Ivan Rusyn is the president of the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary (UETS) in Kyiv. He spoke with Plough’s Susannah Black by videoconference on April 9, 2022.
Susannah Black: What’s been the timeline of your war so far?
Ivan Rusyn: I returned from the States four days before the war started. February 24 is my wife’s birthday; we planned to have dinner with her family. But that was the day everything started.
That first day, I was able to get to the seminary to implement our crisis plan. I went home that evening – we live in Bucha, just four or five miles from the seminary. By the next morning, the bridge between Bucha and Kyiv had been blown up, and there was fighting. We spent five days in the apartment building’s basement gym, where I used to go for fitness. Then my wife evacuated with her two brothers and their five children; she stayed in West Ukraine with my mom for almost forty days. I’ve been sleeping in a sleeping bag in one of the offices of the Bible Society of Ukraine.
Do you have children of your own?
I have to say, I didn’t expect to see that smile on your face.
You know what I learned? We see a lot of suffering around, huge destruction. I’m staying with a colleague from the seminary and a couple of others. We decided a few weeks ago to try to live as normal a life as we can. So when we have dinner, we try to prepare a good meal and pretend that everything is okay. We find a way to smile, because otherwise we would go crazy.
So what happened after your wife evacuated?
I decided to try to get to Kyiv. I didn’t know if I would make it. I managed to get to the seminary.
How’s your internet connectivity working?
In Kyiv, we have electricity, cell service, and internet, but in many places, including Bucha, there has been no telephone connection, no internet, no electricity for more than a month.
That’s one of the reasons I went back to Bucha at the beginning of March. As far as I knew, my neighbors were still in that basement gym, and our government had made an agreement that on that day there would be an evacuation corridor. But I was told that there was no internet in Bucha, so those people had no idea.
Also, someone asked me to deliver medicine to Bucha. So I decided I’d try to go back. I got as far as I could by car, and then I took a bicycle and got back home to my neighborhood with that. And I told my neighbors and others about the evacuation corridors.
Most of them believed me. I think that when you spend a couple of weeks in a shelter in darkness, on one hand you want to escape, but on the other hand you have very deep fear. Many of them were afraid to evacuate because they’d heard that Russians were killing civilians who were trying to escape. So I delivered the medicine and headed back.
On my way into Bucha, Ukrainian soldiers had stopped me. I told one, “I’m a priest – I take full responsibility for my actions.” And he said, “I am very proud of you that you want to risk your life, but we will not allow you to go.” But I was riding my bicycle – I found a way, and got across the river.
You snuck past the Ukrainian army?
Yeah. And then when I was coming back, I saw Russian soldiers, so I had to hide. I was afraid I’d have to stay overnight. But then I managed to find a way out. At one point I was trying to cross a road and on the right and left hand were Russian military vehicles – not tanks, smaller ones, six of them. Then I ran into an elderly lady, around eighty, with a younger man – I think her son – trying to get to the checkpoint, to get out. She kept asking, “Are our guys close?” She really wanted to see Ukrainian soldiers. I told her, “See, there’s a Ukrainian flag. When we get there, we will be safe.” Her son asked me, “Why did you stay here? Did you stay in order to help us to evacuate?”
Then I went back to Bucha again maybe five days ago, after it was liberated. The Ukrainian president was there; we were able to drive, so we went with our minibus and delivered medicine and food. We’ve been back every day since then.
You always wonder how you would react, being in a war zone. What’s surprised you?
Sometimes I cannot comprehend that this is happening in 2022. Two days ago our team visited Hostomel. It’s very close to my apartment. You can’t imagine how apocalyptic this picture is. You stop by an exploded building, and wait by the Red Cross trucks for two minutes, three minutes, and then one person shows up. And then one by one, other people come, mostly elderly. They are very dirty. One lady noticed my surprise at how she looked. She said, “We are sorry about how we look; we’ve been cooking over open fires.”
You don’t ask people to share their stories; they just start. That lady told us that her husband was killed and she buried him in her backyard. She started to cry, and she hugged me. I’ve received more hugs from strangers since this began than from my family during the last five years.
Sometimes people ask, “Do you only help people from your denomination?” No, every Ukrainian citizen is my neighbor. At this moment, we never ask people if they believe in God, or trust in God.
But you are making a witness. Can you see people becoming more open to Christ through this?
People talk a lot about praying; they say God protected them. Yesterday or the day before yesterday – in this situation we don’t remember days – I met a lady who lives in my apartment building. I’m there in my collar, a priest, a believer, and she says she’s an atheist. Then she says, “I have a special request for you.” When she was in that basement, sheltering, there was a lady who had an icon and lost it. The atheist lady says to me, “Can you write to her that I found that icon? I will be happy to return it to her.”
I see a lot of satanic violence. This is an unprovoked war. But also I see how God is raising our country to extreme unity and collaboration. We used to have denominational walls, but now the partnership we have between different churches is amazing. I do see God’s hand in this – but this is very hard to speak about.
When I think about where God is in this, I don’t have answers. But I was reading Elie Wiesel’s book Night. He’s sharing the story of when three Jews were murdered in the presence of other Jews, and somebody said, “Where is God now?” And he said that he heard the voice in his heart that God is killed. I feel the same when I see people killed, civilians and soldiers – I see Christ being killed.
“Where is God?” That is a question. But a few days ago I started to think that the proper question is not where is God, but where is humanity. This is not a question for God, but a question for us.
I have huge anger toward Russians, but also pity, because one day they will find out what was going on. I don’t know how they will absorb that information because it seems like they’re living in a different world. But this bubble will blow up; they will be exposed to reality.
Today we were delivering food in a smaller village, and as always happens, people started to share stories. One elderly lady shared that they were hiding in a basement and Russian soldiers entered. Her granddaughter screamed in fear, and Russian soldiers pointed a gun at the child. The lady says that for the three weeks since, the child has not been speaking. Such fear and such trauma. One day Russians will be exposed to this truth; I just don’t know how they will live with it.
There is a song in Ukrainian which goes: “My killer calls me a sister.” Russians want to say that we are brothers. Why do you kill us, then?
You talked in another interview about the imprecatory psalms, praying for God to break the teeth of your enemies. Have you been able to pray for them at all?
I try to be authentic and honest. I used to be a pacifist. When I was called up for military service, I chose alternative service. Now I believe that only the nation that has known the horror of war has the right to speak about pacifism. I used to be involved in mission projects in Azerbaijan and many Azeri people asked me what I thought about their war with Armenia. I was quick to teach them about forgiveness and pacifism, because I had no clue.
What does pacifism mean when your loved ones are killed? I am so embarrassed about my speeches. So I think now Ukraine can think and speak about pacifism or not pacifism because we know what it means. My theology has been changed. For me, peacemaking is not a passive thing anymore, an ability to absorb and embrace everything. No, it is very active – action in order to stop violence.
I know that God will not be passive. He will intervene – he has already intervened.
It is very hard for me to be just. When I ask God to intervene – when I ask him to break the bones of my enemies – I know that his reaction will be proper, timely, and just. So it is about justice and about my recognition that we are absolutely dependent on God. When you compare the size of Russia and Ukraine, you will see that we are fighting a giant. The only hope we have is God. So, yes, I do pray. I don’t pray about peace, I pray about victory. Peace will be an outcome of victory. Unfortunately, with Russia, there will be no peace without victory.
I’m a missiologist by my training, and I have been teaching a lot about incarnational mission. Now I think I have broader understanding. You think more about the theology of presence when you are in the midst of suffering. I have been asked many times, “Why are you here?” We have been serving communion for our soldiers in the open air. We say, “Thank you for your service.” They say, “No, thank you for your service.” The church is present; we haven’t fled to somewhere else. And I think that after this war, many Christians, as well as secular people, will ask, “Where were you when we were being killed?” And Christian leaders will be able to say, “I was with you. I was here. I was in Kyiv.” And it will be very powerful. So I think the church will be in a position to speak, and the voice of the church will be heard, because on the darkest days of our history, we stood together with the Ukrainian nation.
In the beginning of the war, maybe the seventh or eighth day, there was an ecumenical prayer in the very precious and important Saint Sophia Cathedral in downtown Kyiv. It’s close to Ukraine’s Security Service headquarters, so there was information that Russia might attack that area and the church, which is over a thousand years old, might be destroyed.
The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches – Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox – decided to have a prayer inside, and also Muslims and Jews. We prayed and demonstrated to our society that we are here. Ukraine’s president is a great example of this, and I have met top politicians serving as average soldiers in checkpoints. It’s about solidarity. I believe that the church will be stronger, will be more authentic, and will be an integrated part of our society. Our seminary is interdenominational. Our students are mostly Evangelical, but sometimes Orthodox, sometimes Catholic. Recently I’ve been visiting the Catholic archbishop of Kyiv. We have lunch, we share resources, we share food. It’s a unique moment of unity.
In the midst of this, what are the things that give you hope?
Well, one day you are full of hope, another you feel extreme emptiness. Every day we get stronger and stronger in our hope, but the first few days were very difficult.
What brings encouragement for me is when I see unity between different kinds of Ukrainians, when I see the eyes of our soldiers, when volunteers ask, “How can we help you?” I am blessed because I’m working with my closest friends and our dialogue is very sincere, honest, and authentic – that gives me hope. And also when I see really deep suffering, unjust suffering. Because knowing something about God, I know that he will not be passive. He will intervene – he has already intervened.
At the beginning, you want to speak a lot. But then a few days ago I just began to feel that I like silence. Someone asked me, “Do you still believe in God?” I may have had some thoughts before the war, but now I have no doubts.
How can our readers pray for you?
Pray for Ukraine. Pray for Ukrainian churches. One day this war will be over. I am convinced that only the church has the capacity to be the platform for healing, restoration, and, at some point, reconciliation. So my prayer is that the church in Ukraine will serve our wounded nation. And I think not only our theological or counseling expertise will help us: we will have the same scars; we went through the same suffering and this is what will make us able to serve our nation.
Second: If you have resources to send, please do. There are thousands and thousands of elderly people left behind. We are delivering provisions. We have a few buses. Every day we load them with food, bread, medicine, milk, and water and go into villages and distribute food.
And also … I would like to ask you to pray for Russia. Because Russia is going nowhere. And this war already brings a lot of suffering to the Russian people. So pray that God will intervene and stop Putin so Russia will not be destroyed, so it will not fall apart economically. We try to have connections with Russians, our brothers and sisters, but it is very hard.
Jesus Christ was not a politician. But the gospel impacts politics as well as everything else. And the statement “Jesus is Lord” has political resonance. This is about our ultimate loyalty. Worship has political resonance. Whom do we worship? The gospel is so powerful that it transforms every area of our life. We are not just waiting for evacuation to heaven. That is not biblical.
If we are Christians, we have to have an impact. Yes, we are not of this world, but we are in this world for the sake of this world. So we always have to be in the midst of everything. We have to be engaged if we want to be a true church. For me it was very important that I remain here with my people. If I evacuate before everybody else, what kind of pastor am I?
When we shut the seminary [after it was bombed], it was very important to me that I be the one to close our campus gate. So I did it. I said, “I will be last.” We are not political institutions and the church cannot be a political power. But the church cannot be far from what is going on.
To support the work of Ivan Rusyn and the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary to provide material assistance to people in and around Kyiv, please donate to the relief fund they have created. Donations will be used to buy food and medications for residents of Kyiv, to buy necessities for evacuated students and faculty of UETS, and to provide help to students and staff whose homes have been destroyed.
Rusyn also gave Plough permission to share selections from his war diary. These are excerpted from a private newsletter to friends and supporters abroad.
January 26, 2022
As tensions increase over fears of a full-scale Russian invasion, we ask you to join in our fervent prayer for peace. We firmly believe that our God is mighty enough to keep everything under his control and that in such moments the voice of hope, truth, and reconciliation is of critical importance. Whatever happens, let his will be done through us, his beloved children whose prayers he is always eager to hear!
As you know, the Russian Federation has launched a full-scale offensive against Ukraine. This morning we all were woken up by heavy explosions. Our country is being attacked on almost all its borders. Martial law has been introduced.
Most of our students, faculty, and staff are still on campus. We are hiding in a basement. Severe fighting is in the area as the Russian troops try to attack Kyiv from our direction. Keep praying!
Yesterday we managed to evacuate the first group of people, including women and several children. The rest are still on campus.
Intense fighting continues in the area, namely Hostomel and Bucha, where several faculty and staff members live. Yesterday, before curfew, in rare pauses between gunfire and alarms, students and faculty dug trenches, distributed food among the military, and helped elderly neighbors.
The enemies are trying to surround and besiege the capital. Let us keep standing in fervent prayer that all evil plans are frustrated!
The second group of students, faculty, and staff has been evacuated. They have made it through the warzone and are safe now on their way to western Ukraine.
We have turned the UETS campus into a humanitarian aid center where people can get immediate assistance and hide in a basement during air raids. UETS kitchen personnel refused to be evacuated and are providing food for Ukrainian defenders and anyone in need.
Yesterday, the ninth day of the war, we were busy distributing food and medication. Evacuation of civilians, however, was our main task. Though we planned to evacuate fifty people from Kyiv and its outskirts, we managed to evacuate seventy-two, primarily the elderly, women, and children. So many showed up and asked for help that, in addition to a bus, we were given two cars to take more people. Life is different but we trust God who never changes.
Today is the tenth day of the heroic resistance of Ukraine to the aggression of the Russian Federation. The reality of the war has turned out to be rather ambiguous since bravery, sacrifice, and self-organization overlap with the enormous suffering of a great number of people.
Russian troops are building up around Kyiv. Today they tried to break through the area where the seminary is located, but were flung back. The campus is now only a thousand feet from the front lines.
We cannot love and serve those God has sent us at a distance. For this reason, our team of volunteers – UETS faculty, students, and graduates, along with representatives of the Ukrainian Bible Society – continues serving.
In recent days, with God’s grace and the support of our friends, we have evacuated around 250 people to western Ukraine; helped hundreds, including dozens of mothers with children, escape the intense fighting in Irpin and Bucha; distributed tons of food among people hiding in bomb shelters, and to the elderly confined to their homes; and delivered medications (mostly fever and pain relief) to bomb shelters in Bucha.
Our activities enable us to share the gospel and pray with people. We comfort them in their grief and hold communion with Ukrainian soldiers, encouraging them in their faith. Despite all the horrors the Ukrainian nation is facing, we can see that God is on the move, using our hands. Praise be to him!
The terrible war is still underway and only God knows how long it will continue. Although it is difficult to hold back tears when we see the devastation of our Ukrainian land, today we would like to share some good news.
We praise God that the last staff member and his family, whom we couldn’t reach for several days, were evacuated yesterday from the zone of fierce fighting. We worried about them a lot. Today they are safe.
Today we managed to gather online for the first time in the last two weeks with all faculty and staff of the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary. We are grateful to God that all of us are safe, and we remain one community united by one mission: to serve the church and transform society.
This horrendous war has already deprived us of many things. Some of us have lost our homes. Some of us have lost our friends. But the war has failed to deprive us of Christ.
Three shells have hit the UETS campus, with windows and doors blown out. We praise the Lord that no one was present at that time. Structural support has not been destroyed, so the facilities can be rebuilt and renovated, provided, of course, no more damage is inflicted.
But the seminary does not consist of brick and mortar; it is a community of staff, students, and graduates committed to serving the church and transforming society, and that is what we intend to continue doing!
Yesterday’s curfew helped us pause and reflect on what is going on from a theological perspective. Sooner or later, when their initial shock is over, people start asking many questions. We believe that incarnational presence should go hand in hand with encouragement and counseling, and we take advantage of any opportunity to share God’s word with those we minister to.
Despite our present hardships, we are resuming our academic process, step by step. At first, we will conduct online lessons for our (formerly) resident students only. We believe that will have not only educational but therapeutic effect, healing hearts in the aftermath of the tremendous shock and stress we all have been experiencing.
After that we’ll attempt to contact our non-resident students and see how many are available. The most difficult situation appears to be with our regional schools, as two of them are located in hot spots, Kharkiv and Mariupol.
Today, we have good news to share. The plan of the Russian invaders to besiege and occupy Kyiv has been frustrated. Ukrainian forces are pushing them away from the capital.
Read a 2023 update here.