Faith and Hope in Ukraine
Igor Stakhovskiy cracks jokes and blinks furiously as his car, loaded down with eight passengers, inches up a hill at walking speed. His is one of the few cars in Kyiv* that is not a bright, sleek Toyota Jazz or a new black Volkswagen—it's a pastor's car. Once it reaches the summit and starts rattling down the hill toward his apartment, Igor resumes telling me about his call to ministry and the little evangelical church he pastors.
I am crammed in the car with the whole Stakhovskiy family, one that could not have existed at any other point in Ukrainian history. Igor's wife, Raia Stakhovskaya, a strawberry blonde who fits the stereotype of a kindly Ukrainian woman, is from a family that has been Baptist for generations—a family that has several martyrs in its lineage. Igor was part of a wave of new believers who converted around the time the Soviet Union fell. After their third daughter was born, the Stakhovskiys adopted twins who had suffered intracranial hemorrhages. No one at the orphanage expected the babies to survive, but they seem to be out of danger a year after the Stakhovskiys took them in.
The little girls, strollers, and church equipment make for a crowded elevator ride up to the family's one-bedroom apartment. Igor serves tea in the living room, apologizing for his five daughters' beds, which seem to line every wall of the apartment. Five years ago, the window behind him looked out over the bank of the Dnipro River; now one can only see a row of bleak, 20-story condos.
Igor tells me that after finishing his military service in Moscow in 1991, he visited a Baptist church with his mother. Why not? he thought at the time. There, a friend presented the gospel to him and told him it was the hour of his salvation. "From that moment, there was no question about it," Stakhovskiy says. He was baptized into the church and "gradually learned about God."
Not many years later, Stakhovskiy felt called to ministry. He earned a degree from New Life Bible College in Moscow and worked as a ministry trainer after graduation. His family later teamed up with another to form a church that meets in a factory at 2 p.m. on Sundays.
Stakhovskiy's Fiofaniya ("Epiphany") Church sings Hillsong-style worship choruses with guitar and piano accompaniment, stresses the sacrament of Communion, and lays hands on and prays for members who are in trouble. A few of the 40 regular attendees consider themselves Eastern Orthodox. "On this level," Igor says, "we are trying to build community. We must think in terms of this responsibility."
Igor frowns and shifts as he describes how his partner emigrated to America, leaving him the only pastor at the little church with thorny issues. For example, he recently had to inform a few of his younger members that it was not okay for them to live with their (Christian) boyfriends. The women were surprised, but moved out.
Then there was the wedding in which the groom had AIDS. (UNAIDS reports Ukraine has the most severe epidemic in Europe, meaning the country probably has more people with HIV/AIDS than it has evangelicals.) Stakhovskiy admits that he had concerns about the marriage, but consented to wed the couple after hearing them out. "It seems like the problem was designed for a bigger church," he says as he shrugs. "But it happened to us."
Stakhovskiy's church very much represents the challenges Ukrainian evangelicals face. Ukraine is wavering between a commitment to democracy, warts and all, and a reversion to totalitarianism—the way Russia, Uzbekistan, and other former Soviet states are already going. No one is certain that democracy is there to stay. But many, if not most, of Ukraine's urban evangelicals participated in the Orange Revolution in the winter of 2004. In hopes of tipping the balance toward democracy, they and many other Ukrainians camped out in public squares, protesting what was clearly a rigged presidential election—and what appeared to be an attempt to poison opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.