept.”

In order to competently answer these questions, I had to clarify for myself – what to do? If war breaks out in Ukraine, can I take up arms and defend my country? I am a military man. No one asks me – they give an order and I have to carry it out.

God gave many texts in the Bible that I have the right to bear arms, Rom. 13:4 “for a soldier is God’s servant for you. But if you do evil, then feel fear, because he does not carry the sword in vain, he is God’s servant, the avenger to punish the one who does evil.” (Russian Bible).

This means that God is saying that the military are people whose job it is to take revenge on those who break the law, or in other words to protect their land and home. If an incompetent person or a civilian takes up arms with the intention of harming, doing evil, taking something from someone, robbing, then God condemns it, but the military or the police are people who are professionally called to stop evil, to avenge or punish atrocities.

Therefore, when I preached the gospel among the military, I realized that these are the people to whom God gives the right to take up arms to stop evil. All He asks of them is not to use weapons to intentionally harm others with negative motivations in their hearts. Revenge and killing for the sake of killing.

Now we see a very clear difference between the way the raping and murderous Russian army operates, unlike our military, which is fundamentally honest and noble, even towards its enemies. I understand that it is a different spirit.

Please provide more specific examples of the noble deeds of our soldiers.

In many cases, also recorded on video, when our soldiers captured the enemies, they did not shoot at the prisoners, did not hurt them, did not beat them, but fed them, gave them water, treated them like human beings. This is what God called us to do – not to take anything from anyone and to be content with our wages (Luke 3:14).

When our soldiers defended some settlements, they were forced to use the buildings of the departed civilians. They lived with them, sometimes took food, but kept order, did not destroy property and left behind thank-you notes and apologies for being forced to enter someone else’s home. This is respect and nobility.

So it can be called military etiquette?

Yes. It is also written in the Bible. When soldiers behave this way, they are performing their duties properly, even if they are forced to kill their enemies in the process.

Every person, and moreover every military man, has the right to defend his territory.

This is biblically correct. If there is evil intent, there is a biblical command to punish. If the motivation, principle, reason why a person took up a weapon is pious, just, morally understandable, then God does not consider it an unforgivable sin.

God’s point of view: Killing any living thing is not normal, everything must live, especially mankind. If there is a concept of evil and you create a lesser evil next to it, God will cover it with mercy. The man repents and God covers it with mercy because the motivation of the heart was right. God is on the side of the honest, the just and the sincere.

That’s why I talk about it when I meet soldiers. Moreover, God Himself gave those called to such work (military) the right to stop evil.

As a military man, I already had these answers. And now when I serve as a chaplain, I don’t tell people about theory, but about what I personally experienced in my relationship with God.

I used to hold a gun, participate in shooting practice, freely go to combat service, knowing inwardly that God would not condemn me for this. Now, as a military chaplain, I have no right by convention to grab guns and use them against people.

Talk about men’s natural duty to protect.

Every man has at least three areas of responsibility because he is a man.

First, he must protect his home. I’m not talking about self-defense. My home. Protecting yourself is another level of moral responsibility. Here, everyone decides for themselves whether to turn the other cheek or not.

Our moral understanding of the situation and an adequate idea of our own or our enemy’s strength should give us the wisdom to act with God’s advice. But in matters of family protection, a man has no choice. He must fulfill his manly duty – to protect his neighbors: morally, verbally and physically. It is up to each individual to determine their own responsibility as to the extent to which activism or aggression should work.

But I believe that it is the duty of absolutely every man, since we are the stronger sex.

Another area is the protection of society. We have physical strength, will and ability.

If in my presence the weak begin to suffer at the hands of wicked men, I must exercise some wisdom and strength to help the offended or humiliated.

The third area is protection at the national level. When there are military operations and there is a call to defend the country.

If you read the Bible honestly, it says a lot about this. God commanded some men to go and fight against the Gentiles, etc. But then our conscience is responsible or we choose whether we do it or not.

Many believers, including the clergy, voluntarily went, took up arms, defended their country, because they did not feel a line in their conscience where God would say that you have no right or you should not do it.

In 2014, when there was Maidan, my officer’s soul really wanted to help those who were on the barricades, because I understood what could be done there. It was very difficult for me to watch those young men who were shot there because I knew that they acted completely unprofessionally and that is why many died.

My soul suffered a lot, an officer woke up in me again and I cried out to God: “Now that’s it, I’m going, weapons in hand, I’ll protect justice and the country.”

In one prayer battle, God told me clearly, “I am calling you to make a choice. I understand everything. I give you permission to take up arms and go and fight.” This was the beginning of hostilities, April-May 2014. “But I warn you,” said the Lord, “you are an ordained pastor, an anointed man and a preacher. If you die there, you won’t go to hell. You don’t lose your salvation if you don’t intentionally harm people. But if you survive and come back from the war, you will sit in the last pew in the church and will never be able to teach people. Like David, I will not let you build my temple and serve as a priest. There are commandments that you cannot teach others because you have broken them yourself. There are millions of people in Ukraine who can pick up a machine gun, but not so many who can preach the gospel to these blind people in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

So I obeyed God’s call and decided to stay in the priestly position.

How successful have you  been in integrating pastoral and chaplaincy?

Very successful because I have two inner natures: I remain a soldier and at the same time I continue to be a pastor. When I’m in church, I act as a pastor, when I come to the military, I serve them as a chaplain. I am ready to listen, support, pray and guide. It is also a pastoral work, but it has some special features.

How do the military feel about the fact that you are not always with them, you come when you can?

It does not cause inconvenience. Perhaps this is the working of grace in my ministry. I have not only been a pastor or a military man in the past, but also a military psychologist. During the years of chaplaincy, military service and pastoral service, I have developed a sense and understanding of people. These positions do not contradict each other.

Tell us how you get brigade contacts for chaplain teams?

The chaplaincy office has at least three levels: the first is volunteer chaplains. They provide material assistance and communicate a little with the military. It involves many people who wear chaplain uniforms but act more as volunteers.

There are chaplains who are not called to military service – that’s another level. They visit the military for a while. Basically, these are people who have developed relationships with specific brigades, battalions and units, where they befriended the leaders and provide pastoral support.

The third level is professionally called chaplains who have been commissioned. Since they started as volunteers, they are already known, needed and partly put in officers’ positions. There are also those who are sent to the ranks of the defense forces as chaplains on demand for their confessions.

There are no officially called professional chaplains in our unit, as it requires 24/7 presence in the force. Today we are moving in a different direction that I noted above.

What are the stages of building a relationship with the military?

When we start building relationships with a new unit for us, everything starts the same way: first, we offer help. We get to know the unit, the leaders, the guys directly and study their needs. If they practically do not need anything, we create friendly relations – we communicate, sing, take an interest in their lives: what they eat, where they sleep, what is happening in their families, how is their morals. Next, we are looking for opportunities to communicate more closely with the staff.

When we see that a person is communicative, we become interested in their health and mental state. If they see that we are adequate people, they will trust us. They do not open up immediately, especially those who have repeatedly participated in hostilities. It is a state of inner pain that they used to hide.

This is a delicate thing, so you have to be a professional or intuitive psychologist, feel what is needed now, or rather wait until the person takes the initiative to communicate.

I have had many instances where I hinted to a soldier that we could communicate if necessary and the person refused, but with my behavior I showed respect for the individual’s boundaries. After some time he agreed to the conversation.

In fact, many military personnel are not focused on sitting in a psychologist’s office and having someone dig into their soul. They understand that their lives are temporary and now the most important thing is to expel the enemy from our country. When they die, they die with their pain. Now, a lot of Ukrainian boys are in pain and this is their motivation for revenge.

What are your suggestions when you see the military feeling hate?

The first thing I pay attention to is whether the person is losing an adequate attitude towards life. This means that he is motivated, even though he sleeps on the floor and does not always eat normally, but he does not give up. But if a warrior drinks a lot of alcohol, loses the meaning of life, does not want to become normal, then this is a signal that his emotional state is bad. If a person is angry but motivated to act, then life is better than if he loses the meaning of life.

Therefore, the first objects of service and communication are those people who are desperate, who cannot go into battle, they have internal depression. The second category is people who withdraw into themselves and do not communicate with anyone. They are filled with anger or unforgiveness towards themselves or others, but they don’t know what to do with it. This is an internal dead end.

If everything is more or less normal with a person, now he has a lot of anger and a desire to take revenge – that’s another question. During war, this is common among combatants, because every day they see or hear about the death of their brothers.

They say they can’t shoot without feeling angry. They know for sure that they kill people. Among themselves, they do not say: “We kill”, but “We work, this is our job.”

The soldier wants to understand that his desire is not to kill people. I don’t want to spoil their mindset because I don’t do their job and I’m not in their position. I don’t condemn them, I believe God doesn’t either. He looks deep into their heart’s motivation: duty, understanding that if they don’t do it, others will die, or motivation: hatred, anger and sadism. God deals with the latter.

I am more focused on working with behavioral deviations and moral support, instilling faith in God in them. They are human, so they should not lose their understanding of themselves as human beings or their sense of goodness, love for their neighbor. They must return from war as parents and spouses to their homes with human relationships with others.

In the context the warriors find themselves in, is it appropriate to talk to them about love and forgiveness? How do they receive such messages?

You have to know the person and not traumatize them. For example, the divorced. When a person fights for a year and survives that long period, even though he lost many of his brothers in arms who were like a family to him and he becomes rude, angry, collects that anger in himself, which he cannot control.

Then he goes home for a vacation and quarrels with everyone because many people do not understand him: he is like a concentrate of anger and wants to put this aggression somewhere. When he relaxes at home, he attackes everyone.

Marriages with such people are dissolved and there are many such cases. When I talk to him about love or marital status, it’s traumatic for him. If he experiences mental trauma directly during hostilities, then you have to be very careful when working with such soldiers. You need to know when to bring up the topic, how to talk about it and in what form.

If we are talking about long-term relationships, we need to find a time that suits everyone and help with conversation and prayers. The military must return to normal life after the war and rebuild it.

I am not in a hurry to talk about love and even more so about love for enemies, with the soldiers who are currently engaged in hostilities. If they want to talk about it, I will, if not, I won’t force it. The challenge on the front line is different. But I tell them that their work is very important, that there are those who appreciate, love, respect and those who believe in them and that it is not all in vain.

What about God’s love?

I always talk about God and His love for everyone. God is the answer to everything. First, I must teach them to seek God. Protection comes from Him. I tell them this all the time: learn to pray, carry the Scriptures with you, read, there are many things written there that calm the soul.

We talk a lot about what is murder and what is defending the homeland. So that they can understand what is happening in their conscience. If their conscience torments them after the battles, I tell them that they must surely repent, confess, ask God for forgiveness and that He cleanse them with the blood of Jesus. If it doesn’t help, look for God’s servants, priests and pastors to confess your sins to.

Please briefly describe the difference between conscription and murder.

Military service is an invitation to a person to come to defend the country, he is given the official status of a military man and weapons used for defense are given to him. He acts within the framework of orders that do not conflict with common sense and the laws of the land. The goal is to protect life and borders.

Murder is the intentional commission of a crime with the intention of taking a person’s life for personal gain or revenge.

Sadism (malice). There is a difference between shooting at an enemy and firing 25 shots at a living person in order to inflict more pain on him or cut off his head, etc. If the psyche breaks down, then you have to talk about it. Civilians might be next. Such a soldier becomes a danger to others.

Especially if a soldier abuses alcohol, because it is so hard on him, both physically and emotionally, that he cannot cope with himself. In this case, it is worth influencing the person.

Finally, share a memorable story with us.

My memorable stories are about saving people. During the battle, when they were shot very intensively, there was practically no chance of survival. Under very heavy artillery fire, they prayed the prayers I taught them as a chaplain. And then they called and said they survived and God saved them. It was supernatural. There have been many such situations.

The work of a chaplain, when you teach another person to pray and trust in God and it ends with the soldier praying, reading the New Testament and seeing God save him and his brothers in a supernatural way – it’s all worth it!

Thank you for your work, dedication and contribution to our victory! Thank you for the warm welcome and honest conversation!

The interview was conducted by Ekaterina Poddubnaya.

Text and photo: Пастор и капеллан Валерий Алымов в интервью о жизненном пути и о важности капелланского служения | Новости inVictory