It seemed like every other Sunday at Transfiguration Church in Slavyansk, Ukraine. Congregants chatted happily as they headed to their cars after the service—but were met by a rush of masked men with machine guns. The intruders forced two deacons and two of the pastor’s adult sons into vehicles and sped away.
Artur Pavenko, the pastor’s third son, watched in horror as his brothers were taken hostage. “In the past, we had been arrested and searched,” said Artur of this occupied city where citizens have grown used to aggression—even abduction from separatists. “We thought this would end with a document check, and they’d be released.” But after 30 days of praying and searching, a mass grave was found near their city, four of the bodies identified as the men taken from church that summer day.
Up until the moment his brothers were abducted, the war with Russia, though closer than ever, still felt hypothetical. But after the bodies were found, Pavenko was tempted to seek revenge and let seeds of bitterness grow—the same ills he saw ravaging many of his countrymen. But his church family, as well as his upbringing in the faith, helped comfort him during the darkest moments.
Today, nearly five years after that fateful Sunday, Pavenko volunteers as a chaplain. On days off from his full-time factory job, he heads toward conflict, taking food and clothing—and the Gospel—to the front lines.
His mission is to bring hope to others facing uncertainty, using his own experience as an example. Thanks to connections with In Touch, Pavenko has begun distributing In Touch Messengers to Ukrainians who find themselves in harm’s way. He even hopes some of these audio devices might make their way across conflict lines, perhaps ending up in the hands of his brothers’ murderers.
Recently, Pavenko arrived at a hidden military outpost, where he was immediately greeted with exuberance. The couple dozen soldiers were eager to see a friendly face, as well as the Bibles and Messengers he’d brought for them. Pavenko is mild-mannered and soft-spoken, yet with Ukrainian soldiers, his words carry the weight of someone who has seen Christ’s provision firsthand.
While he can’t keep the soldiers out of harm’s way, Pavenko plans to keep showing up until the men and women he serves find the same faith that has sustained him through loss and grief—the same faith that sustains him now, day by day.
Photograph by Audra Melton