Baptists in Ukraine have Thanksgiving Day in war time


Eastern Europe

Michiel Bakker, RD

Pastor Valentyn Grushetskyy from Ukraine. Photo Martin Droog

His country is torn by war, and half of the members of his congregation have fled abroad. Yet, the Ukrainian pastor Valentyn Grushetskyy (41) of the Baptist Church in Reya saw reason to celebrate the harvest feast also this year. "God takes care of us. He is good."

The meeting with pastor Grushetskyy took place in the Dutch town Waddinxveen in mid-October. That is where his wife Natasja (39) and their six children, aged 10 to 18, have been living for more than eight months. Their accommodation is a garage converted into a home, around which the neighbours' chickens scratch around, overlooking a meadow. Grushetskyy himself continues his work as a pastor in Ukraine. In between, he makes regular visits to Holland.

The war in Ukraine had a significant impact on his congregation from the start, says Grushetskyy, who studied theology for four years in Kyiv and two years at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium. On the day of the Russian invasion, the first members of the congregation left their country. The pastor himself thinks: I will stay here until we are in real danger.

After four days, a missile crashes in a field in a neighbouring village. "Then I realised that such a missile could also land in our village and our house. We decided that my wife and children would leave. I said to my church members: " You can go with them."

Temporary stay in sports hall

Within hours, dozens of people leave Reya. Others from the region join them. "We left with about 90 people, including some pregnant women," Grushetskyy said. He travels with the group as far as the border, after which the group continues to the Netherlands. There, the Ukrainians are received on 4 March in the Dutch town of Waddinxveen, where relatives of some church members live. After a temporary stay in a sports hall, they are given semi-permanent housing.

Church in Reya

The Baptist congregation in Reya, in Zhytomyr district, northwest from Kyiv, grew out of the congregation in Volitsa. A house meeting was first held in Reya on Easter Monday in the year 2000, says church founder pastor Valentyn Grushetskyy. Gradually, evangelisation work in the village expanded to include children's and youth work. Over the years, people came to faith, were baptised and joined the new congregation. Before the war broke out, it had 68 members. At the same time, the services were also attended by many children, youth and adult interested parties. Currently, about half of the congregation members reside in the Netherlands. Pastor Grushetskyy says 90 to 95 per cent eventually want to return to Ukraine.

In the following time, Grushetskyy helps a few hundred more compatriots cross the border towards the Netherlands or Germany. Of his own congregation, about half are now in Reya, the other half in the Netherlands.

The situation in his village is not currently unsafe. "There have been no clashes, but residents face big problems in work and income. Many have no jobs, or low salaries, while everything has become much more expensive. Some have no money for gas to heat their houses," says the pastor, who depends on his own landscaping business for income. Its income is now only 25-30 per cent of that before the war.


While Dutch churches hold Thanksgiving Day on the first Wednesday of November, Ukrainian Baptist congregations have had the annual harvest festival in late September or early October. "We thus tie in with the harvest festival –Pentecost– in the Old Testament. Each congregation chooses its own date for this. We invite surrounding congregations, which is why we don't do it on the same day."

The church in Reya held its harvest festival this year on Sunday, 27 September. This was preceded by a "small discussion" about whether it should go ahead in this time of war. "We asked ourselves: can we celebrate it now? Normally it is a big celebration with the whole congregation, with a joint lunch after the service, but a large part is not there now. Children always prepare a nice programme, including songs, but almost all the children are gone."

Although circumstances are different from before, there is still reason for gratitude, pastor Grushetskyy concludes. "In our village, almost all residents have a garden with vegetables and fruit trees. When we talked to some people about it, everyone said: God has blessed us with a good harvest this year."

Widows and orphans

Several speakers delivered a biblical message on 27 September, while Grushetskyy linked the components of the service. "I indicated various ways to express gratitude to each other and God. We can just say 'thank you', but is gratitude also shown by a smile on our face?"

Gratitude is also reflected in giving behaviour, the pastor continued. "In Ukraine, when someone gives you something, the custom is to give something small in return. Not as a kind of payment, but as a way of saying 'thank you'."

He points out that in the Old Testament, people brought part of the harvest to the temple for widows, orphans, and the Levites. Baptists in Reya, for example, always bring vegetables and fruit from their own gardens during the harvest festival. Those who don't have any offer money in a basket. "When people put that in, they say, Lord, I thank Thee for blessing me," he says.

Also, this year, a table in the church was filled with baskets of bread, vegetables and fruit around a Bible, "the bread of life." After the service and a meal, some of the harvest was distributed to "people in need."


Looking back, pastor Grushetskyy speaks of a "beautiful Sunday", even if it differed from previous harvest celebrations. "It felt less like a feast, and gratitude was mixed with pain. We must be grateful to God even when life gets harder. Personally, I am thankful that I have food, that my business has not gone bankrupt, and for the help we get from the Netherlands."

Even when it comes to the war in his country, Grushetskyy sees things for which he is grateful. "It is a miracle that we are not alone as a country . The whole world is supporting Ukraine, not Russia. That is a blessing from God. I am also grateful to Him for the president and the government we have at the moment. Moreover, unity in the country has increased."

Although thanksgiving was emphasised during the harvest festival, concerns were not unmentioned, says Grushetskyy. "Of course, we also prayed for an end to the war and the men in the army, including some of our church members."


The harvest feast in Ukraine is over. But in the Netherlands, where the family of Grushetskyy stays, Thanksgiving is this Wednesday. What does pastor Grushetskyy want to say to Dutch Christians? The preacher sighs. A church bell can be heard in the distance in the silence that falls.

"You may not sufficiently realise how prosperous your country is," the preacher hesitantly formulates a beginning of an answer. "Holland, too, has difficulties and crises, but on a different level than Ukraine. Sometimes you start appreciating things you have only when you lose them. I notice that myself. Before the war, I thought many things were normal, but I now realise how special they are."


With his eyes closed and one hand in front of his face, he continues, "I think thanksgiving is closely related to contentment. We are truly grateful if and only if we are satisfied. Often, we have a lot, yet we are not content. Why? We long for something greater that we don't have. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that, Paul writes in his letter to Timothy."

The Ukrainian pastor gives an example. "Some say I want a nicer house, a bigger car. These are things you don't need but you want. I think most Dutch people have what they really need, but are they satisfied? Look at people who live in much more difficult circumstances."


The preacher quotes 1 Thessalonians 5:18. "There, Russian and Ukrainian Bibles say: Thank God for everything. That is mistranslated. It says: Thank God ín everything, in all circumstances. That applies to all of us."

He points to the situation of Ukrainians staying in the Netherlands as refugees, far away from their own homes and sometimes their relatives. "We don't know how things will continue, but there is food and shelter here. And every Sunday afternoon, there is a Ukrainian church service in Waddinxveen. That is a great blessing for many people. God takes care of us. He is good."

This article was translated by CNE.news and published by the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on November 1, 2022



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