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    classroom destroyed by shelling

    A Church in Ukraine Spreads Hope in Wartime

    A Christian community cares for its children and neighbors.

    By Sasha Riabyi and Danny Burrows

    June 8, 2024

    In March 2024, photographer Danny Burrows traveled to Kherson Oblast in Ukraine with the NGO Novi. His assignment was to document their work “restoring childhoods disrupted by war” in villages along the frontlines. Here he met Sasha Riabyi, a Novi representative and a pastor of a church in Khotiv, on the outskirts of Kyiv.

    Danny Burrows: While documenting your work with Novi in Kherson, Ukraine, I found it remarkable how central the church has become to Ukrainian communities on the frontlines of this war. What is it like to live and work in Ukraine at this time as a Christian?

    Sasha Riabyi: We are normal people. There’s nothing special about us. We’re just lucky to live in Ukraine during this time.


    Yes, lucky. Many have told me this. We helped each other. We started doing something for others, for all Ukrainians. And that, as a nation, was a very important change. You can’t make it artificially. I say we’re lucky because it’s amazing to experience this.

    It’s an awakening for individuals and as a nation?

    Yes, we woke up. It’s a very good description of what happened with this war. For over two years now, we’ve been living knowing that tomorrow or today, life can change at any moment.

    a church building in the night

    A church in Kherson. All photographs courtesy of Danny Burrows.

    In one second, things can start falling apart. You go to McDonald’s, to church, even where people are getting free water and food parcels, anywhere where there’s a crowd of people. In twenty minutes, a missile could hit that same spot.

    Can you describe the first day of the invasion?

    On the morning of February 24, 2022, we were awakened by explosions, the sound of missiles hitting the ground. There was heavy bombing in Kyiv. That’s where we’re located.

    My wife and I woke up, and our first thought was to protect our children. I went to their room and said, “OK, wake up. Let’s go.” My oldest boy asked, “What’s happening?” And I told him, “Putin is making some extra noise here, and that’s why we need to go to a safe place.” Because how do you tell a child that a war has started?

    a man blowing bubbles

    Sasha entertains children at an event in a village on the Kherson frontlines organised by NOVI.

    Our own families are the most important thing for us each to take care of, but we also live in community – our church is our community. And we all agreed before the war that if something happened, we would all come together at the church to see each other, to plan something.

    We split our church into two groups. The younger group, around fifteen people, left in one direction all together. We had seven cars. Another group of older people did not want to leave. “We are too old for travel,” they said. “If the occupation comes, we will just stay here. Here, we have our home.”

    We went to Western Ukraine, and we stayed there for three months. But when the Ukrainians pushed back the Russians, we started thinking that we needed to return home to try to take care of the people in our community. We came back and did what we could to help. It was very necessary. There was no food on the supermarket shelves, and prices were very high.

    Your whole ministry really changed. It became a ministry to a wider community.

    It totally changed our church. It woke us up. It woke me up as a father, a citizen. It woke me up as a pastor.

    classroom destroyed by shelling

    A kindergarten classroom battered by Russian shelling on the frontlines. The Russians have targeted civil buildings such as schools, churches, theaters, and halls. There are few of these buildings that are not damaged.

    We opened the doors of the church. It’s not only for services and prayer meetings now, but people come for projects, to play games, to interact with each other, to have a meal together. They can pray together as well. It’s now open six days a week, like a community center.

    Your ministry also built a new building during the war.

    Our church was around twenty-five people, a very small community really. And then suddenly we grew. When you have seventy children and three hundred adults coming regularly, what can you do? We tried to think what the biggest need in our community was and decided that the children were the most important. We needed a space for the children. So, we asked God, “If this is from you, open the doors.”

    remains of a russian missile

    The remains of a Russian missile that killed an eight-year-old girl who was sheltering under the kitchen table of her home in Kherson.

    About two weeks after we started praying, one of my friends called me from the United States. He asked, “Are you doing something to help these refugee people in your area? Because knowing you, you won’t sit with your hands down.” He gave us around two-thirds of what we needed. In several months, we already had the walls, windows, and roof up. Other people noticed what we were doing and started helping us. Then, we added a kitchen to feed people.

    What’s the weekly routine at your ministry now?

    On Mondays, internally displaced people come. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, local people come. We sit at small tables, and we share food and conversation. You cannot imagine how much grief and sorrow is in their hearts. People start talking and can’t stop. It’s given us a chance to meet many people, to know their lives, to know them. Many have become close friends.

    We always have questions prepared. “What was the worst thing that happened to you last month?” “What was the best thing that happened to you last month?” We speak about anger and what to do with your anger, how to fight it. We discuss how to put it into practice.

    Recently, one lady told me, “Sasha, I want you to know that these discussions are helping me to fight this anger.” All people in Ukraine are angry. Even if we’re smiling, deep down, we’re angry, because war is evil.

    children carrying a picture

    Children carry the outline of a child drawn during a “Helping Hands” session run by Novi in a bomb shelter under a school in Kherson.

    On Thursdays, a ladies’ group comes for a meeting. Every second week we have a breakfast for young mothers, and they discuss how to raise children. Raising children is hard everywhere, but in Ukraine the war makes it harder.

    Friday is a day off (we need a day off). But then on Saturday we invite children from the community. They can play games, draw pictures, do homework, have a meal – a sandwich, a pizza, maybe sometimes soup or hot tea.

    Also, we run a Young Peacebuilders Club. The idea is very simple. A group of teenagers get together to find solutions to the broken world around them that they can put into action. Give teenagers a little bit of energy in the right direction, and they go far.

    And Sunday, of course, it’s a church service.

    Can you describe the humanitarian work that you are helping with?

    When the war began, getting humanitarian aid was very easy. But food parcels do not solve every issue. The trauma of the children, for example – food cannot help with that. Novi said, “We want to help with the children because we know that trauma lives on and affects the future of the nation.” Their experience, their love and care, was greatly appreciated. They started bringing in their “Life Kits,” developed by a Norwegian psychologist. The kit is a backpack filled with toys and an instruction book. These kits are designed to help children feel more confident and safe. They guide children in attention-based, physical, and interactive play, helping to relieve stress and build skills through positive activities.

    Now we’re helping Novi all over Ukraine, distributing these simple toys and setting up programs such as the Young Peacebuilders Club. There are more difficult areas than ours. In Central and Eastern Ukraine, children see bombings; they see missiles. It only takes one explosion to scare a child. Even if they only hear it, it stays in their hearts and minds. It’s scary.

    children playing

    A little girl plays with games provided at a NOVI session in a village on the frontlines of Kherson.

    When the war is over, there will be a lot of trauma to deal with, both within the nation and within individuals. How do you see your ministry continuing? How will it change?

    Sometimes we dare to think about when the war will end. We understand that many traumas will live on. They show up in communities already. I can tell you for sure that we’re not ready for that. I don’t know if any country would be ready for that. But at least there should be a place in every community in Ukraine, in every town and village, where men and women who lost their parents, spouses, children can come and at least talk to each other. I don’t know if we can help them when they come, but we need to give them a place where they can be listened to.

    We see children who are very traumatized. We ask about what brings them joy and they say, “A dead Russian soldier.” We see a boy smiling because he drew a picture of himself holding a knife with blood and he says, “Oh, this is me, and I killed a Russian, and that’s why I’m feeling good.”

    Children see the warfare; they see the hatred. If we don’t take care of them right now, can you imagine Ukraine in ten, fifteen years with these children who saw all this?

    It’s only through community, through small groups of people, that change comes into our lives. Through our neighbors, the person I trust, the people I know – that’s how change is going to come.

    Contributed By SashaRiabyi Sasha Riabyi

    Sasha Riabyi is a pastor, husband, and a father of two. He lives with his family in Khotiv, a village just outside Kyiv, in Ukraine.

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    Contributed By DannyBurrows Danny Burrows

    Danny Burrows is a professional photographer and journalist whose work has appeared in the Times, the Independent, and the Guardian.

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