It was still dark outside as I rose to go to prayer. A chill in the room told me that it was going to be a frigid mile-walk to the square. I wanted to crawl back under the covers, but resisted. “I’ve been doing this for only three days while my Ukrainian friends have done it every day for five years,” I rebuked myself.
Leaving the hotel, I picked my way around frozen piles of ice and deep muddy puddles, bent my head away from the wind, wrapped my scarf a little tighter, and walked in the early morning light to Freedom Square in Kharkov. It was only 26 degrees with fresh snow falling and a bitter wind beating at my face, but I arrived to find big smiles, hearty handshakes, and warm cheek-kisses from a jovial group who seemed not to notice the cold at all. The contagious joy warmed me from inside out and made me glad I’d come.
But every day? For five years? I don’t know if I could do it. What compels these people to get up early and kneel in the snow? Why is it so important to meet together when they could whisper a prayer from the warmth of their beds?
Call to Prayer
In March of 2014 tanks and guns and men with masks appeared on the streets of Kharkov, Ukraine, throwing everything into upheaval and threatening the 23-year religious freedom that had nurtured this post-Communist generation. Nearby cities of Lugansk and Donetsk were also under attack by separatists, but those battling in Kharkov didn’t know what they were up against.
Pastors and evangelical leaders put out a call for prayer—seven o’clock every morning, in the city square, for anyone who wanted to fight the real battle taking place for their city—the spiritual battle. Within a week, a hundred and fifty to two hundred believers showed up to fight on their knees because they remembered the spiritual darkness that shadowed their land under Communism. This wasn’t a political battle, it was and is a spiritual battle of epic proportion as their freedom to worship, meet together as churches, pray publicly, and share their faith with others was all being threatened.
“This is the generation of the children whose fathers were killed for their faith, whose fathers spent most of their time in prison for their faith. We knew the real face of Communism, and it was trying to come back. We were standing on our knees, and we said, ‘Lord, we don’t know what to do. Our eyes are on you, Lord.’ The only hope was on the Lord,” said Pastor V, a Baptist pastor and one of the leading organizers of the prayer meeting.
During the 72-year Communist rule, evangelical churches and activities were outlawed. Ukrainians who preached, taught from Scripture, or shared the gospel were forced underground and severely persecuted. Two generations of children grew up being taught in school that there was no God.
After WWII, conditions were especially dangerous. Baptists and other Protestant believers in the USSR were compulsively sent to mental hospitals, were forced to endure trials and imprisonment, and were even deprived of their parental right in some cases.
“At this point, I’d be afraid not to pray,” said pastor V. “We know what’s at stake.”
After years of praying and paying dearly for their faith, God brought religious freedom to the country. Since that time Ukraine has become the Bible Belt of Eastern Europe. It is the hub of evangelical life throughout the former Soviet Union, leading the way in new churches and sending missionaries.
In contrast, the still-occupied territory in Eastern Ukraine is presently seeing the same attitude toward evangelicals that they remember all too well from their childhood. In the wake of the 2014 takeover by separatists, evangelical churches have been closed and threatened with fines in the main cities in the occupied territory.
Now, when these brothers and sisters gather, they pray for those in the war zone and for long-lasting peace, knowing that it will only come if God’s spirit moves to bring people to repentance and faith in Jesus.
This is why Ukrainians pray every day, on their knees, regardless of the weather.