“When war breaks into your life uninvited, everything changes.” Interview with pastor and theologian Fyodor Raychinets

Last week I was in Amsterdam for the annual International Baptist Theological Research Center Research Colloquium. Among the scholars present there was my friend Fyodor Raychynets, an eminent Baptist pastor and theologian, as well as a lecturer at the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary in Kyiv, which I had the privilege of attending a few years ago.

I was so happy to see Fyodor again and also very glad to meet his dear daughter Lisa. It is hard to describe the love these precious friends were surrounded with and the relief we all felt that after nearly a year of full-blown Russian war in Ukraine they survived and we can be with them.

I asked Fyodor if I could interview him for “Baptist News Global” once he returns to his country. He graciously agreed. Here is our conversation. It is full of sorrow, instructive and inspiring.

– Could you share how the war affected you personally and your loved ones?

“Shortly before the war, I lost my dear wife. She died after a severe COVID illness. When a full-scale war began, I evacuated my children to the west of Ukraine, where it was relatively safer. I decided to stay in Kiev to do the necessary volunteer work, helping the most vulnerable people affected by the war – the elderly, orphans, as well as the families of soldiers, their wives, children and their parents.

So the first and obvious effect of the war was the separation from my children in the midst of our period of bereavement. That is, at a time when we needed each other’s support and in each other’s presence to cope with grief, this cruel and causeless war burst into our lives.

The second effect of the war was the inability to plan anything more than today or, at best, the next day, which can also change.

How can you plan anything when you have no control over anything? When you don’t know when the next missile attack is going to happen, where those missiles will land, what kind of destruction they will cause, and what impact it will have on your daily life?

How can you plan anything with no electricity, no internet and for many, even worse, no water or heating? Without access to basic but necessary things to survive? In wartime, your grandiose plans for your life, service, work and, in my case, study, are reduced to hope for elementary things! The feeling of uncertainty, insecurity, complete unpredictability haunts you all the time and drains you emotionally. Yes, it is very annoying not to be able to plan or control anything in your life, including basic needs.

But at that time, I did not yet know that another tragedy lay ahead of me. In September I lost my son. His heart just stopped beating while he slept. He could no longer bear the loss of his mother and the insane war around him. So, to the tragedy of losing my wife and the war that ruined all my life plans, another loss was added. This time, because of the war, we had to mourn this irretrievable loss separately from my daughter.

Thus, the loss of a beloved wife before the war, the loss of a son during a barbarian war, separation from a daughter due to the war, the fear of planning something after everything that we have experienced – this is all that I personally had to go through and continue to go through. I would like to go through all this with dignity.

– Please describe for us how the war affected the work of your seminary.

Our seminary is located in a very quiet, wooded area. Previously, it was a recreation area where the people of Kiev came for the weekend to spend time away from the city noise in peace and fresh air. When there was talk of a possible total war, we mistakenly believed that we were in a relatively safe place. We did not know that one of the main directions of the offensive of the Russian army would be from Belarus. We were in this direction.

It so happened that after the invasion, I, with a few employees of the seminary, remained in the seminary itself with all the full-time students whom we did not have time to evacuate. I had to be responsible for the evacuation of students and then the staff of the seminary. The story of the evacuation itself is a separate story about what we had to endure together and what miracles the Lord performed.

After the successful evacuation, I, along with several staff (including the rector of the seminary, who miraculously joined us after the blockade in Bucha) and a couple of students who expressed a desire to become part of our volunteer team continued to stay at the seminary and minister to people in their needs in our community. The Russian troops were about 7 km from us. And the most fierce battles were fought, well, about three kilometers from us in the village of Moshchun.

It was there that the Russian invaders tried to break through to Kyiv. All this time shells were flying over us in both directions. Ours hit the occupiers and the occupiers fired at ours. The place where we continued to stay became very dangerous and one day our military asked us to leave our campus because it had become unsafe to stay there. We moved to the interior of the city and settled in the office of the Ukrainian Bible Society (where we lived for the next 52 days). Just a few days later, six shells flew into the territory of the seminary and caused significant damage to our buildings, especially the academic building and our canteen.

After we were forced to leave the seminary and it became unsafe there, from time to time we broke through there under shelling to take valuable things out of the seminary, such as a database and servers.

As for the restoration of the educational process, it took us about a month to find all our students, wherever they were. We restored our educational process in an online format, and, of course, the war changed not only the format of education, but also the approach. Our lectures have become more therapeutic than academic. We were able to bring students to the end of the academic year in this new format.

– How was your calling as a Christian minister affected and practiced in the midst of this war?

“When war breaks in uninvited into your life, everything changes, especially the habitual way of life. The way you’re used to getting where you need to go quickly, the way you’ve arranged your life so that everything is close by, it all breaks down. Distances break down, familiar comforts crumble and what looked easy before the war becomes impossible after the beginning of the war. I am one of the pastors of a church now located in the well-known Bucha. Since Bucha was occupied by the invaders from the very first days of the war and all the bridges leading to Kiev were blown up by our military in order to prevent the invaders from getting to Kiev, I found myself in a situation where for almost 40 days I could not get into my church, which was located just 10 km from me.

Our church was in the occupied territory. Moreover, it has become a place of refuge for many. About 150 people, mostly mothers and children, hid in our church during the entire 32 days of the occupation.

One day the deacon of our church was able to get through to me (the connection was very poor). The very fact that he was able to get through was already a miracle. He told me that all the people hiding in the basement of our church got sick. They got sick from the cold, from the dampness in the basement; they urgently needed medicine. We in the Bible Society, in whose office we then lived, had a lot of all kinds of medicines that we received from our brothers from Italy, Germany, Slovakia and the Czech Republic as humanitarian aid. However, I could not help the sick in our church in any way, since all roads to get to Bucha were cut off.

But what happened on the first Sunday after the occupation, when I was able to get into my church for the first time a month and a half after the start of the war, made me realize that our ministry has completely changed and the realities in which we find ourselves have also changed. These were changes that none of us were ready for. We just happened to be there.

Before the war, on a typical Sunday, our church attendance was between 120 and 150 members of our church. On the first Sunday after the occupation, I came to the church and saw about 800 people (thank God, our building could accommodate so many people). I began to look for familiar faces among this multitude of people. The faces of our parishioners. If I remember correctly, I could count about 30, no more. Then I realized that I was in my church, but it was not at all like the church that I knew before the war.

It changed everything. Our approach to ministry, to preaching and the very approach to preaching, to the topics of our sermons. The atmosphere in the church has changed. Most of the people who came to our church were people who experienced something terrible during the occupation in Bucha. These were people who lost something or someone. These were people who needed not only material support, although it was material need that brought them to the church. These were people wanted to be accepted and to understand why all this happened to them. One of the difficult theological questions we faced was the question of how to believe in God after Bucha, after Mariupol, and so on.

– How has the religious situation in Ukraine changed as a result of the war? Where do you find hope?

– According to my subjective observations, it seems to me that everything that is happening, oddly enough, has had a positive impact on the religious situation. I jokingly like to say that the institutions of the church require two things to achieve unity: spiritual maturity or acute vital necessity. Since the first does not threaten us, we need to wait for the second. So the war became that second. The struggle for survival in this war has united the churches more than ever in their support of the government, the army and the people in need. I do not remember such support. This is unprecedented in the history of modern independent Ukraine.

The church was one of the first to understand that this war was not just the result of some political or economic disagreement with a neighbor. This is a war for the right to be yourself, this is a war for existential survival.

This is a civilizational war, a war of values. If this war is lost to modern barbarians who profess the principle of force, then liberal democratic civilization, with its emphasis on law and the right to self-determination, will be in danger of existence as such. And the majority of churches in Ukraine clearly understand this. Unfortunately, most churches in Russia have not understood it.

Where do I personally find hope in all this madness?

Personally, when I do not understand everything that is happening in my life and around it, I find hope in the prophets, biblical prophets!

The prophets, when God raised them up and spoke through them to people or nations, in their socio-political circumstances, also did not understand what was happening around them and did not understand what they were saying to people in the situation in which they found themselves. Or, as Walter Brüggemann once said very well: “If you were to ask a prophet to interpret or explain what he told you, all he would likely do would be to repeat what he had already said.”

However, it is in the prophets that I find the most powerful images of hope, hope that has no reason in circumstances, and hope that seems to have no basis. Two images come to mind in the prophet Isaiah (chapters 11 and 53): The image of a shoot through the stump and the image of a root out of dry ground.

These are images of hope that appears where you do not expect it. On a withered barren tree that was cut down as a result of its barrenness, and a sprout on dry land that dried up as a result of the lack of rain (symbolically, the lack of blessings from above). Yes, it is a very fragile hope that can be easily broken or trampled on, but you can also pour water on it and it can turn into something very powerful.

– What can your friends outside of Ukraine do to be in solidarity with you, with Ukraine and provide practical assistance?

– What I personally ask my friends (thank God, I have many of them) is not just sympathy for us in this terrible and causeless war, although this also takes place, but concrete actions:

Be messengers of the truth, the truth that this is not a war for some twisted historical territorial claims, but a war for civilizational choice, a war for democratic values that the democratic world has begun to forget. Democracy is not a given, it is a constant process of upholding the values around which we once agreed as values that influence and shape the building of a healthy society. This is what we are fighting for and for what we are ready to give the most valuable thing – our lives in the war between Ukraine and totalitarian Russia.

Influence and demand from your government to help Ukraine defend the right to exist not only for Ukraine as a country, but also for such a civilizational choice, which I spoke about above. So that there is an understanding that when we demand help as weapons, we demand weapons not in order to kill, attack or conquer someone else’s, but we demand weapons in order to protect, defend our right to self-determination and our choice in favor of democratic values!

Prayers! Of course, prayers! This is not only a physical war, but also a metaphysical one. And spiritual people, like no one else, must understand this and act accordingly. Thank you for all the ways you have helped us and continue to help.

Photos from Fyodor Raychinets facebook page.

Interviewer — David P. Gushi / baznica.info

Source: https://ieshua.org/kogda-vojna-vryvaetsya-bez-priglasheniya-v-tvoyu-zhizn-vse-menyaetsya-intervyu-s-pastorom-i-bogoslovom-fyodorom-rajchintsem.htm