War changes life for MB leader: “Everything is different”

An interview with Maxym Oliferovski of Ukraine about his experience as a pastor, ministry leader in a country at war

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Writers with Christian Leader, MB Herald and Mennonite Central Committee talk with Mennonite Brethren pastor Maxym Oliferovski from his home in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Photo: Janae Rempel

Maxym and Anya Oliferovski live in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, where they provide leadership to Multiply’s holistic church-planting initiatives in communities that are experiencing war, displacement and poverty. They themselves are church planters, leading a small congregation in their city. The couple also directs New Hope Center, a non-profit organization that ministers to youth at risk and to families in crisis. New Hope Center receives funding from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) as well as Multiply. “As you see,” says Oliferoviski, “we are wearing several hats, but it’s one heart.”

MCC news coordinator Linda Espenshade facilitated an interview Feb. 28 with Oliferovski and Christian Leader editors Connie Faber and Janae Rempel and MB Herald staff Carson Samson and Holly Hannigan. Oliferovski participated in the 9:00 a.m. (CST) Zoom call—late afternoon for him—from a dacha he and his wife purchased a year ago on the edge of the city. Little did they know that their very small second home, which they chose for its orchard and garden, would become a refuge for them—as well as their dog and cat—five days into Russia’s attack on their country.

The hour-long conversation between and the five journalists is condensed here.

Can you give us a sense of how close you are to the Russian forces and what that looks like?

MO: Zaporizhzhia is in southeast Ukraine. Kyiv (the capitol) is about 500 kilometers northwest from us. Eight years ago, when [civil] war began in the east, in this area, we experienced what it means to wait for an enemy that’s approaching. The [enemy lines] stopped about 180 to 200 kilometers from us, but the war never stopped. Now the fighting is happening 100 kilometers or less from us.

 I imagine nothing is the way it was several weeks ago. What is life like now?

MO: Life definitely changed dramatically. It’s the fifth day today of the war, and everything is different. People are different; streets are different. News is different. Stores are different. Everything is different.

There was no shelling in Zaporizhzhia for several days. Shelling began yesterday (Feb. 27, 2022). The first few days, people were quite nervous and worried. Then we heard sirens, that means you need to go to a shelter. We live in a city, in apartment buildings, and there are many people living in the apartment buildings, and there are bomb shelter shelters in basements. There’s no panic but still lots of stress. You can feel it in the air.

Many friends evacuated, but we decided ahead of time that we would stay here as long as we can to help others, to help the church, to help the families we are serving. And that’s what we’re doing now.

We relocated to a safer place on the outskirts of our city. Last night was the first time we really heard and felt physically the explosions. They were very close. The heart begins to pound—that’s just how the body reacts. And we thought that’s how we would spend the night. But the night was calm. We were able to sleep. Praise God.

 How did your church spend Sunday?

MO:  Well, COVID-19 played a good role for us because it taught us how to have church online. We’ve all experienced that. Our church is small, and we can use Zoom. We do prefer meeting in person so we can hug one another. But we now have the technology to talk to one another, to encourage one another, to love one another like Scripture says.

So yesterday, in the evening—that’s when we have our regular church meeting—we got together in Zoom. Usually, we have maybe 20 to 25 families and yesterday it was a dozen families. We had a prayer time and encouraged one another with passages from Scripture. We heard the needs that people have. It was a good time.

What are some of the needs you are hearing about? 

MO: We know of people who are evacuating. They’re looking for shelter in western Ukraine. They have some supplies, but they will need food sooner or later.

For people who are staying, there is still food in the stores you can buy. But supplies at home are getting shorter and shorter. I think by the middle or end of this week the supplies will be very low. We’re preparing ourselves to help people—church members and others—with food.

Food is good, but probably even more important, we’re supporting one another by making phone calls. People call others and just say, “How are you doing? How can we pray for you? Is there food?” People are doing this on their own, trying to support one another mentally, psychologically. And there is definitely need for that. Someone called my wife this morning and said, “I need to talk to someone. Can I talk to you?” And they were on the phone for 20 minutes.

 Have you seen any increase of people coming to your church or your programs out of fear or panic looking for comfort?

MO: Not at our church since we did not meet this Sunday. I wasn’t able to contact other pastors to see if they met physically in person and if they had more people. What’s happening definitely is [with] soldiers. We have two MB chaplains in the military, and we’re in touch on a daily basis. They’re saying that the soldiers are praying; they are accepting Jesus. The commanders are saying, come to my military unit, pray with the soldiers and encourage them. So, [there may be] revival in the military troops. We’ve seen that before when the war began in 2014. I’m seeing that happening again now.

 What is happening among people who are evacuating?  

MO: There are thousands and thousands of people relocating to the western part of Ukraine. We hear that there will be about 5 million people relocating, becoming refugees. It’s hard to leave because they’re leaving behind relatives, friends, churches. There are many families going. Where do they stay?

I heard from my friend yesterday who evacuated with their car. He said, “In western Ukraine people are just letting those who are running away from the war stay in their homes. And then you can proceed to another place.” So there is Ukrainian hospitality in practice, and that’s a miracle. There is a saying in Ukrainian language, “My house is on the outskirts; that’s not my business.” It’s very cultural.

But right now, God is doing a miracle. Ukrainians are really, really helping one another. They’re giving their house so people can stay. There are lots of volunteers. People are donating blood and medical [supplies], whatever they need for hospitals. Everybody is really helping everybody. It’s really great. Ukraine is changing.

And we see other countries helping us. Ukrainian military is doing a good job, but we need help. Whether we’re talking about military equipment or other things, they’re helping as well. So, we’re not alone in this battle.

Even more, so many people are praying. So many people are praying. That’s why I don’t have any doubt that we win, and Ukraine will be a different country.

 We hear that the president of your country is asking men to join the military. Is that happening where you live?

MO: We have our official military, but along with that, Ukraine is providing equipment like machine guns for local men, age 18 plus. We call it “territorial defense.” In our city, two days ago, you could join this territorial defense. That means you are protecting your house, your community, your city.

It’s been possible to get a machine gun just by showing a Ukrainian passport. There were lines of men. They gave away I don’t know how much equipment and the lines were still there. Not only that, but Ukrainians are also making self-made explosives to destroy tanks. People are also helping by providing food for soldiers and providing places for them to rest.

Mennonite Brethren are historically non-violent. And yet, here you are, your lives are threatened. How do you advise your church, practically and spirituality?

MO: The first days we encouraged parents with children to evacuate. Some people did that. We told those people who have small kids that they need to leave. If you can, if you have a vehicle, if you can join someone, you need to leave. As adults, we can cope with the trauma. But the kids, it’s so hard. It will change their future if they stay here.

Another way we can help is to just keep calm, stay at home. Don’t hinder the military guys from doing their thing. In that way, you’re helping your country.

I already mentioned the chaplains, and not many people are called to do that. They are praying with the soldiers and for the soldiers because whatever they do, soldiers are God’s people. They are God’s children. They bear the image of God and being the chaplain—that’s really peacemaking.

If some people choose to get a machine gun, I wouldn’t condemn them. But I will tell them, “When you start doing that, you just got into the war. You need to be responsible for that.”

Personally, and as a Mennonite Brethren church, we’re helping in one of the hospitals, just whatever help they need. There was a bunch of stuff donated to the hospital, and we sorted that. Hospitals are mainly serving wounded soldiers, and there are many wounded soldiers.

We’re also helping the local population to release their stress. As I mentioned before, we have been working with families in crisis. Now it’s like double crisis. We’re trying to talk to them, to help them through their stress.

 Are their practical ways that the North American MB church can help?

MO: Well, prayer is number one. We’re really expecting a miracle from God. Truth is on our side. We’re stopping the evil from spreading here in Ukraine and further into Europe. We know that God wants us to win and stop this craziness, this evil. So, we’re really expecting miracles from God. And we already have seen some. Join us in prayer that God stops the evil here from spreading. Pray that people will be strong and truly fight for the truth.

 You use the term “evil,” that God would stop the evil from encroaching. Can you say more about what you mean by evil?

MO: Killing people with no reason—that’s evil. When others come here from Russia, with machine guns, jets and everything, and they kill people here because they want to live here—they want this territory—that’s evil. Our soldiers are defending the territory, defending the population here. In that way we’re fighting the evil, the darkness, that’s spreading. We’re praying that this evil, this military aggression from the Russian government, stops.

 How else can we in North America help?

There will be emerging needs. A week from now, two weeks from now, even months from now, people will need food, water and gas.

Multiply has a crisis fund and funds that go there for Ukraine will be used for the crisis situation here. There is some trouble delivering funds now. But my job is to find good channels of how the money can be sent this way to buy the food and stuff that people need.

I believe Ukraine will win and will need to rebuild our country, our cities, our houses. So there will be opportunities to help rebuild the communities. I’m sure there will be lots of infrastructure restoration.

We’ve been working with the mental health, and that’s probably the first thing that needs to be restored. It’s not as obvious as a shortage of food or helping to restore a broken wall. It’s the restoration of broken hearts. How do you deal with all this anger? There will be loss and stress and anger in society. And I’m sure there will be ways to help to do this psychological work, to work in the mental health area to restore people’s souls. That is connected to Jesus and to outreach.

 How do you use your trauma training to help people relieve their anger?

MO: The picture is as always that you start in Jerusalem, then go to Judea, Samaria and further. So, you start with yourself and your family. You ask for forgiveness if you wronged someone—even a minor thing. We do this every day, right? You say, “I apologize” and “I’m sorry.” No defending yourself.

Then you go from your family to your church, and prayer helps a lot. We pray for our enemies. We have this angry feeling [toward our enemies]. But it’s not helping you at all. The evil needs to be stopped, but can we forgive them? That’s a big question. There is lots of prayer that needs to happen.

And then from our church, we go into the community. Jesus said be salt and light. We can’t really talk there [in the community] about forgiving your enemies because people are not part of God’s kingdom yet. But at least we can say that we don’t need to curse them. They are also people. But they’re blind; they’re deceived. They don’t see the truth because they are blinded, and certainly that can change.

 CL: How can we pray for you personally, your wife and family?

MO: Thank you for that. Pray for health, that our bodies can function under the stress. It is not easy. Pray that we can keep calm and just stay healthy. We have food and water here. But it’s hard to learn how to deal with this new circumstances and stress level.

Definitely pray for safety. As we were going from downtown today, we saw one of the missiles flying over us. First time in my life. You can’t really prepare for that. When you hear all these explosions and shootings, even if you’re in a safe location, it is still hard.

Pray for wise decisions. As I said, we decided to stay here to keep helping families, the church. How long shall we stay here? Things can change tomorrow. Pray that as we stay here, we will be helpful, give leadership to our church, help families, help the community—whatever is needed. Pray for strength that we can continue the ministry in the circumstances.

Multiply and MCC are asking for funds to support relief work and their ongoing ministries in Ukraine. Read more here: 

MCC Ukraine Emergency Response

Multiply Ukraine Ministry Project

Connie Faber
Editor
Connie Faber joined the magazine staff in 1994 and assumed the duties of editor in 2004. She has won awards from the Evangelical Press Association for her writing and editing. Faber is the co-author of Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren. She and her husband, David, have two daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law and one son-in-law. They are members of Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas.

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