Statistics, prayer, personal stories: How Protestants helped bring Ukraine aid to US House floor

Washington — On Saturday, March 2, at 2:20 a.m., Serhii Gadarzhi woke up to a drone approaching his apartment building in Odesa, Ukraine. He heard an explosion just outside his windows and rushed to his 2-year-old daughter’s bedroom. She was there. He grabbed the child, wrapped her in a blanket and went to check on his wife and their 4-month-old son.

“The door was open. There was nothing behind it — just emptiness. My Anichka is gone. My boy Timosha is gone,” Gadarzhi relates on the Odesa Baptist YouTube channel.

Their bodies were found in the rubble after almost 24 hours of searching. All seven floors had collapsed on top of his wife and the baby sleeping on her chest, Gadarzhi said. That Russian attack with Iranian-made drones killed 12 people, including five children and seven adults.

“I want to say to Mr. James Michael Johnson: Dear brother, we have a war going on. A terrible war. And so many believers, brothers and sisters, are being killed. Little children are being killed. Help is very important to us. Especially military help because if there were a missile to shoot down that drone, the drone wouldn’t have flown in our house,” he says on the video.

Johnson, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, had for months delayed bringing to the floor of the House a bill providing $61 billion in aid for Ukraine, including ammunition for its air defense systems. The bill was finally approved on April 20 despite resistance from some members of Johnson’s own Republican Party.

Just three days before the vote, Gadarzhi, a Ukrainian Baptist and son-in-law of a local Baptist pastor, told his story to Johnson in person. Gadarzhi told VOA that the speaker already knew about his family’s tragedy.

“One can see in his eyes that he was compassionate, that he wanted to support us and his response was very sincere,” he said.

That meeting followed eight months of behind-the-scenes efforts by Ukrainian Protestants and their allies in the United States to tell Republican members of Congress about the suffering of the faithful at the hands of the Russian forces in the occupied portions of Ukraine.

Steven Moore, an Oklahoma native, was behind some of these efforts. He worked as a chief of staff in the House of Representatives to a leading Republican member for seven years, after which he lived in Ukraine for a year.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, he was visiting his mother in Tulsa but was back in Ukraine on day five of the full-scale invasion. Moore founded the Ukraine Freedom Project NGO (UFP), which began delivering food and supplies to the front for the residents and Ukraine’s armed forces.

Through his work, he learned about abuses inflicted on Ukrainian civilians by the Russian occupying forces, but one story struck him. Victor, an Evangelical pastor from Lugansk, was evacuating a group of civilians, including a pregnant woman and a baby, when Russians stopped his car and took him to a basement.

“They tortured him for 25 days, including one day when they were torturing him with an electrical Taser. And a Russian Orthodox priest was standing over him, trying to cast demons out of him because he was an Evangelical Christian. It blew my mind,” Moore told VOA.

He shared this story with a friend, Karl Ahlgren, a fellow Oklahoman and former chief of staff of a Republican congressman.

“When the full-scale invasion started, Republicans in particular were pretty supportive of Ukraine, and then their support waned. We had to regroup and figure out what we could do to get the right message out to Republicans,” said Ahlgren, who joined UFP as a vice president for public policy.

Beginning in September 2023, Moore, Ahlgren and their Chief Operating Officer Anna Shvetsova met with about 100 members of Congress and their staff, telling them about the persecution of Ukrainian Protestants by Russians.

UFP conducted a survey that showed 70% of Evangelical Christians who vote Republican are more likely to support Ukraine if they learn about Russia torturing and murdering people of their faith, Moore said. They were surprised to discover that most members of Congress knew nothing about it.

“Of the people we met with, there were probably three or four who knew some of the things we were talking about,” Ahlgren said.

Moore said the group “had video of people talking about being tortured, and we would show these videos to members of Congress, to their staff, and they would tear up.”

Other organizations, including the advocacy group Razom for Ukraine, joined the effort.

“I’m an American Baptist. I was shocked, in particular, that so many Baptist churches in occupied Ukraine have been harassed,” said Melinda Haring, a senior adviser for Razom for Ukraine. “More than 26 pastors have been killed since the full-scale war, and 400 Baptist congregations have lost their premises or some of their property.”

She said that at the meetings with the members of Congress and their staffers, she and her colleagues provided statistics of damage caused by Russia to the Ukrainian Christians, told personal stories and prayed together.

Some efforts specifically targeted Johnson, a Southern Baptist from Louisiana.

“We sponsored a billboard with Mike Johnson’s favorite Bible verse,” Haring said. “It’s a passage from the Book of Esther. Esther is before her uncle Mordecai, and she’s afraid to see the king; if she goes and sees the king without his permission, she can be killed, and Mordecai says, ‘You were chosen for a time like this.’

“We learned that Mike Johnson believed he was chosen to be the speaker of the House for an important time. So, our billboard had a picture of a destroyed Baptist church in Berdiansk with that Bible quote.”

Razom placed six of the billboards in Louisiana, including one in front of Johnson’s Cypress Baptist Church in Shreveport.

Razom, UFP and other organizations cosponsored multiple trips by Ukrainian religious leaders to the United States and helped them to organize meetings with members of Congress.

In November, 18 religious leaders and members of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations visited the United States. In early February, dozens of representatives of Ukrainian churches attended Ukrainian Week in Washington, organized around the National Prayer Breakfast.

Then, four of them met with Johnson.

“The meeting with the speaker was very warm, and the conversation was constructive,” said Anatoliy Kozachok, the senior bishop of the Ukrainian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith.

He said they handed Johnson two letters urging him to support Ukraine, one from all Ukrainian Christians and one from the Protestants. The speaker told them he and his colleagues were working hard to resolve the issue.

“We felt united as people with the same values. There was a desire to help and to find a solution to the issue of aid for Ukraine,” Kozachok told VOA.

Another meeting participant, Valeriy Antonyuk, head of the All-Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, said the group discussed shared values with Johnson.

“We Baptists have always defended everyone’s right to practice their faith freely,” he told VOA.

The Ukrainian church leaders were far from the only ones bringing intense pressure on Johnson to defy much of his own party and allow the aid bill to come to a vote, and only Johnson knows how decisive their efforts were in his final decision.

But with Ukrainian forces losing ground and desperately short of ammunition, the bill sailed through Congress on a vote of 311 to 112 and was signed into law by President Joe Biden on April 24, clearing the way for the military assistance to begin flowing again.

leave a reply: