At Thanksgiving last year, Gennady and Mina Podgaisky, missionaries in Ukraine, said goodbye to the people—and the country—they had grown to love so much, hoping their departure would be temporary, and that they would return in the near future to what they started some 20 years ago.
Four months later, they haven’t returned.
Instead, they’ve watched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine claim thousands of lives, devastate large swaths of Ukraine and send millions fleeing the conflict.
The couple spoke recently about their experience as missionaries in the missions class of Dr. Twyla Hernandez, professor of Christian missions at Campbellsville University.
Gennady, who has family in Russia, said God called him and his wife to serve in Ukraine in 2002, just 11 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“There was a collapse of the political system, economic system and social systems,” Gennady said. “There were children who were on the streets.”
“In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, there were between 17,000 and 24,000 children on the streets at one time, according to government statistics,” he said.
“Some of the street children were sniffing glue,” Gennady said, “to not feel, not be hungry, so when they sniff glue, they feel numb and their senses are dull.”
Mina said a legacy of the Soviet Union is that everyone had one job only and could not do anything else.
“In the orphanages, the children have never seen a kitchen,” she said. “They don’t know how to do anything, like cooking, budgeting, buying something, making decisions.
“Everything is done for them. We tried to prepare them a year before graduating to make sure they had some life skills, through church volunteers that went to the orphanages.”
Gennady and Mina, who is a 1997 graduate of Campbellsville University, helped establish The Village of Hope, a foster family ministry center, in 2003 when seven buildings in different stages of deterioration, located on a 17-plus acre former communist pioneer youth camp in the town of Bucha, Ukraine, were purchased.
Over the years, they’ve led Bible studies, provided counseling, organized and led family seminars, held Outback couples’ retreats, held marital counseling and provided training on life skills for youth.
“We had one couple that had already separated and three couples that were in the process of divorce,” she said. “At the end of the camp, they renewed their marriage vows. Some of the people at the camp were not Christians. Some of the people had never had a Bible. They had no idea how to pay.”
Much of their work at the Village of Hope has been lost due to the war.
“Many hours of work no longer exist,” Gennady said, pointing to a picture of a building at the Village. “We heard the bad news that Russian tanks came and shelled this building.”
Gennady said Russians can’t do much to speak out against the war. Facebook, Instagram and other sources of information that run counter to Russian propaganda have been cut off in Russia.
“They cannot do much because of the system there,” he said. “They’re shutting down the free press. They see the propaganda, that Russia is coming to liberate Ukraine, to de-Nazify Ukraine. It’s funny because President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish.
“There’s a Biblical verse, in the book of Esther 4:14 that says: ‘For such a time as this.’ It seems that God put President Zelenskyy there for such a time as this! He has become a hero defending his country.”
The Podgaiskys, who are now in the United States, learned of Russia’s invasion after getting off a flight.
“When we took our phones off airplane mode, messages and messages were coming in,” Mina said. “People were saying, ‘Mina, I’m praying for you. I’m so sorry.’”
The Podgaiksys became busy making phone calls to people in Ukraine from midnight until five in the morning for the first days of the war.
“The first two days of the war, our days were completely changed,” Mina said. “We were calling and supporting people in the cellars and bunkers. We would be talking to them, and we could hear the sirens and explosions.
“Nobody in the world thought it would mean what it is now. It’s just surreal. You think it’s a dream. How can this be?”
Mina told the story of a woman who lived just outside Kyiv. She has three children and had 23 people sheltering from Russian shelling in her unfinished basement.
“She will call me in the middle of the night,” Mina said, “and say, ‘Mina, can you talk to me? I’m having a panic attack. I need your peace.’ So, we’ll talk for an hour and at the end we could even laugh.”
Mina told a story about a group of elderly people waiting for a bus to evacuate Ukraine. While they were waiting, a Russian tank came along. Just down the road, the tank exploded. It had run over a landmine.
“If the bus had come earlier, they would have been dead,” she said. “Those are little miracles. In the midst of all this horror, we see the hand of God. There is suffering, and there is death, but I’d rather tell the stories that bring us hope. God is working, and the prayers of many people are working.”
Mina said, if we focus on only bad news, we lose all hope.
“This is for you in your everyday life,” Mina said. “If you look at bad news, and you feed yourself bad news all the time, that’s what’s going to come out of your mouth. In John 10:10 it says, ‘The thief/enemy comes to came to steal, kill and destroy.’ Not only Ukrainians, but all of us who watch that.
“He wants to steal our peace and our hope, and he wants to kill our faith in God.”
Mina asked where Satan is trying to steal our hope and peace, and where he is trying to kill our faith in God.
“There is a war, not physical, but a spiritual war that is more dangerous,” she said. “If you lose your hope in God, you have nothing. You give up. You have nothing to fight for.”
The Podgaiskys have become attached to Ukraine, but they know their earthly home is merely temporary.
“Ukraine became my home, but my true citizenship is in heaven,” Gennady said.
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Story by Gerard Flanagan, news writer/photographer/social media, Office of Campbellsville University Communications