A Ukrainian pastor preaches to the Santa Barbara congregation
From the outside, the First Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Church of Santa Barbara, just past the In-N-Out Burger on Calle Real, looks like a well-maintained visitor center in a national park. Inside, the building is also practically furnished, posters of Bible passages hanging from its bare white walls. Her pastor, Mikhail Smiyun, speaks in a languorous voice; he looks peaceful and relaxed. Perhaps he should look in this direction to reassure his congregation.
Four weeks ago, on the morning of February 24, the service was interrupted by news that Russian forces had invaded Ukraine. Almost all the devotees had family and friends there, and the reaction was spontaneous distress.
“Many were praying, others were crying; some did both at the same time,” recalls Smiyun. The following serves were also emotionally charged. “Over the next two weeks, we held continuous services and prayed for peace. Many members of the community – Christians, Jews and others – came to join us.
Although the majority of the Ukrainian population is made up of Orthodox Christians, most Ukrainians in Santa Barbara are Baptists. “The first Ukrainians who settled here shortly after World War II were Baptists,” Smiyun explained. “Naturally, other Ukrainian Baptists followed them here in search of a community.” The Ukrainian community of Santa Barbara today numbers about 200 people, including 70 faithful faithful to the church of Smiyun. The First Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Church has been providing services to Ukrainians here since 1955.
Smiyun originally lived in the town of Rivne in western Ukraine before moving to Santa Barbara in 1995. “I feared the political situation at the time,” he said. “I didn’t want to be there if the Soviet Union ever came back.” In Santa Barbara, Smiyun worked at AJAX Refrigeration & Air Conditioning for 11 years before becoming HVAC Superintendent at UCSB.
Many of his relatives still live in Ukraine and suffer from the war. One of them is his brother-in-law, whose wife and three children lived in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, not far from the pro-Russian breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. As Russian troops crossed the border, her brother-in-law and his family crammed in with hundreds of other refugees on a three-day train ride west, leaving most of their possessions behind. One of Smiyun’s friends, a pastor from the Black Sea port of Mariupol, managed to flee despite most of his surroundings falling to Russian control. Smiyun doesn’t know how he got out. “He didn’t want to talk about it,” he said simply.
Kharkiv and Mariupol are fiercely contested by Russian and Ukrainian forces. “Kharkiv was pro-Russian,” Smiyun noted. “But now that Russia has invaded, that feeling is gone.”
For each service, Smiyun takes care not only to offer consolation to its listeners but also to enjoin them to think and act in a wholesome and righteous manner. “During these times, it is very difficult for people to find joy or have any hope. But in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, the apostle Paul reminds us that in everything we must keep faith and give thanks to the Lord.
Other biblical passages he cited include Psalm 90, in which Moses prays for God to retain “the work of our hands for us” (i.e., protect us and that all may be well ), and 1 Thessalonians 5:15, in which Paul the Apostle says to abstain from “[paying] return wrong for wrong, but always [striving] do what is good for each other and for all others. Smiyun stresses the importance of people not opening up to hate and other negative and hostile emotions. According to Smiyun, many worshipers came to services feeling embittered because their relatives in Ukraine were living in bunkers, fearing for their lives and subsisting on rations. “I always remind them that anger and hate don’t help,” he said.
Smiyun, paraphrasing Jesus, says people should instead focus their energies on righteous living and helping others in need. “After the invasion started, we started collecting donations for Ukrainian refugees,” Smiyun said. “We get at least six, seven calls a day.”
At the time of the interview last Thursday, $25,000 had been raised by the First Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Church, in addition to clothing, food and medical supplies. Other local churches have also collaborated in the donation efforts, including the two Russian Orthodox churches on Castillo Street.
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