Pilgrims in Ukraine: Campus Ministry Curiosity to Many

Fred and Stacy Vanderwerf, with soon to be one-year-old son, Levi.
Dec. 10, 2004

An UMC.org Feature
By Renee Elder*

In a city filled with Christians, Fred and Stacy Vanderwerf still find themselves answering some probing questions about what their United Methodist campus ministry is doing in Lviv, Ukraine.

While the questions may be tough, their answers are simple and forthright: They are helping students grow in faith and develop a deeper relationship with Christ.

"For some of the parents, especially, there seem to be legitimate concerns about whether our faith could be identified as a sect," Stacy points out.

Protestant religions remain something of a mystery in this city traditionally dominated by Greek Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox congregations. The region also has seen a recent influx of religious sects.

"We explain to them about Protestants; and we are usually able to reassure them," Stacy says. "We’re actually glad when people ask questions. We’ve had some wonderful conversations as a result."

The couple, who met and married while attending Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., began their Lviv ministry in 1999. After college, Fred, a native of Minnesota, spent several months staying with friends in Ukraine, where he met the Rev. William Lovelace, district superintendent for the United Methodists in Ukraine.

"We felt God moving us in the direction of Ukraine," Fred says.

Lviv has a reputation as a city of and for intellectuals and with a large number of college and universities, it seemed a place ripe for campus ministry.

"It has been absolutely amazing to see how God has guided us here," Fred says. "We have watched God take a group of three students who met in our living room and totally transform our lives together with them. Also, the group of three has grown to 30 in regular attendance for Bible study and still many more for other weekly events. We have had to move out of our apartment and use not only the living room but the whole place as meeting hall, office and place of fellowship."

The Vanderwerfs and their son, Levi, who is almost a year old, live downtown near many of the students.

Work in the Ukraine is part of the Russia Initiative, says Vladimir Shaporenko, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

"We’ve worked with Ukraine for quite some time, since 1994-95," Shaporenko says. "We have a number of organizations involved. We’re working actively on social issues, orphanages, schools, youth camps every summer. This is what attracts people initially. But it takes years to break the ice."

Lovelace, the district superintendent, says there are 15 established Methodist congregations throughout the Ukraine with about 1,500 members.

"The strategy is to keep a missionary presence here and share the strengths the Methodist Church has developed during its 300-year history in America," says Lovelace, who lives in Kiev. His wife, Helen, runs a humanitarian program for street children.

Olia Tishkovets, 21, a senior at the Ivan Franco National University, is a leader in the Vanderwerfs’ program in Lviv. "We have Bible study once a week, English club once a week, and then other small group meetings," she says.

Like many of the students, she has belonged to the Greek Catholic Church most of her life but found a special blessing with the Vanderwerfs. "This group is very important for me," Tiskovets explains. "It has changed my life in a lot of ways. It made my faith come alive… Our group is not about religion. It’s about faith."

This summer, students from Stacy Vanderwerf’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, visited—leading the Pilgrims, as the Lviv campus ministry group is known, in worship, study and fun.

The Americans’ goal was forging friendships with the Ukrainian students and inviting them to consider a deeper relationship with Christ, according to Evie Burleson, a student at Texas Tech University. "I think Methodism …allows for an open relationship, something they don’t really have a concept of over there," she says.

The 10 Texas students met with the Lviv students in the city and then led a five-day retreat in the Carpathian Mountains. Amanda Hines, 23, an intern at the Wesley Foundation in Lubbock and a member of the mission team, recalled one particular prayer session as especially memorable.

"After one of the (Ukrainian) students started, a whole bunch started coming up to pray with us," Hines says, recalling the joy on the Vandewerfs’ faces. "Stacy says they had been waiting four years for the time when their students would finally open up and have a realization about community, about being in prayer for each other and themselves, and being open about their faith."

*Elder is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C.

News media contact: Matt Carlisle, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5153 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

This feature was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.


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