John and LeAnne Paetkau know the power of God’s redemption.
The missionaries to Ukraine have not only seen God’s power change lives, but they have also seen God transform a former Soviet youth camp into a Christian conference centre.
“Where once children were taught to praise Lenin, we now have the opportunity to praise our Lord and Saviour,” John Paetkau said, quoting a Ukrainian pastor.
The Briercrest alums have faithfully served in Ukraine for the last 13 years along with their children Lanae (16), Alicia (13) and Daniel (9).
“They’ve basically grown up over here,” Paetkau said.
The family’s path from their home in southern Alberta to Ukraine was an unconventional one.
“My second year (in college) is when I really started to think seriously toward missions,” Paetkau said. “I spent the next two years interviewing organizations.”
During that time LeAnne did a six-month internship in the Philippines with SEND International, a Christian missions organization that is committed to planting churches in locations with unreached people groups. Her positive experience encouraged them to work with SEND in the Philippines.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed.
SEND was invited into Ukraine by the National Baptist Union of Russia/Ukraine.
“We looked at that and said ‘Where’s the biggest need?’” Paetkau reflected. “That was Russia/Ukraine.
(But) that’s a really, really big area!”
The Paetkaus decided on Ukraine for two reasons.
“I’m a Mennonite background,” Paetkau said. “My Dad was born in southern Ukraine. His whole family fled during the revolution of 1924-25. That was part of it. The other was, ‘Pick a country — get ready to go.’ That’s how we ended up in Ukraine.”
The couple didn’t worry about a fact-finding mission. They just went.
“I know now it’s not the thing to do,” Paetkau confessed. “But we never visited the Ukraine. The first time we came to Ukraine is when we came with all of our stuff. ‘We’re here!’”
The move was not an easy one.
“There are some cultures where the language is easily picked up,” Paetkau explained. “Here the language is extremely difficult and the people — if you’re a stranger — they’re very cold.”
The young family committed themselves to the slow process of warming the hearts of those around them.
“In Ukraine you drink a lot of tea,” Paetkau said. “(There’s) lots of listening, lots of talking, lots of discussion. If you’re not in there building the relationship — if you don’t build the trust, then it’s a long process.”
The couple served people wherever they found a need.
“We’re facilitators,” Paetkau said. “(We) help people to fit into whatever God’s called them to do and help them to do that — be it with resources, with training or just helping them.”
The couple is also very involved in their church, Sumy Church of Grace.
“It’s very exciting,” Paetkau exclaimed. “(Ten years ago) this little church of 70 people was the only evangelical church in this corner of the city (of 110,000 people). But Ukrainian people look forward, they see the goal, and they go. They say, ‘If God doesn’t help us, we’re dead.’”
In 1996 the church started having camps and they rented a former Soviet pioneer youth camp that was owned by one of the local factories. When the Soviet Union collapsed, all the youth camps collapsed as well because they had been subsidized by the government.
“We were able to rent this camp for six to eight weeks at a time,” Paetkau explained. “Westerners came in and helped (the Ukrainians) do camp. They’d never done camp before.”
For the next three years the church continued to rent the camp, but it continued to deteriorate to the point where it was dangerous to use. The factory that owned the camp went bankrupt. They came to Paetkau’s pastor with an offer.
“There was 10 acres of wooded territory with buildings and everything,” Paetkau said. “We purchased that territory for $17,000 U.S. dollars. A year and a half later it was worth over $100,000. God opened the door and it was a complete miracle!”
The church, along with the help of many others, slowly began to do renovations on the camp. Over the years they’ve been able to upgrade, fix and clean the camp to the point where other organizations are also renting it for their ministry functions.
“The exciting thing is it’s the only Christian-owned camp in NE Ukraine,” Paetkau stated. “We have over five million people within 200 kilometres. (It’s a) huge opportunity.”
Word is quickly getting out about the camp.
“Everyone wants their kids to get out of the city to get the fresh air and nature,” Paetkau said. “The camp over the years has built a reputation. Half the children (who come) are non-churched kids. We have parents calling us asking ‘When is camp?’ and booking a spot for their kids because they know the camp is a good place, is a safe place and has a good program. They trust it.”
The camp has been a huge bridge into the community for ministry. The Ukrainian people are now leading the camp program. Paetkau’s role is to coordinate things while staying in the background.
That’s just fine with him.
“If God has used us in a small way to facilitate the church being the church and reaching out with the gospel — then that’s been enough.”
Updates about the Paetkau’s ministry in Ukraine can be found at thepaetkaus.net.