Ukraine Then & Now
by Amy Nickerson | November 2014
Josiah Venture missionaries, Ben Williams and Syava Garvas, walked down the hallway of energetic junior highers and into a classroom of 7th and 8th grade Ukrainians ready to learn some English.
Okay, God, Ben thought, let’s do this.
The team had been praying for chances to connect with more students and the opportunity to teach English once a week in Syava’s alma mater was one way God answered.
It was 2008 and as Ben looked at the faces of his new students, he smiled with anticipation and hope at the possibilities that the desks in front of him held.
In Josiah Venture’s early years as an organization, Ukraine was a country on the minds and hearts of many of the missionaries. In the 90s people were already praying for ministry opportunities there and by 2005 JV Poland was sending Polish youth groups on trips to serve in Ukraine.
It took time for JV to have a full-time team there, but in 2006 the Hughes family moved to Ukraine so that Jay and Cameron could lead the team. Soon after, in January 2007, Ben and Kristy Williams joined them in the city of Lviv. When the Hughes family moved back to the States in 2011, the Williams took over as team leaders.
Kristy says that ministry was slow going in the early years. “Ukraine has the reputation of being a harder mission field than some of the rest of central Europe, I’d say particularly because of social and economic factors. It’s a wilder place and it’s not reforming at the same pace as the European Union.”
For example, back when the team arrived, there was no internet access for the first year and limited water at the Williams’ home.
A lot of the country’s systems are broken because of corruption. Ben explains, “There’s a huge separation in power and wealth. The few people who hold all the power and wealth really oppress everybody else. So, there’s no way to do honest business. No way to finish college without paying bribes. It affects all areas of culture.” This was definitely something the team noticed back in the early days.
Another issue for the team was how big Ukraine is. Unlike many of JV’s other countries, Ukraine has a population of over 40 million people and takes almost two days to drive across. Although it’s geographically large, spiritually Ukraine is a religious country, but the evangelical church is small.
Kristy says, “The needs are great and the amount of ground to cover is huge. We knew we couldn’t achieve this unification of youth ministry and joining God in His movement if we didn’t start somewhere.”
At the beginning this meant the team focused on setting Godly examples of discipleship in Lviv. They worked with one youth group and partnered with a local church to produce a healthy, thriving ministry.
Ben says, “One key issue in Ukraine is that leaders overall can feel pretty isolated. There’s not a present model of discipleship in local churches. So one of the things we started doing was just trying to model it ourselves. Walking next to youth pastors and leaders, helping them see that discipleship, pointing people to Jesus and walking as Jesus walked, is the key part of youth ministry and the programs are just instruments in making that happen.”
The team took the opportunities God gave them and faithfully worked to help the church expand and grow through camps, training, and teaching English.
Since 2006, the JV Ukraine team has grown from two American couples to three Americans, two Czechs, and three Ukrainians.
The country is still a difficult place for ministry, as the team feels the impact of corruption and darkness and the political unrest of the war today. In the east, there’s a lot of church persecution, but in the west where the JV team is located, Kristy says the church is active and “normal” life continues. People are affected “mentally, emotionally, spiritually, in some ways, but not necessarily physically.”
Although Ben describes it as a “hard time” for Ukrainians everywhere, God continues to provide opportunities for ministry. Kristy says, “Just like in any type of persecution or trial, people are more open to talking about spiritual and Gospel things, because everyone has the same goal: they want this war to end, they want peace, they want to get on with their lives, and the younger generation wants a new start.”
This past summer, the team helped lead six English camps, two Fusion camps, one Czech camp, and six outdoor camps with over 500 youth attendees. Two Fusion choirs have been launched in Lviv and floorball teams have been started as a part of Edge Sports in six churches in Ukraine.
This year, the team hopes to continue multiplying these ministries, building their team, and seeing God transform cities through young people.
Back in 2008, Ben and Syava took the opportunity God gave them to teach English at a local school. They didn’t know where it would lead, but today, that partnership continues.
After chances to start an English club there in 2012, six kids from the school came to camp. They stuck around church after camp. They came back the next year. And now they are small group leaders at camp, being discipled by others in the church, and sharing Christ with their peers.
This past summer a camp with around 60 attendees got over half its campers from the school. And now, Syava teaches an ethics and health class to the school’s 9th graders.
There is plenty of work still to do. But Ben, Kristy, and the team, love having the opportunities God has given them to be a part of bringing change to Ukraine. Kristy sums it up well, “I think the thing I love about JV is that we’re reminded that God has always been in this region and that He always will be in this region and that we’re just joining what He’s doing.”
Please pray with us that as the team remains faithful in joining the Holy Spirit at work, Jesus’ light would shine bright in the dark places in Ukraine. Pray that during the political unrest, the church would be active and engaged in their communities so that many would find hope, peace, and new life in Christ.
by Amy Nickerson
Lead Writer, Josiah Venture