Testimony of Dmytro Ihnatenko, a UETS graduate (20 years old), who serves as a pastor and an army chaplain
Prior to entering seminary, I was interested in the arts and it never occurred to me that in couple years I would find myself serving in the war zone. In June 2016, I was ordained at the age of 19, just three days after attending my last chapel at seminary.
My time in seminary was accompanied by social and political turmoil in Ukraine. It started with the Revolution of Dignity (November of 2013 – February of 2014), when Ukrainians demanded impeachment of the President because of his pro-Russian position and criminal order to beat students on the main square in Kyiv. More than a hundred peaceful protesters were killed at Maidan and Mr. Yanukovych fled the country, leaving the people to the mercy of fate. Immediately after that Russia invaded Crimea and unleashed war on Eastern Ukraine. Many Ukrainians volunteered in defending the country.
One day as I was meditating on the words of Jesus: "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13), I felt called to go to the war zone. That is how my chaplaincy began. However, when I first arrived at the military unit I was assigned to, I got really sick. It also started raining... my tent was flooded.
Serving in a near-front zone
I served with a detached mechanized brigade in Luhansk region and in military hospitals in the war zone. I regularly talked with soldiers, senior officers, medics and civilians. Ministering to army privates was the most difficult. It was so hard to see the tears in their eyes, to feel their pain... Having had lost friends, they felt they had lost a part of themselves. Sometimes, I could not help crying with them.
I tried to approach soldiers individually. Mostly I listened. No answer from me could bring back a lost friend. Soldiers appreciated my compassion and shared feelings. Losing friends and brothers in battle was so painful, because in war people around you became closer than family. They often shared how God had kept them safe despite all the dangers. Doing household chores is one thing. Going into a mine field, realizing that your next step could become your last, is a totally different thing.
The following question came up on numerous occasions: Why does God keep some people alive, but other get killed? I did not have any answer to this question, as well as a whole bunch of similar questions. I remember talking to an officer who had a New Testament during heavy shelling. Having survived, he started reading the Bible and came to believe in God. Many soldiers, by the way, became believers due to the war. The pastoral care and kindness of Protestant chaplains made them change their opinion of Protestant churches, which before they had considered sects.
Soldiers often came to pray and confess. They often asked if they could put a candle at a church for those they killed in the line of duty. Despite the need to counter aggression, many Ukrainian soldiers feel pain when shooting other human beings. That's why it was so important to listen to them pouring out their hearts.
The feeling of uselessness was one of the most haunting for soldiers. Although useful in war, they often felt useless at home. The war affects them in a way that makes them want to stay in the war zone – where their blood brothers and friends were killed. Many find it difficult to adjust to civilian lives, to peace and comfort. Many have unfinished work syndrome, because the war is still underway. Many choose to go back to the front line. A lot of problems arose in families. For this reason, we gave soldiers the opportunity to speak out and consult with us on conflict resolution, reconciliation, and mutual understanding.
Unlike different ministries in the church, service in the war zone taught me to keep silent. I always tried to abide by the principle of confidentiality. Soldiers immediately see who is trustworthy and who is not. I had no right to disclose those things they entrusted to me. Reporters might not have liked that, but so be it. Confidentiality and non-disclosure are the most important principles of follow up.
Serving at military hospitals
I had similar experiences at hospitals near the frontlines. The most important thing to do was to listen. As it often turned out, army volunteers had a great number of needs – food, clothing, medications, etc. Wounded soldiers weren't able to take care of themselves, so I often had to buy even basic things (for example, soap) at my own expense. The men were always happy to receive personal hygiene products, new uniforms, food, chocolate, tea and, most of all, coffee.
Serving civilians and becoming a pastor
After being a chaplain and becoming ordained, it was very difficult to shift to church ministry in the first two to three months. I kept on visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals.
Recently, Ukraine marked the third anniversary of the so called anti-terrorist operation. Along with Samaritan's Purse we prepared a lot of gifts and sweets for the children of veterans to let them know that they are the children of true heroes.
As soldiers continue to return home I have begun helping them adapt to civil life. My experience serving in the war zone breaks down barriers and builds trust. Veterans face many problems. Suicide and divorce rates are on the rise, making spiritual and psychological help urgent. I ask the Lord for strength and wisdom to keep working in this direction.
Planning my future
Today I am in the process of forming a team to more effectively serve people who are affected by the war. War trauma can remain for decades. While some people recover quickly, others need 2-3 year to return to normal life. Right now, I'm planning to deepen my knowledge through follow-ups and by exchanging experiences with other chaplains. On top of that, I am striving to build up my little church community through God's Word, prayer and fellowship.
Studying at the seminary
Initially, I expected the seminary to provide a wide range of instructions how to believe and serve. Instead, I found myself in an environment full of questions. That is why we had to grind away at different books to find answers, but this brought about even more questions, particularly in the realm of our own personalities, character, etc. Through this process the seminary taught us to think critically, analyze independently and make grounded decisions. In addition to gaining a deeper knowledge of Bible study, hermeneutics, homiletics and other theological disciplines, learning to think independently has played a very important role in my life.
My parents, Oleksander and Nina, live in the village of Andrishivka in Sumy region. They always pray for me and support me by sending food from home (cheese, eggs, pork) which is supposed to be 100% organic. Every time I receive these gifts I thank God for my parents.