Between checking the TV and his phone, Jeff Richards found it difficult to focus on just about anything else lately.
Richards, who lives in Salisbury, is the pastor at Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church in Statesville. He’s been in the ministry since the late 1970s and has presided over churches in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. He’s also ventured abroad, teaching and preaching in numerous foreign countries.
In 2011, Richards went on his first mission trip to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. He’s been back to the city nine times and has formed close friendships with students and fellow clergymen there. Most of his time in Ukraine was at Church of the Gospel, a Baptist church, and Kyiv Regional Bible College.
Watching Russia invade the country through the news from an ocean away, Richards has been glued to his phone while waiting on the latest updates from his friends in Kyiv.
“It’s heart wrenching because I really think of them as family,” Richards said.
The texts he’s received from friends in Kyiv have comes with a clear message: “They’re pretty much intent on staying.”
His friends haven’t expressed much fear either, despite the Russian attacks on their city.
“I’ll text and they’ll say, ‘Yes, we’re OK. We’re going to stay,’” Richard said. “They’ll never say, ‘We’re frightened. Please pray.’ That’s just not their makeup.”
Their decision to remain in a country under siege doesn’t surprise Richards. The unflappable nationalism in Kyiv is the first thing that struck him when he initially visited the city.
“One thing I picked up immediately was how much they love the Ukraine,” Richards said.
And, he said, how much they dislike Russian control.
In subsequent trips to the country, Richards learned about their politics and experienced the religion, culture and climate. The spring is beautiful and the winter cold, like those Richards experienced growing up in Minnesota. The food, he said, is delicious. The music: second to none.
“Their musicians rival the best orchestra I’ve attended here in America and their soloists are outstanding,” Richards said.
He describes the people he’s met there, particularly those at the Church of the Gospel and Bible college, as sweet, but powerful.
Not fluent in Russian or Ukranian, Richards relied on an interpreters during his trips. They helped him teach Bible lessons to prospective preachers and deliver sermons at Church of the Gospel.
“You have to get a little used to that,” Richards said.
Because he grew up Baptist, Richards said he could recognize the tune of the hymns sung at the church, but he could only nod along as those around him sang the words.
His familiarity and fondness for Ukraine paired with concern for his friends make it difficult for Richards to stomach some of the scenes he’s seen in the news. Especially tough are the images of bombed condominiums and injured civilians.
“I’ve actually just had tears in my eyes as I see the images,” Richards said.
In 2018, Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church and Church of the Gospel officially became sister churches, sharing spiritual guidance with one another and financial support occasionally.
The congregation at Covenant prays for Church of the Gospel on a weekly basis. The words of those prayers will carry a little extra weight as the fighting continues. Richards said the church has also started a prayer chain for Ukraine, and it will be praying for the people of Russia, too.
Richards last visited Kyiv in May 2019. He preached about Jonah and told the congregation to listen to the call the first time and be willing to follow the lord’s lead.
With Russia pushing into Kyiv, Richards said he expects communication with his friends to be cut off soon. In the meantime, he’ll continue to pray and keep up with the news.
Richards is optimistic he’ll be able to visit Kyiv again in the foreseeable future.