A Baptist pastor from eastern Ukraine sees God at work in his country even after the destruction of his church by pro-Russian separatists.
Over the past two weeks, Elisey Pronin has spoken at several Baptist churches in central Missouri, telling about the hardships of war and his hope for future ministry.
“[God] can turn any bad things for good for us and for his glory,” Pronin said at First Baptist Church of Jefferson City on May 31.
When war came to the eastern Ukrainian city of Pervomaisk last summer, Pronin remained in the city to serve the people. He watched as bomb blasts destroyed buildings, killing and wounding church members.
Situated in the Lugansk region that borders Russia, the area has seen heavy fighting since last July.
He refused requests from pro-Russian separatist rebels to back their cause, so they burned down the church building.
The largest evangelical church in the region, Revival Church had more than 300 members before the fighting started.
Active in the community, the church’s ministries included youth functions, food distribution, worship choirs and bands, rehabilitation care for drug and alcohol addicts, kids’ summer camps and more.
Pronin’s church had also helped start a new church in a nearby town, with First Baptist Church of Jefferson City helping support that church planter.
The war between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian governmental forces changed everything.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard about war, what you know about war,” Pronin said. “It’s not the same [as] what we used to see, to watch [on] TV. When we watch some show, it looks like not so bad. It looks like some good guys shoot bad guys, and we think it’s war. In reality, not.”
“War, it’s just terrible,” he added as he noted how civilians are impacted.
Bombs fell nearly every day, and they lost water, electricity and gas for nearly two weeks.
As the fighting damaged more than 90 percent of the buildings in Pervomaisk, many residents fled or died. Of the city’s 40,000 residents before the war, only a few thousand remain.
With the hospital destroyed, many people died from shrapnel wounds, heart attacks and other treatable ailments.
Pronin and several deacons stayed to minister, but most women and children from the church left to stay with relatives or in refugee camps.
With limited communication, those who left often heard news about the destruction in the city but could not find out if Pronin and the others were still alive.
As the people left and the city died, Pronin’s ministry shifted from pastor and church planter to refugee minister.
Recognizing the war would not merely last a few days or weeks, he changed his ministry focus and started helping evacuate people from the city.
Noting that people lost everything when bombs destroyed apartments and houses, Pronin and others started ministering to refugees by providing water, medical care, food, blankets and other necessities. Through his ministry among refugees, he baptized many people.
Despite the destruction and challenges, Pronin remains hopeful. Pointing to Romans 8:28, Pronin noted the text says “all things work together for good if we allow God, if we trust God.”
“It does not mean all things – what’s happened – are good things,” he quickly added. “Very often bad things can happen in our lives. Sometimes – it’s really strange – extremely bad things can happen in lives of really good people. And it’s a big question: why it’s happened?”
Pronin explained that despite the bad things that occur, God can use “even bad things for good for us and for his glory.”
He sees new ministry opportunities amid war as evidence that God can use bad things for good.
“Before the war, many people they thought we are sect,” he said. “Percent of evangelical Christians in our town: really, really, extremely small. And people made laugh because of our Christianity, made laugh because of our faith. Many times they teased us. They thought we are crazy and strange people because we pray and we go to the church and do some ministry.”
“But when the war came, everything changed,” he added. “People changed. And no one made laugh because of our Christianity. … People received our testimonies.”
Pronin added that as he invited neighbors to pray with him as they huddled in his basement during a bombing, everyone closed their eyes and joined the prayer.
“Many people, they became open for God at that time,” he said. “Sometimes we can see really bad things around us, sometimes we can get really bad circumstances. But through really bad things, God can bring many people close to him. … God can use bad things for salvation of many people.”
Pronin believes that when bad circumstances arise, Christians should view that as “a challenge” to “serve people” and “do something to help the people.”
“It’s our time to help people, pray about people, share with them gospel, try to save the people, try to help them,” he said. “It’s our chance, it’s our challenge.”
Despite his hopefulness, he admitted he still struggles to understand “how God can use our burned church building for his glory and for good for us.”
When Pronin returns to Ukraine in July, his ministry will shift. He will teach at Lviv Theological Seminary and help plant a church in the western part of the country.
He also hopes to continue ministering to refugees. Evangelical churches in the eastern region under pro-Russian separatist control are now illegal.
Pronin, an author of several books, is also working on a book about his experiences ministering in the war that he titled “Chronicles of the Undeclared War.”
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.