“Keep praying, Sasha!”
Huddled in a hallway as bombs reduced their Ukrainian city to rubble, members of the Mariupol Church of Christ urged Alexander Chekalenko — Sasha — to call on the Lord for protection.
When he stopped, they could hear the gunfire, the explosions.
So Sasha kept praying. Or he read Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” Soon, the children had it memorized.
For 51 days, the church members lived in the darkest of valleys — Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city obliterated by the forces of Russia and the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic. At least 21,000 civilians died, Ukrainian officials said, and 95 percent of the city was destroyed.
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“At night you would hear the planes — all night, every night,” said Zhenya Kapsha, who sheltered in the church building with his wife, Olya, and two of their children. “The whole building would shake.
“When those really loud shellings would happen, we would sit in the hallway of the building. We would sing louder than the shelling.”
As many as 33 people — ranging in age from 9 months to mid-70s — took shelter in the church’s meeting place, just a few miles from the Azovstal steel plant where the three-month siege ended on May 20 as the city fell to the Russians.
In their native language, Russian, the eastern Ukrainians spoke with media about their seven-week ordeal and the long exodus that followed. Interpreting for them was Brandon Price, a former missionary to Ukrainian cities including Mariupol. Price, now director of the Ukrainian Bible Institute in Kyiv, moved his family to Sopot the day the war began. He has helped coordinate the evacuations of Ukrainian Christians.
Throughout the interview, Price paused from translating to hug the Mariupol Christians as they entered the kitchen. For more than a month, the missionary didn’t know if they were even alive. Price and his fellow refugees — plus a host of Christians across Europe and the U.S. connected through social media — prayed fervently for their safety.
“That’s what sustained us,” Olya Kapsha said. “That’s why we’re here.”
More than 1,200 miles northwest of Mariupol, a half-dozen of the church’s members — now refugees — gathered around a kitchen table in an apartment attached to the Sopot Church of Christ. The Polish congregation is housing more than 50 refugees in its facility here, just a short walk from the Baltic Sea.
A nightmarish routine
Olya was at work on Feb. 24 when her teenage daughter called her. Shelling had started, and it was really close. Olya worried about taking her family to the church building, which was near the sea — and Russian ships. But options were limited.
On Feb. 27, the congregation had its Sunday worship. Afterward, two members asked minister Alexander Piletsky for a ride to the center of the city since cabs were no longer going there. The route took them past the Azovstal steel plant, where they came under fire.
Piletsky was struck in the head — by either a bullet or shrapnel — and spent several days in the hospital.
He recuperated in his apartment until March 15, when church members brought him back to the building. A day later, his apartment was destroyed.
A nightmarish pattern emerged. Days began at 6:40 a.m. with Russian songs blasted from loudspeakers. Ukrainian troops often responded with gunfire.
Then came a blaring announcement: “The forces of Russia and the Donetsk People’s Republic demand that you give up.” The church members chuckled as they recited the script. After instructions on how to surrender, five minutes of quiet followed. Then the shelling began. Dust filled the air.
“Always, there was the smell of smoke,” Zhenya said. “Everything was black. Everything was burning.”
The church lost electricity and water. They had leased part of the building to a cell phone company, which set up an antenna on the roof. They disconnected it, fearing it might be a target for Russian bombers. The antenna had back-up batteries that the church members used to charge their phones. But there was no signal, no way to communicate with the outside world.
Water was scarce. They rationed as best they could.
“We couldn’t wash ourselves. We couldn’t shave. We couldn’t flush the toilet,” Zhenya said. “It’s either your child’s life or brush your teeth.”
They grabbed what food they could before they left their apartments. Aleksei Kalchuk, one of the church’s ministers, made fires outside and cooked. Often, he went in and out through a window to avoid gunfire on the opposite side of the building.
Prayers and graves
Soldiers from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic took control of the area around the church building. Donetsk, a city in far eastern Ukraine, was seized by pro-Russian separatists in 2014.
The fighting near the church building became less intense. But the danger remained. On three occasions, Donetsk soldiers came to the building. They broke windows and demanded that the women and children leave. They also attempted to seize the cars in the church’s parking lot.
The church members prayed silently. Then “we told them, ‘No. We have kids. We have elderly. We’re going to leave at some point,’” Olya said. “So they didn’t take our cars.
“We didn’t go anywhere or do anything without prayer,” she added. Before venturing out to forage for supplies, the Christians asked God to grant them safety. Then they opened the door. If they heard gunfire, they decided that “God said no this time.”
When they were able to leave, the church members saw the effects of the three-month siege. Roads were unnavigable. Buildings were unrecognizable. And bodies were everywhere.
“People were digging graves next to the road,” Sasha said. By a massive hole, someone had written, “58 people are buried here.”
“And there were so many of those holes,” Olya said.
Once, the church members passed a man digging a grave that was too short for an adult. They asked him if it was for a child.
No, the grave digger said. It was for a man. The shrapnel had cut him in half.
Bombs and Bible studies
The Christians experienced small acts of kindness outside their church’s walls. A liquor store owner gave them the few candies and cookies he had in his shop for their kids.
Some of the Russian soldiers they encountered were from Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim republic that endured years of bombardment in the 1990s as rebels there attempted to separate from Russia. The Chechens gave the Christians small rations of water and told them what streets to avoid.
Back in the building, the church members had morning Bible classes. One of the preachers said they’d be going through the Gospel of Mark.
“Mark has 16 chapters. I don’t want to be here for 16 days!” Olya thought at the time. “We studied Mark. We studied 10 chapters of Revelation, and we still hadn’t gone anywhere. We studied 31 chapters of Proverbs. We studied Isaiah, Ecclesiastes.”
Day after day, Sasha stood in the auditorium and read Scripture aloud. Aleksei and other church members prepared humble meals from what little they had. Often, as they gathered to eat, gunfire forced them back into the hallway. It was torture, Aleksei said, knowing that the few morsels they had were just feet away, getting cold.
They kept reading, kept praying and kept singing … as loud as they could as the noises of battle intensified.
“That’s how we lived for 51 days,” Olya said.
A journey to safety — through Russia
On day 51, workers at a nearby maternity hospital, who had been supplying the church members with diapers and a few other essentials, said that they were leaving. Then soldiers came to the building and said that the area was being “liquidated.” They had to leave.
A few of the members had left the building. Some had decided to stay in Mariupol. Twenty-one were still in the church building. They piled into four cars and headed east to the city of Donetsk. From there they entered Russia and made the long journey from Rostov-on-Don north to St. Petersburg. Members of Churches of Christ in both cities housed and provided for the refugees during their exodus.
From Russia, they crossed into Estonia, a European Union nation on the Baltic Sea that once was a part of the Soviet Union. They worshiped with the Church of Christ in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, before making their way to Sopot, where longtime missionary Molly Dawidow and her daughter, Annabelle, had worked with city officials and Polish church members to renovate their building into a dormitory for Ukrainian refugees.
“This is paradise,” Olya said, looking around at the kitchen of the apartment serving as her temporary home.
She and her fellow survivors — her husband Zhenya, their son and daughter, ministers Aleksei and Sasha — shared smiles and even laughter as they recalled those countless moments when they huddled in the hallway.
One young church member, Maksim, was reading Scripture while the bombs were exploding, but he was far too quiet. They yelled at him, “Read louder, Maksim!”
“Right now we’re telling these stories in two minutes, and it’s funny,” Aleksei said. “But at the time, it was so stressful, it was so long.”
‘We’re not losing each other’
Sadness is never far away. Olya and Zhenya’s oldest son, 32-year-old Dima, was one of 25 volunteers attempting to deliver aid to Mariupol when they were captured by Russian forces. The family recently learned that Dmytro is alive but still imprisoned in Russia.
Sasha, meanwhile, recently learned that his adult daughter, with whom he had lost contact, died in Mariupol.
Though safe now from danger, the church members in Poland would soon be parting ways. Just a few hours after the interview, Olya and her family would leave for Germany, where they had found a place to stay — perhaps a place to start a new life.
“It’s hard because we have to separate,” Olya said. “It’s so very hard. We lost everything there. And here we’re starting to lose our spiritual family …”
Aleksei cut her off.
“No,” he said. “We’re not losing each other, not our Mariupol spiritual family.”
That’s regardless of where the coming months and years take them, he said: “We’re always going to be together — to death.”
Erik Tryggestad is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. He has filed stories for the Chronicle from more than 65 nations.