Tapestry

Russian missiles struck his seminary in Kyiv. That only strengthened this priest's faith

Weeks into the war, Russian missiles struck the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary in Kyiv, where Reverend Ivan Rusyn is president. He says that while his faith in God has only gotten stronger, he has a different perspective on pacifism than he did before the war.

Rev. Ivan Rusyn says rather than asking where God is, he asks ‘Where is humanity?’

Reverend Ivan Rusyn in front of shelled-out buildings in the town of Borodyanka, Ukraine. (Submitted by Ivan Rusyn)

Reverend Ivan Rusyn is not the same priest he was just months ago, before the Russian invasion of his country.

He says the war has had a profound effect on what he sees as his responsibility to his fellow Ukrainians, and the role he believes the church needs to play in the lives of the people it serves.

Rusyn is the president of the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary (UETS) in Kyiv. He was forced to flee his home in nearby Bucha shortly after the war broke out. And in early March, Russian missiles hit the seminary, just days after he and the rest of the faculty were evacuated.

Reverend Rusyn spoke with Tapestry host Mary Hynes about the relief work his church is carrying out, and how the war has fundamentally changed the future of his ministry. Here is part of their conversation.

Russian forces have attacked the seminary where you work, where you teach. What does that building look like now? 

Well, six Russian missiles targeted our campus in March. So we lost almost all [our] windows. We lost a roof on one of our buildings. So there are quite significant damages, but the buildings still exist. So we are happy for that. 

I was struck by something you said in a video interview quite recently: "Often we don't see any hope, but we have to be the voice of hope." How do you bring hope to other people when it's hard to find for yourself? 

Well. You know, sometimes people ask where God is at this moment. And during this war, I came to the conclusion that this is not my responsibility, to explain where God is and what he is doing. But my responsibility, I think, is to demonstrate compassion and solidarity with people. And I see when we express humanity, when we care about people, they can see God's presence. So when we bring food, we try to speak with people. We try to encourage them. We listen to their stories. We share our stories.

And somehow a miracle happens. People become more calm and … and happy, if I can say this. So I think compassion and presence — especially church presence — in the midst of suffering, is very significant for people.

Someone asked you recently, do you still believe in God? And I was a little surprised — I think possibly I was confused — by the way you answered. Do you remember that conversation? 

Yes, I do. I believe in God. Even stronger now. Well, I always believed, of course. As a theologian, as a student, I had some questions. And I have those questions now. I hope one day I will get answers, maybe. But I learned and came to the conclusion that it's more interesting to live a life with good questions than good answers. So what changed my perspective on God and Christianity? I cannot tolerate easy answers on very tough questions. I think that silence sometimes is the most profound answer to tough questions. 

So when I pray, 'God, break the bones of my enemy,' I give my desire of revenge in his hand. Because if I will do revenge, it will destroy me as well.- Reverend Ivan Rusyn

And I realize that there is a grace of God when I can honestly tell people, "Yes, I have PhD in theology, but my answer is I don't know. And what I can tell you, I have the same scars that you have. I was in Kiev. I was in Bucha. I saw what you saw. So I am here with you. And we are together. So I am far away from the idea that my responsibility is to explain what God does and what He does not. My responsibility is to be present with people and to do what I can do — to listen to them, to be close to them, and to provide support that I can provide. 

I want to quote you here, Reverend: "I may have had some thoughts before the war, but now I have no doubts." Is there some way in which going through this war has made your belief in God stronger?

Yes. Because frankly speaking, at this moment God is everything we have as Ukrainians. We are fighting a giant. The Russian army is 20, 25 times bigger than our army. Every day between 50 and 100 soldiers are killed. So very often we feel that we are absolutely helpless, and there is darkness ahead of us. 

I think a lot about hope. Something that I hate in this concept, hope — the bigger hope you have means the biggest suffering you are in, because if you have small hope, it means that everything is OK in your life, you know? So now we are in big trouble in Ukraine — the threat is very big. And suffering is extremely high. So everything that we have is God. 

Reverend Rusyn leads a group of soldiers in prayer. (Submitted by Ivan Rusyn)

Have your prayers changed? 

Yes. I am not using very diplomatic general phrases, "God, I pray for the peace in all the world." In my spiritual journey during this war, I came to the conclusion that the prayer "God, break the bones of my enemy" is spiritual enough. So I pray for victory. And I pray this as strong as I can, as clear as I can. I pray that our enemy will be defeated and taken away from Ukraine. I pray every day, as strong as I can, for our soldiers. I am asking God to protect them. I am praising God for every parent of soldiers that they gave us their sons and daughters. And now they are protecting our land, our freedom. So I pray, honestly, for our president. And I didn't vote for Vladimir Zelenskyy, but I pray sincerely about him. 

And of course, we ask God to intervene. We ask God to protect Ukraine, because this war is unprovoked. There were no plans on the Ukrainian side to attack Russians.

A team from the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary distributes provisions to residents of Hostomel, Ukraine. (Submitted by Ivan Rusyn)

I know the very young Ivan Rusyn was a confirmed pacifist. Would he be surprised to hear that prayer coming from your lips now, "God, break the bones of my enemies?"

Yeah, very much surprised. Many years ago, I was involved in [missionary work.] I was visiting Azerbaijan a lot. And as you know, there was a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. And Azeri people, they ask me a lot about war. And I was teaching them loudly about forgiveness and pacifism because I had no clue. What does it mean when your loved ones are killed, when your land is occupied? So now I am very embarrassed about myself because I was, you know — it was not mature. 

It's easy to be a pacifist when you are not attacked. It's a different story when you are. So when I pray, "God, break the bones of my enemy," I give my desire of revenge in his hand. Because if I will do revenge, it will destroy me as well. I know that God knows everything, and he is just. So in this prayer, I invite God to intervene. 


Written and produced by Kevin Ball. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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