Pastors and church leaders who stayed behind serve as if every day might be their last.
James offers so many prayers in a day, they puff from his mouth like vapor in Ukraine’s bitter winter.
For the senior pastor of a large church in Kherson, prayer is not only an occupation. It is a lifeline. He prays aloud when Russian missiles shake the walls of his church and his four-year-old son cries. He prays aloud before driving to nearby villages to deliver bread. He prays aloud when he’s scared to death, which is often.
And so, on a frigid Tuesday morning in December, James, who asked to be identified by his English nickname, gripped the wheel of his dusty yellow van and prayed in Ukrainian. He turned toward a bridge leading to a manmade island along the muddy Dnipro River that locals simply call “the island.” Russian shelling had shattered several windows of a small church there, and James was carrying plywood to board them up.
The island is a frequent target of Russian attacks. Directly across the river is the eastern part of Kherson Oblast that’s still under Russian occupation. Every day since November, when tens of thousands of Russian troops fled Kherson, the province’s capital city, in a hasty retreat, they have flung rockets, grenades, tank shells, and mortars across the river as if in vengeance, killing at least one person a day.
Today, would it be him?
But a church’s windows needed fixing. Of the island’s original population of 30,000, only about a quarter of residents remained—mostly those too old, too disabled, or too stubborn to evacuate. The church is the only one on the island offering shelter and supplies. So James gritted his teeth and crossed the bridge.
Ukraine’s Christians no longer see “the last days” as some far-off, eschatological …