The Gospel for Ukraine
September 1, 2007 - Shining gold-domed cathedrals dot the skyscape of Kyiv (formerly Kiev), Ukraine. Their painted roofs and walls of sky blue, yellow and teal green splash the city with color—opulent reminders that religion is not dead here. Inside the great churches, gold embosses the walls, molding, chandeliers, fixtures and nearly all that is visible. Portraits and murals of saints and biblical scenes, also framed in gold, fill the remaining wall space. In one of the city’s dozens of whisper-only sanctuaries, tapers burn in holders where supplicants stand in silent prayer. A feeling of Old Testament gravity and ritual hangs in the air.
by Amanda Knoke
According to the city’s historical record, the Apostle Andrew visited the area in the first century. Nine hundred years later, Christianity became the official religion of the eastern Slavic state known as Kyivan Rus when Vladimir the Great was baptized and preceded to baptize his family and countrymen. The religious heritage of Ukraine has afforded a sense of community for a people who, through centuries, were controlled by other nations. Only in 1991 did the Russian/Soviet rule dissolve, making the way for Ukraine’s independence.
To this day, places of worship and religious icons are this ancient European city’s primary landmarks.
But religion was not what Franklin Graham came to Kyiv to talk about July 6-8.
At a press conference the day before the Festival of Hope began, Franklin made clear to a roomful of reporters that he was not there to preach a religion, but rather a message about how people can have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Franklin spoke of the hunger people have in their heart to know God, but also of the barrier of sin that separates people from God. He told the media, “Our prayer is that the stadium will be filled with people who want to know God and how they can have a relationship with Him.”
From Kyiv ... to All Ukraine
That prayer was answered as 124,000 came to Olympic Stadium over the three days of the Festival—and as 107,000 others attended satellite Festival venues throughout the country and even in two locations in Moldova.
Organizers had planned the Festival as a Kyiv-only event, with transportation arranged for churches and their guests in eight regions closest to, and including, the city. But months after the Festival dates were confirmed, organizers learned that churches in remote regions of Ukraine—a country about the size of Texas—also wanted to participate. Desire for satellite Festival venues in the remaining 17 regions grew, and by July 6 more than 100 locations carried Franklin Graham’s messages, live, to a cumulative audience of 231,000. Venues included prisons, theaters, concert halls, sports complexes, cultural centers and church buildings, as well as a military base and an open-air plaza. The citywide event went countrywide. “God wants to do a big thing through us, and [He] is running before us to do it,” said assistant Festival director Vasily Gerasimchuk. “The Ukrainians have organized themselves and are united.”
Nikolai Polyatika, who oversaw planning in the remote locations, added that 4,000-some churches in Ukraine would be as one under the Gospel. “For these three days,” he said, “there will be one message—all the churches will be unified.”
At train and metro stations, Festival passengers coming to Olympic Stadium were greeted by volunteers holding Festival flags, pointing the way. One woman, just off her four-hour train ride, said, “This is a Festival of Hope. I am a believer and am bringing young people. I want them to find hope for their lives, hope for eternal life.”
The program before Franklin’s message featured an array of Ukrainian artists, as well as singers and musicians from neighboring Russia, Belarus and Moldova. Operatic singers, praise groups, symphony orchestras and choirs all contributed their varied worship, and the massive Festival Choir was a daily highlight. For 10 months, choir director Sergey Yandola had traveled around the country working with some 7,000 singers, more than 3,000 of whom sang on any given night of the Festival. In addition to the music, each evening featured a testimony from a well-known sports figure. Stephan Reshko, of Ukraine’s 1976 Olympic soccer team; Boris Uvarov, world champion speed skater; and Oleg Maskaev, World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, all gave witness to God’s faithfulness and leading in their lives.
Understanding the Difference
Fyodor Trikolich came to Christ at Franklin Graham’s Moldova Festival in 2005 and now was a Festival counselor in Kyiv. (See “Bearing Fruit in Kyiv.”) “Because we are an Orthodox country, many people say they believe in God,” he said, “but they don’t believe they need to repent and live with God and change their lives.” Another Festival volunteer said that in her experience with the Orthodox church, she didn’t understand many things because they used the old Slavic language, which most people don’t understand. “I knew God existed,” she said, “but I couldn’t understand.”
Franklin explained the difference between religion—mere belief in God—and a relationship with Him, using the example of Nicodemus from John 3. As he spoke, the bank of lights over the platform swayed in the sharp wind that blew through the stadium. Bits of plastic took flight over the field, tarps rattled around the equipment they were tied to and Festival flags raised near the stands flapped wildly.
“Nicodemus was a man of great learning and moral standing. ... He was a very religious man ... conscientious in all his religious duties,” Franklin said. He told the 36,000 gathered in the stadium the first night how most churches today would have been thrilled to have someone like Nicodemus in their congregation. But for all of that, he said, Nicodemus was still troubled in his soul, unsure of how one is able to stand before God. So he went to Jesus by the cover of night to ask Him. “When Jesus answers his question, ‘You must be born again,’ Nicodemus must have been stunned,” Franklin said. “He was a Pharisee, the strictest of all religious sects. They dedicated their lives to upholding the law of God.” He continued, “You see, religion is not enough to save you.” After being in their country just a while, Franklin said, he could see Ukraine was a very religious nation—but, like Jesus told Nicodemus, religion is not enough. We have to be born again.
Franklin explained why: “You can’t work for your salvation. If you could work for it or buy it, you would boast about it. The only way you can experience forgiveness is by God’s grace through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. ... It’s coming into an agreement with God. ... You’re telling God, I want to turn from my sins. I don’t want to go back to that old life. I want that new life.”
A 16-year-old boy wanted that new life, but he stood far off from the platform. He had come to hear the message with a friend on a church bus from Vinnitsa, south of Kyiv. “Did you repent?” a counselor asked him. Choked with emotion, the boy could only nod, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Natasha, 15, also wanted to commit her life to Christ. Though she said she had been in church every Sunday, she didn’t have a Bible and wasn’t sure how to get one. Her counselor gave her hers. And after attending a satellite Festival venue in the Lugansk region 500 miles to the east, Andrej, 36, said that he, too, had been in church so many times, but had never had a close relationship with the Lord. “Today God gave me strength to come forward and repent,” he said.
Prayers of the Faithful
The final day of the Festival the sun had broken through and was shining on a group of scarf-clad babushkas—a few of the 500 Christians who had volunteered to pray on-site during the Festival. Gathered at one of the stadium’s four prayer tents, they were eager to praise God for their freedom: “Fifteen years ago we could not imagine that something like this would happen in Ukraine. ... Our brothers and sisters in the prisons during Communist times, they were praying for this freedom. America was praying for the Ukraine—for the USSR to open up to the preaching of the Word. ... Now we receive this freedom. The Holy Spirit is showing us the beauty of Calvary, what happened there. We need to feel that; we need to use that to give our witness to all the people, to be like Mary at Jesus’ feet—to listen to the Holy Spirit teaching us.”
Over the three days of the Festival, thousands of prayers were answered as more than 6,300 people from around Ukraine indicated that they had committed their lives to Christ. “I’m thankful to God that He goes across Ukraine to glorify His Son,” said Sulejmanova Valentina, the leader of a house church in the eastern region of Donetsk. “Only with Divine help was it possible to organize this.”
Near the country’s southern coast, in Mariupol, a man named Pavel said that while passing by a movie theater he had seen some people gathered and was curious. Once inside, he noticed that the people in the theater didn’t feel like strangers to him and that he felt “at home” during the Festival broadcast. That evening he accepted Christ as His Savior—and shouted out loud, “I’m rescued!”
Call for Help and Service
Alexander Kupenko, a pastor from the nearby village of Voronkiv, brought 60 young people to the Festival. Katya, one of these teens who gave her life to Christ, came back to Kupenko’s church after the Festival to ask if she could serve there with their children’s camp and grow in Christ.
Such a request was music to Kupenko’s ears. But he is eager for more like it—especially from boys and men, who are scarce in his sphere of ministry. After Ukraine’s release from Soviet control, many new churches and opportunities arose for proclamation of the Gospel, but with this freedom, many pastors left Ukraine for greater opportunities abroad. “This has broken my heart,” Kupenko says. “Thank God we can open more churches. But who will go work there? We need hard prayer for this. God has given us great opportunity and an open door right now—the government supports us. But who will work? … Give me people. I really need good strong preachers who are ready to work in the villages.” Like Kupenko, Festival chairman Grigory Komendant feels that now that the Festival is past, “churches need to start working.” Kupenko says he will continue to wait prayerfully—“I pray that people who have received Jesus Christ will give their lives for serving God.”