By Cheryl Magness
On Thursday, Feb. 24, Russia launched an early morning invasion of Ukraine. As the conflict enters its second month, the people of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) continue to pray for those affected and seek opportunities to help.
A coup and an invasion
The LCMS has been working with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (ELCU), an emerging partner church, for the last four years. The Rev. Serge Maschewski, bishop of the ELCU, studied in the Russian Project at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, in the 1990s. He led the congregations of the ELCU out of the Deutsche Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche der Ukraine (DELKU) — which is affiliated with the German state church, the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) — when the EKD ordered the Ukrainian church to accept women’s ordination and the LGBTQ agenda. In the last two years the EKD, in cooperation with others, carried out a coup against the ELCU, taking over the ELCU headquarters in Odesa, Ukraine, and seizing its bank accounts. Maschewski, his wife and their two sons were removed from the building by force and thrown into the street.
The Rev. James A. Krikava, associate executive director of the LCMS Office of International Mission, notes that the coup against the ELCU happened before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Before the coup, an LCMS missionary couple was teaching English in Odesa and Dnipro. Theological seminars for pastors were being held monthly, and another missionary family was preparing to deploy to Ukraine to help carry out this work. But for health reasons the couple had to leave the field, and when violence broke out against the church, the family had to be diverted to Romania. They are now assisting with the relief effort there.
Meanwhile, the LCMS still had one missionary family working in Russia, even after the assault on Ukraine began. The Rev. Jerry Lawson had been teaching at the Bible Institute of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia, an LCMS partner church. Lawson, his wife and their two children were living and serving in St. Petersburg, far from the fighting, and Krikava was checking on them daily.
As the war in Ukraine intensified, however, the notice came that all Americans should leave Russia. This turned out to be a challenge, as flights from Western countries were being banned from entering Russian airspace. To leave by air, the Lawsons would have had to fly to Turkey or a Middle Eastern country in order to get back into Europe.
Ultimately, the Finnish consulate in St. Petersburg offered to take them on a bus of diplomats traveling from St. Petersburg to Helsinki. The border passing was not easy, as in addition to the Russian border guards, there were many Russian army personnel, heavily armed, thoroughly searching all baggage.
“God be praised,” said Krikava, “that the Lawsons made it safely out of Russia. Once they arrived in Helsinki, they were met by pastors and friends from our partner church, the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland. They traveled to Riga, Latvia, where for the time being Pastor Lawson can continue to teach his theology courses in the Russian Bible Institute, as well as assist with the [Lutheran Livonian Project] in Riga.”
‘Tears of relief’
Elsewhere in Europe, other LCMS missionaries are also ministering to refugees. The Rev. Dr. Christian Tiews, LCMS missionary to Germany, is providing pastoral care to several fleeing Ukrainian families. He recently met one of the families, a mother and her teenage daughter, at the train station in Hamburg (the husband/father had stayed behind to help defend his country). Tiews said that he wasn’t sure how to identify the women, so he held up a homemade blue and yellow sign with their names.
“As the Lord would have it,” Tiews said, “[they] disembarked right in front of me … with tears of relief running down their faces after five days on the road.” Tiews said that he helped the women find their host and accompanied them to the host’s vehicle.
“When we got there, I asked … whether they would mind if we had a prayer of thanks for their safe arrival,” Tiews continued. The host looked “skeptical,” saying, “Praying is not really my thing.”
But the Ukrainians agreed, and Tiews prayed with the group, noting that after the prayer, the Ukrainians made the sign of the cross. The next day, Tiews said the women’s host called to let him know they were doing well. Before hanging up, she added, “Thank you for praying last night. I’m not really into all of that religion stuff, but somehow praying to God felt good. It gave me peace.”
Krikava said the situation in Ukraine remains “grave” and is “getting more tense each day.” Asked what the church’s role is at times such as this, he replied, “It is the same role as always, except under extreme conditions: bringing God’s people His gifts of Word and Sacrament. I talk to people in Ukraine every day via video. They are starting to look ragged. Their fear is more noticeable. Still, their faces express the depth of their conviction and faith. They remain resolute and relatively calm. It is hard to imagine all they are going through.”
Of the Synod’s missionaries in Eurasia, Krikava said they “deserve an A+. First there was COVID, then persecution — not only in Ukraine, but against our partner church in Finland — and now this war, which is affecting so many. Up to 6 million refugees are predicted. But our missionaries are doing well. Our partner churches in the area are also helping, and the outpouring of prayers and gifts from the people of the LCMS has been miraculous.”
Read earlier stories about the crisis in Ukraine:
- Funds for Ukraine serve varied needs
- ‘Let love be genuine’: More help for Ukraine
- ‘The list changes daily’: Help for Ukraine
Posted March 24, 2022