It is well known that in the Soviet Union church life was legally restricted to worship. In 1927 the Great Soviet Encyclopedia [Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia] stated that «charity is a phenomenon characteristic only of a class society.»1 The 1950 edition of the same encyclopedia called charity «assistance that is hypocritically given by representatives of the ruling classes. By means of so-called charity the bourgeoisie attempt to extinguish hatred of capitalism among the masses and hold them back from revolutionary struggle.»2 The 1970 edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia had no entry for «charity» at all. In contrast, since the late 1980s, charity has become an increasingly significant part of evangelical Christian activity and identity in the former Soviet Union.
A specifically Christian response to human need—apparently the first to be recognized as such by the Soviet government—came in 1986, when the Orthodox Church responded to the Chernobyl disaster.3 Two years later, on 29April 1988, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Pitmen and five metropolitans met with Communist Party Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at the Kremlin. Among other requests, these church leaders sought permission to do charitable work, including care for the sick and elderly.
Evangelicals began to consider the implications of social service ministry at about the same time. For example, in 1988, the Central Baptist Church in Moscow regularly sent volunteers to assist staff in the geriatric wards of Moscow’s Kashchenko Psychiatric Hospital No. 1.4 At an evening worship service on 24 September 1988 dedicated to the theme of mercy, V. N. Kozyrev, chief physician at this hospital, stated, «If someone had told me a few years ago that this kind of symbiosis between a church and a hospital was possible, I wouldn’t have believed it. Out of the cobwebs of oblivion, words full of human warmth have surfaced: love, mercy, kindness—and we have begun to measure our lives accordingly.»5 On 22-23 January 1989,the Baptist church in Syktyvkar, Komi ASSR, held concerts of classical and contemporary Christian music to benefit victims of the 1988 Armenian earthquake.6 By November1991 Evangelical Christians-Baptists were sponsors or patrons of 120 hospitals, 145 children’s homes and boarding schools, 95 facilities for the disabled, and over130 correctional facilities.7
Types of Charitable Outreach
Evangelicals in post-Soviet Ukraine conduct three basic types of formal social service ministry: 1) humanitarian and material aid; 2) social service ministries directed to specific needs; and 3) the establishment of social service institutions. A church or association of churches, a Christian charitable fund, a mission society, or an institution such as a theological school may have the necessary juridical status and resources, such as transportation and storage facilities, to receive humanitarian aid from abroad. Churches or missions may have relationships with children’s homes, hospitals, or secular charitable organizations. Regular visitation may be established. This often begins with a special event, such as a holiday celebration, for which the church or mission prepares a program – a skit or puppet show, music, and a sermon –and brings gifts of humanitarian aid as well, such as groceries, literature, or school supplies. Also, government run agencies frequently contact Christian missions or churches for assistance with supplies. I am aware of several occasions in which area prisons have turned to Pavel Metlenko, Senior Presbyter of the Association of Baptist Churches of the Zaporizhzhia Oblast, for supplies such as soap.
As the social service system in Ukraine continues tounravel, Christians, even though few in number, have begun to fill the gap. While not required by law, Christian organizations receiving humanitarian aid are nevertheless «strongly encouraged» to contribute 10 percent of their shipments to secular social service agencies. In addition, some Christian organizations act as supply stations for individual requests. Some city authorities have arranged with evangelical charities to supply clothing and household items to citizens who appeal to the city council for aid.
The second category of charitable work is social service ministry directed toward specific segments of the population. The Christian Medical Association of Ukraine operates free clinics and organizes doctors’ visits to areas where medical care is especially limited. Also, church members or missions may pay regular visits to children in institutions, provide wheelchairs to those in need, or organize picnics and social events for the homebound.
The third category is the establishment of actual institutions, such as children’s homes and shelters, homes for the elderly, community centers, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities. According to Vladimir Tsupko, director of the Good Shepherd Charitable Fund in Makiivka, Ukraine, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Charismatic groups now operate at least ten Christian children’s homes in Ukraine. Some church associations have opened homes for their own elderly, but accept other seniors in need, as well. All these institutions occupy a particular place in post- Soviet Ukraine because they model a holistic approach to human need, ministering to spiritual as well as physical needs.
Trends in Evangelical Charity
I would like to summarize general characteristics of evangelical charitable ministries in Ukraine in the 1990s and note directions for the future.
1. The primary stated motive for social service ministry among Ukrainian Evangelicals is evangelism. There is no doubt, in addition to all the other motives they may state, that the most significant work that Evangelicals do, in their own understanding, whether distributing humanitarian aid or caring for orphans, is serving as bearers of the Gospel to lost humanity.
2. Social service ministries among Evangelicals are explained biblically. No matter what the ministry, Ukrainian Evangelicals readily recite Bible verses to explain why they engage in charitable work. They refer repeatedly to God’s commands to care for widows, orphans, and strangers, and especially Matthew 25.
3. A corollary to the emphasis on biblical motivation is willingness on the part of Ukrainian evangelical believers to plunge into new endeavors or expand outreach in ways that at times appear more rash than faithful, especially to a Western observer. Instead of conducting feasibility studies or lining up adequate financial resources ahead of time, Ukrainian Evangelicals generally are prepared to move ahead with the conviction that God will provide all their needs.
4. Does this mean, however, that charitable ministries are unrealistic in what they seek to do? I find the willingness of Evangelicals to obey in faith, even when it seems risky, to be one of their most attractive and convincing traits. Often they receive surprising answers to their prayers. When Hope Children’s Home was down to its last day’s supply of coal just few winters ago, the adults confided the problem to the children and asked them to pray. Their prayer was very simple: «Dear God! We have no coal! Amen!» The next day a truck arrived—summoned, unlooked for—with a donation of atom of coal.
I have found Evangelicals’ mysticism to be neither flippant nor careless. In fact, they show great practicality and resourcefulness as well. Planning does take place, although perhaps more informally than Westerners are accustomed to. Usually it is enriched with much discussion and prayer. In addition, to keep up with changing demands from the wider society, many Evangelicals have mastered such skills as accounting, public relations, and information systems, all of which require systematic approaches.
5. Social service ministries have had the interesting effect of transforming Evangelicals into individuals of consequence in their communities. Prejudice against Baptists is still significant in post-Soviet society, but their generous use of material aid and the work of the institutions they have founded convinces many of their sincerity and seriousness of purpose.
6. Evangelicals in charitable institutions have had to make their peace with the social sciences, especially psychology. For example, when they began work in 1997, the staff of Good Shepherd Children’s Shelter believed that the Bible contained all they needed to know to care for neglected children. A few years later they concluded that they needed other tools as well to deal with the serious psychological needs of some of the children. More and more staff members of new evangelical institutions see the need for formal study, especially in the areas of pedagogy, social work, psychology, economics, and law. Theological schools such as Donetsk Christian University are seeking to incorporate at least components of some of these subjects into their degree programs.
7. Through engagement in social service ministries, Ukrainian Evangelicals have developed new relationships with State authorities. In some places, authorities have recognized their need of the services Christians provide and Evangelicals have acknowledged the government’s good intentions. One irony of social service work, particularly with children, is that no one cares about children on the street, but once under roof, they have to be accounted for officially to numerous government structures—a time-consuming, nerve-wracking process that Christians may be tempted to short circuit with bribes. Some evangelical organizations choose to work as quietly as possible to avoid entanglement in government regulations.
8. While doing charitable work and forming new organizations, Christians have had to develop new ways to work together, including conflict management, appeals procedures, and methods of communication. They have dealt with questions that never arose in the Soviet Union. How does one handle hiring and firing? Wages? Promotion? Should a Baptist group hire a Pentecostal? Should Christians hire an unbeliever?
9. The most vexing question of all is sustainability. How can social services, particularly resource-consuming institutions, be kept functioning? Support from the West has eroded as Westerners have begun to prioritize aid to other parts of the world. How can churches and organizations finance their own ministries? Some charitable organizations seek to develop a sense of responsibility for their ongoing existence among local churches. They have had some success, but cash-poor Christians have money worries of their own. What is the most effective, faithful way to develop the ministry of giving, or encourage income generating initiatives?
10. Social problems are interrelated, and evangelical institutions are finding that addressing one issue compels them to address others as well. For example, some children who lived in Christian shelters or orphanages in the 1990s have now grown up and have children of their own, often repeating their parents’ mistakes. Does the institution have continued responsibility for them? What can be done to help keep families together before children are abandoned, or to restore families whose children are now in institutions? Moreover, new social challenges are appearing all the time. For example, will evangelical churches have anything to say about the AIDS epidemic, or will they Passover this issue in silence?
11. Many leaders of Christian charitable organizations are women. Will that eventually affect the position of women in evangelical churches?
12. Where might social service ministries lead in the future? The Ukrainian government in 2005 quietly invited church leaders to recommend honest, educated people for government service. Will some people now managing charities enter politics?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, social service ministries became a significant part of evangelical activity and identity in Ukraine. What was a despised subculture in the Soviet period now creatively responds to the needs of demoralized and confused society. The change is striking, yet it is not surprising that the people who pick up the pieces are those whose worldview does not change when earthly kingdoms fall. In general, Evangelicals are capable of self-organization; they are dedicated; and they can trust one another—essential components for maintaining complex ministries.
Mary Raber is international editor of Bogoslovskierazmushlenie/Theological Reflections, Odessa, Ukraine, and a worker for the Mennonite Central Committee in Ukraine.
1 Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia 6(Moscow: Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 1927), 466.
2 Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia 5(Moscow: Bol´shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 1950), 278.
3 Dmitry V. Pospielovsky, «Religious Themes in the Soviet Press in 1989,» Religion in Communist Lands 18(Winter 1990), 319, quoted in Nathaniel Davis, A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995), 60.
4 Vera Kadaeva, «Seminar molodykh sluzhitelei rossiiskoifederatsii,» Bratskii vestnik No. 6 (1988), 58.
5 Viktoria Mazharova, «‘Byl bolen, i vy posetili menia’,»Bratskii vestnik No. 6 (1988), 70.
6 S. I. Nikolaev, «Po dorogam severnogo kraia,» Bratskiivestnik No. 3 (1989), 77-80.
7 Mikhail Ivolgin, «Posledne