If you go
Hear Michael Gustafson speak about his family’s mission work in Ukraine:
WHEN: Sunday at 9 and 10:30 a.m.
WHERE: Faith Baptist Church, 11 Glenridge Road, Rexford
As tensions between Ukraine and Russia escalated, Michael Gustafson saw prayers for peace pick up as well.
The Glenville native was in Ukraine teaching youth ministry classes when protests began raging and violence flared.
“The students would get together and you’d see people from all over the country meeting together and united and praying for peace, just a simple prayer, praying that there would not be a lot of bloodshed and that God could use the political circumstances to do something greater,” he recounted.
A Schenectady Christian School graduate, Gustafson went to Ukraine in 2003 to teach with the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism and has been working there ever since. Back in the U.S. for several months, he is sharing his experiences with groups locally and collecting donations to support his family’s mission work.
“In 1992, I felt God was calling me to the former Soviet Union,” the 44-year-old said.
His first trip to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, was that year, and three years later an internship near Moscow followed.
“I served there, learned the language, lived with a family that didn’t speak English. I developed a heart for the culture and the people,” he said.
Ukraine’s predominant religion is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but Gustafson, who teaches at Kiev Theological Seminary, works with Protestants, whom he said make up about 2 percent of the population.
In addition to teaching, he also helped to start a local basketball league that’s now 300 members strong.
Sometimes he referees the games.
“It’s fun to get called ‘blind’ in Russian,” he quipped.
Gustafson met his wife, Rachel, in Ukraine. A native of Washington state, she was also in the country to do missionary work with children. The couple now have three young children of their own, with a fourth on the way.
The family lives on the ninth floor of a high-rise apartment building in Kiev, a city inhabited by close to 3 million people.
Gustafson said it’s a very safe city, but from the end of November to the end of February that wasn’t the case.
“The center of the city, about 10 miles from where we live, became like a war zone,” he said, describing barricades erected and thousands of people protesting during the ongoing territorial dispute between Russia and Ukraine. “Over 100 people were shot and killed throughout those weeks and I have lots of pictures and images of us going through some of the scarred ruins.”
Ukraine’s former government at one point was releasing prisoners and giving them a small salary to go out and cause trouble, Rachel Gustafson recounted. When word got around that some of the prisoners were on buses headed to an area not far from where the Gustafsons live, community members banded together.
“They gathered in one of the parks and met the buses when they came in and then they took all [the thugs’] shoes and gave them enough money to go back to where they’d come from, so they all left,” she said.
Despite the chaos in the city’s center, life was fairly normal in the part of Kiev where the Gustafsons live, but they dealt with constant uncertainty.
“I didn’t see panic. I actually saw strength in the Ukrainian people,” Gustafson said. “They would patrol their own streets. Police were absent and they weren’t trusted anyway. [Residents] were patrolling the streets just to make sure things had some semblance of order.”
The family had planned to return to the U.S. in May, but the political crisis in Ukraine played a major role in their early arrival. They returned to New York in March.
The May election of President Petro Poroshenko has brought new hope to the country, Rachel Gustafson said.
“From what we gather, he’s a very honest man and people really respect him, which is unprecedented for any Ukrainian president. They just have a real history of corruption,” she said.
If the political climate is stable enough, the Gustafsons plan to return to Kiev in January and hope to stay for many more years.
“To me, life is hopeless without God. He has and does change lives and that’s why I’m there,” Gustafson said. “That’s why I want to return. It’s very simple.”