To say that the past year has been tense for the Ukrainian people is a bit of an understatement. With political and economic instability, a crumbling relationship with Russia, thousands of videos and images of riotous protesting and a downed commercial airline, it is understandable to associate Ukraine with chaos and hopelessness. But TEAM missionary Denise Carter, a church-planter in Ukraine, has a different perspective to share. Her story in Ukraine has been one of renewal and hope.
There has been a theme of renewal throughout Carter’s life. In 1992, she only dreamed of the mission field. Her husband was not a Christian, so serving abroad in missions was not an option for them. Instead, she was content working as a missions administrator at her church, Northside Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, supporting over 90 missionaries working abroad. At the time, her pastor took a trip to the former Soviet Union and returned confident that Northside Baptist should become involved in Odessa, Ukraine. Carter’s dream became a calling. “I know there’s need all over the world,” Carter said, “but for some reason, God really gave me a special love for Ukraine and for Russia.”
Her personal situation hadn’t changed, but her perspective was hopeful. “I understood that God was going to do something great,” Carter said in retrospect. Her husband was supportive of her passion and encouraged her to study Russian. After raising the funds, she took a short-term mission trip to explore the Odessa region and visit its churches, and she returned more passionate than ever.
In 1994, four months after Carter returned from her first Ukraine trip, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. It was a deep blow, but Carter hoped it would bring her husband to a place of faith. On the eve of his surgery, she told him, “You’re going to survive the surgery because you will give glory to God. I believe it.” The surgery extended his life, and slowly, through the love and support he experienced through the church, his heart became open to God, and he became a Christian. Only a few months before passing, he looked at Carter and said, “I believe God wants you to be a missionary in Ukraine.”
Nineteen years later, Denise Carter is now planting a church in Petrovka, Ukraine. This small town outside of Odessa has struggled with poverty and suicide but is far from much of the unrest that has marked Ukraine for the past year. It is home to 2,500 people, a communal farm and one evangelical church; the third church Carter has planted in Ukraine. In 2011, God spoke to Carter through Isaiah 43:19 (ESV): “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” Carter realized the need for an evangelical church in Petrovka, and when consulting the senior pastor of the Odessa region, she learned that local churches had been praying for a evangelical church in that region for 20 years. Carter and some dedicated seminary students travel back and forth to Petrovka, which is about 50 kilometers outside of Odessa.
Things didn’t always go smoothly: the team struggled to find a building to meet in because no one wanted to rent to a religious group. For nine months they prayed, fasted and put up signs asking for a property to buy. Finally, someone from out of town offered them an affordable price on a piece of property, and God provided for the purchase and renovations. Petrovka’s newest church was fully operational and ready for full-time ministry within six months. For the past two years the children’s ministry, has offered fun programs on Saturdays, as well as a camp for the children in the summer; this year’s camp had 72 attendants. They even opened a new playground for the village children. Michael Vatan, the pastor in Petrovka, said, “Kids who come here on Saturdays and Sundays want to pray and they do it. They raise their hand shouting, ‘I want to pray to God!’ And their parents witness them praying at home and not wanting to eat without prayer.”
This ministry has been very fulfilling for Carter. “I can hardly wait to see the kids ... when they all come in, just seeing their faces and their joy ...” she said. This love and care of the children, as well as a marked spiritual awakening in some of their lives, has opened doors for Carter in the mothers’ lives.
God laid a young mothers’ ministry on Carter’s heart; when asked to join, every mother said “Yes.” Together they studied scripture, prayed and sang songs. The women opened up, deeply desiring and needing prayer for the harsh realities in their lives. At their very first meeting, a woman accepted Christ as her savior. Carter was bursting with excitement: “I could hardly believe it; God was confirming to me that I was supposed to start the ministry with young moms. This is like, so awesome!” Carter said, “I think one way that I’ve reached out into the community is by ... being willing to stop and spend time and talk to the moms and find out what their needs are, what their prayer requests are.” There have been rough patches in the group; some of these women struggle with extreme poverty and illness. But God’s presence has been tangible, and in one Sunday meeting in September, three women accepted Christ. “I have four new sisters in Christ in Petrovka because I was obedient to God,” Carter said.
Oleg Zadorin, one of the central team members at the church and a Ukrainian himself, asserts that there is difficulty in planting a Ukrainian church because Ukrainians are traditionally religious, but do not know God personally. Opinions toward Christianity are positive, yet due to their difficult situations, they often feel hopeless. The church-plant team wants to share hope that transcends their situation, the hope we have in Christ. This hope has brought and will continue to bring renewal to the faith of the people of Petrovka, and all Ukrainians, giving meaning to their traditions and beliefs again. “For me, Petrovka is not a village; it is a gathering of people who are in need of God,” Zadorin said. Carter, Zadorin and Vatan all pray for God to continue responding to the needs they see. Though there is still a lot of work and growth for the town of Petrovka, there have been a lot of victories as well, such as the rate of suicides decreasing drastically since the church began. “I believe that the light has broken the darkness,” Carter said. “The light of Jesus Christ and our witness in the community is strong because Jesus is there and he is the strongest.”
So, while we listen to the protests, the fighting, and the anger in the footage streaming over from the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, it is deeply comforting to know there are other sounds, like those of worship being sung in a small church, and children playing on a bright new playground. Carter’s story, and the story of Petrovka, is one of spiritual awakening. God renewed Carters’s dream, and halfway through her life she was able to live her calling. Similarly, Petrovka’s story is a reminder that God’s hope surpasses the bleakest of circumstances to bring renewal to his people’s lives.
- Written by Kimberly Lucas
- Photographed by Robert Johnson
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