Ukraine is home of thousands of Sabbath-keeping Christians

The writer has attended the Church of God since 1962. Mrs. McLendon, her husband, Charles, daughter, Heather, and son, Brian, attend the Church of God Big Sandy.

By Cindy Flowers McLendon

HAWKINS, Texas--Ukraine, an independent nation since 1990, is home of thousands of Sabbath-keeping Christians. Several Church of God members in this country, including the Merritt family of Wisconsin, maintain frequent contact with many of them.

Last December my daughter, Heather, and I visited some of the Sabbath-keepers in Ukraine, which until 1989 was part of the Soviet Union. These particular seventh-day-observing people go by the name Sabbath-Keeping Mission.

A friend of ours, Scott Merritt, agreed to be our host. Scott, an American, teaches English in the Ukraine city of Odessa.

Scott's father, John Merritt, a medical doctor who lives in Oconomowoc, Wis., and Scott's brother Bryan, a medical student, had helped organize a free medical clinic in Khust, Ukraine, last summer.

The Merritts worked with local doctors and with Victor Kubik of Indianapolis, Ind., director of LifeNets International and an elder of the United Church of God, based in Milford, Ohio.

LifeNets, a private ministry Mr. Kubik directs, is involved in humanitarian projects to benefit people in other countries.

Arrival in Kiev

Ukraine became independent from the U.S.S.R. with the fall of the iron curtain. The fall was caused primarily by the crash of the economy: The Soviet states were broke.

Ukraine suffers from political corruption, high rates of unemployment, power shortages and an energy crisis. The nuclear-power plant at Chernobyl was finally closed only two weeks before we arrived in the country.

One can see a sense of hopelessness in the faces of Ukrainians in general. There is no joy, just a feeling of stress.

However, the people we met in cafes and taxis were nice to us and amazed we were there visiting.

Kiev, the capital and political center of the nation, is a beautiful, obviously European city. In its day Kiev must have been a jewel.

When we arrived a scandal was raging about the president.

Flying into Kiev in winter was like landing in a black-and-white movie. The sky was gray overcast. Everything was black, white and gray. The buildings are stone gray, and only a few are painted. The poor economy has had a profoundly detrimental effect on the maintenance of buildings and roads.

As we landed we were greeted by Ukrainian soldiers with guns. We do not speak Ukrainian or Russian; I was uncomfortable.

Scott had warned us that the airport would be the worst part of our visit. He was right.

After our third try we finally made it through security and customs, and he was waiting on the other side. A friend in need is a friend indeed.

We took a tour of the famous St. Sophia Cathedral, which is being totally restored to its original glory. Fresh gold leaf graced the top of the onion domes.

I asked our tour guide, Olga, how the Orthodox Church could be so rich when everything else was so run down. She told us that the "new Russians" (they are the new capitalist businessmen) front their businesses through the church in order to avoid taxes. They make donations to the church for this service. However, the decreased amount of taxes means a decreased amount of services for the people.

Meeting Dr. Risko

We left Kiev by overnight train and arrived to the west in Uzhhorod. Dr. Vladimir Risko met us at the station. He reminded me of Dr. Zhivago, Omar Sharif's character in the 1965 movie.

Dr. Risko is a medical doctor who specializes in child care. He worked with Mr. Kubik, Dr. Merritt and Bryan Merritt in the free clinic in Khust. Dr. Risko is not a member of the Sabbath-Keeping Mission.

Dr. Risko drove us to Khust, in a region of Ukraine called Transcarpathia. We were to stay at his house with his family. As we drove to his house, he pointed out the closed defense factories and identified the old KGB headquarters in each town.

We arrived at his home before sunset on Friday. His wife, Larisa, also a medical doctor, had prepared a wonderful dinner. The best Ukrainian food is found in the private homes of the people.

After dinner Heather and Scott attended Bible study at the mission. That night the group studied the subject of clean and unclean meats.

I asked Dr. Risko some questions. He speaks some broken English, and I speak no Russian. With an English-Russian dictionary, we managed to communicate slowly when Scott was not there to translate.

Each of the Drs. Risko (husband and wife) makes $35 a month. Mrs. Risko said that in some ways living conditions had been better under communism. Back then everyone could go to the doctor or hospital, and everyone could go to the university. Now the costs are great.

I learned, regarding the high-unemployment situation, that many go to Poland and other countries for work, and some of them never return.

Life expectancy is said to be only 57 years.

The Riskos have one son, Kosta, who is about 12 years old. Dr. Risko would like to come to America for Kosta's sake, even though he could not practice in this country. But his wife is afraid of leaving everything she knows to go to a foreign country.

Attending Sabbath services

The next day we attended Sabbath services, which was like going from darkness into light. The brethren were filled with joy. They were smiling and happy. They are a friendly and loving people, and they thanked God for our safe arrival.

When you walk into the room for church services, you first see two tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments displayed on the wall behind the podium. The men sit on the right side of the room and the women on the left. The members give the guests the best seats, in the front. The women wear scarves as head coverings and no makeup. The men wear suits. They wear their best to come before God.

Three men spoke: Vasyl Mondick (the pastor), Ivan Yurishko and another elder. Three lovely teenage girls sang special music. One lady read a poem she had written about the Holy Spirit, and another lady directed the beautiful hymns. Although I could not understand the language, I could feel the Holy Spirit there.

Scott Merritt translated key statements of the sermons.

The brethren's Bibles are worn with use. They have an obvious love of the truth, a love for the brethren and a genuine unity.

They asked if we, the guests, would like to speak. They don't fear outside speakers. Scott gave greetings from his father, Dr. Merritt and us.

They asked Heather to sing special music (she sang in English). Mr. Mondick, who does not speak English, mentioned that it is good to praise God in all languages.

Mr. Mondick asked if anyone had any prayer requests, then the members of the congregation got down on their knees and quietly prayed right then.

After the next speaker Mr. Mondick invited comments. A young man from Germany stood and said he had married an unbeliever. He and his wife had had a baby, then she left him, taking the baby. He had earlier requested the congregation to pray about the situation, then his wife and baby returned. The people in the congregation stood and lifted their hands and thanked God for the answered prayer.

After services I think every one of the 75 brethren came up to greet us. It was one the best Sabbaths I have ever had. (I have kept the Sabbath since 1962.)

Dinner at the Yurishkos

Mr. Yurishko and his wife invited us to his house for supper. The Yurishkos are a wonderful, godly couple. They have two happy little boys. Their hospitality is sincere and generous. Visiting with them was the highlight of my trip.

Mr. Yurishko is a businessman who buys old copy machines from Germany and sells or leases them in Khust. Many of the brethren came over to his home to visit with us. It was a wonderful evening.

Mr. Yurishko asked me what I thought of Ukraine. I told him that people were nice to me, but the soldiers at the airport frightened me because I grew up in the Cold War. As children, we had civil-defense drills at school because the U.S.S.R. might bomb us.

The people present at the Yurishko house all laughed because as children they had defense drills because the U.S. might attack them.

We all agreed to pray for peace. We all want the same thing: peace, good health, a job, education for our children and the freedom to worship God.

After dinner Mr. Yurishko took us to see the computer school that he, Mr. Kubik and LifeNets had established for deaf and other handicapped children. It is a great blessing to such children in that it enables them to learn a skill that will help them get a job. The children are grateful and study hard and do not take things for granted.

Asking questions

Mr. Yurishko then drove us to a recording studio so Heather could record for the mission a CD of her singing. The trip took several hours late into the night, and I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Yurishko many questions about the brethren's beliefs.

Here are some of my questions and his answers.

Question: Do you believe in all of the Ten Commandments?

Answer: "Yes, and the testimony of Jesus Christ."

Q: How long have you kept the Sabbath?

A: "My grandfather had kept the Sabbath all his life. When I was a little boy, about 4 years old, I thought that we were the only ones keeping the Sabbath."

Q: How many Sabbath-keepers do you know?

A: "In this village there are 100, in this village 45, in this village 250 . . ."

Q: Do you have contact with other Sabbath missions?

A: "Yes, tomorrow [Sunday] we are having a regional meeting. We do so once a month."

Q: How many Sabbath-keepers are you associated with?

A: "One hundred thousand. They are in Hungary, Romania, Poland, East Germany, Slovenia and South America. There is an annual international conference in South America. You can come to it. There are also 4,000 in Portland, Ore."

(Just think. I used to believe that the gospel hadn't been preached in 1,900 years and that there was only one physical Church of God organization.)

Q: Do you keep the holy days?

A: "Everyone keeps Passover. Some keep all the holy days, and some do not."

Q: Do you tithe?

A: "Some brethren tithe 10 percent of their income to the mission; others give alms to the poor brethren and then to the stranger. I give 10 percent to the deaf school by providing my employee to teach the children."

Q: What do you do when someone is sick?

A: "We call for the pastor, and the pastor anoints the one sick and he is healed."

Q: Every time?

A: "Yes. Sometimes the whole mission fasts for the one sick, and then he is healed."

Q: Do you go to doctors?

A: "Yes, for babies, broken bones, etc."

(Mr. Mondick's daughter had a cesarean delivery that Sabbath morning. The whole mission was rejoicing about her new baby boy.)

Q: Do you believe in circumcision?

A: "No. The New Testament does not require it."

Q: Do you believe in arranged marriages? (I asked this question because a family from East Germany had arrived at services that day to find a wife for their son.)

A: "Yes, the young man comes and looks at the young ladies and chooses one. Then his father talks to the girl's father. They decide if it would be a good match. If so, the two young people get to know each other in the presence of the family. The girl has to also agree. Then both fathers bless the couple at the wedding. We do not want our children to marry nonbelievers. But sometimes they do. It is very hard. The family is very important."

Q: Does alcoholism in society affect the mission?

A: "No. We do not drink alcoholic drinks."

Q: How is the mission governed?

A: "The congregation chooses a pastor from among the congregation, someone who is very moral and has a good knowledge of the Scriptures. He also has a outside job like Paul. Mr. Mondick is a hatmaker."

Q: What if the pastor teaches something unscriptural?

A: "The elders go to him privately and discuss it, then we take it to the whole congregation."

Q: Do you have a pastor general?

A: "We choose a regional pastor from among the pastors on a rotation basis. He has an outside job. We organize special events and let everyone know of special needs."

Q: What did you do under communism when religion was outlawed?

A: "We always kept the Sabbath. We always attended the mission. A KGB agent would come every week and write down our names as we entered the mission. Sometimes the pastor would have to pay a fine."

Q: Were you ever arrested by the KGB or others?

A: "No, but many Sabbath-keepers in eastern Ukraine were."

(Dr. John Merritt recently told me about a report he had heard about several elders in the eastern region who were put into prison. At times the guards would kill one of the prisoners for no reason, and at other times they would terrorize them by lining them up and firing at them with blanks.

(On one occasion something unusual occurred. When the guards, who spoke a different language, lined up the prisoners, one of the men apparently stepped forward and started speaking in the guards' language. The guards fell back, and so did the prisoners, because they knew he could not speak the guard's language.

(He asked the guards why they were mistreating the prisoners, since they had done nothing wrong. The Sabbath-keepers believed the gift of tongues from God saved their lives.)

Q: In the United States we have heard of the Russian Mafia. Does it affect you?

A: "All businessmen pay the Russian mafia for protection. I do not pay. The mafia is afraid of God, and they know God is with me."

Q: Do many people believe that God is with you?

A: "Everyone in the village [Khust is a city of 25,000] knows that we kept the Sabbath even during communism. They know God is with us."

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