Killed, Pentecostals in Ukraine with church roots in NYC

Yaroslav Pavenko. Photo: Ukrainian Pentecostal Church

Yaroslav “Slava” Pavenko, a twenty-two-year-old chaplain, was helping to lead a worship service, when he had to duck, along with everybody else, under cars and shelters as rockets from the invaders came. The air shuddered and hummed. He wore a bulletproof vest and helmet, but a fragment from a projectile slipped underneath.

The chaplain was ministering to the 26th Lieutenant General Roman Dashkevych Artillery Brigade, which operates Polish-made tanks that fire large high explosive 155 mm rounds. They were located on Saturday, February 4th, 2023 near the village of Zarichne, east of the small city of Lyman in the Donetsk region. The village now is an eerie deserted region, whose major characteristic is large holes blasted in the roofs.

Despite the ravages of the invasion, Pavenko had dedicated his life to preaching mercy and forgiveness, urging Ukrainians to keep their focus on building up riches in heaven.

The invaders have often targeted the Pentecostals, destroying churches, kidnapping and murdering their leaders, and looting and tearing up their alcohol rehab center. Other Ukrainian religious groups have experienced similar targeted attacks.

When Pavenko was the 9-year-old son of the pastor of the “Transfiguration of the Lord Church,” he experienced the aftershock of hearing that two of his brothers and two deacons were drug out from the worship service by Russian partisans. That took place on June 8, 2014. A month later, the church discovered that the ministers were interrogated, tortured, and murdered. They were then tossed into a mass grave for torture victims, which was discovered when the Ukrainians liberated the area.

At the time, a friend, Volodymyr Streitsov, asked Pavenko, “’Slava, what shall we do next?.’” The response was what guides the chaplains now. “I remember how,” Streitsov told the Pentecostal church news service, “how he hugged me and said, ‘Dad says—we don’t take revenge.’ I think that this is exactly how our chaplain service began.” Streitsov, who was with Pavenko when he died, is now the coordinator of the service of military chaplains of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“We rushed to him, everyone prayed. For some time, at the beginning and later on the way to the hospital, he was conscious, praying with us.” In the car, Pavenko’s head was cradled by his brother.

The director describes the moment as one which he will never forget as one that God gave them. “Artur, holding his brother’s head, prayed like a chaplain. I think God gave us this time.”

“The last thing Yaroslav said was, ‘I’m going to Heaven!’ And he left.”

Pavenko is survived by his father, his wife, a young daughter, and several brothers who continue to minister to Ukrainian soldiers.

The roots of this moment of God’s intrusion into the life of the Ukrainians go all the way back to New York City. The history of the Ukrainian Pentecostal church is one of those thousands of ways that religion in our city radiates outward into the globe.

The founding of the Ukrainian Pentecostal church in New York City

The founding of the first Ukrainian Pentecostal church took place on July 1, 1919, in New York City.

In 1917, Ivan Efimovich Voronaev moved to the city to accept the pastorate of a small Russian Baptist congregation. Two years later in the month of June, Voronaev’s daughter, Vera, was Spirit-baptized and spoke in tongues while attending Glad Tidings Tabernacle, an Assemblies of God church, with a friend.

Voronaev then went to meet Robert Brown, the pastor of Glad Tidings and studied the biblical record about the giving of supernatural spiritual gifts during the early church.

The most famous passage about this phenomenon is found in the Book of Acts, written by Luke. In chapter 2, Luke describes what happened when the day of Pentecost came:

“They were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The disciples could all of a sudden speak and understand each others’ languages. It was a giddy experience. “Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then, how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?”

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Voronaev, too, started to ask what did this mean for him and his family in 20th Century New York City.

He became convinced that the experience of the Pentecostals at Glad Tidings showed that the filling of the Holy Spirit was authentic and still taking place. Voronaev prayed and received a similar experience in the summer of 1919.

Relatively quickly, Voronaev and about 20 others formed a new Pentecostal congregation — the Russian Christian Apostolic Mission in New York. They met together at 735 6th Street in the Emanuel Presbyterian Church, which had a history of serving immigrants, particularly from Germany.

(Today, this church under the name of The Father’s Heart Ministries at 545 E 11th St has a strong ministry to the homeless in the East Village. It operates Alphabet Scoop, an ice cream shop, to prepare youth for the job market.)

Several months later at a home prayer meeting, Voronaev received a prophetic message, “Voronaev, Voronaev. Go to Russia!”

The Voronaev Family. Пробуждение, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pentecostalism came to Ukraine from New York City

By this time, the Bolsheviks had taken over Russia and declared the founding of the Soviet Union. They were not very friendly to religion, seeing it as a rival to their own movement. Still, the turmoil meant millions of people were trying to find a guide star through the times. Several members of the Russian Mission felt convicted that they needed to spread the news of the gospel and the spirit-filled life back in their original countries. The Voronaevs and a group of church members prepared to return to Ukraine in 1919. To support the effort, they joined the relatively new Pentecostal denomination, the Assembly of God, renaming their church the First Russian Assembly of New York.

Then, Voronaev and his family with some supporters book passage on the ship “Madonna” to sail on July 13, 1920. After some detours, they arrived in Odessa, Ukraine on August 12, 1921. (Parts of Ukraine were not part of the Soviet Ukraine until World War 2.)

The situation in Odessa was grim. The civil war and the Communist takeover created the most extreme conditions. The streets of Odessa were filled with the moving shadows of starving people wandering around. Corpses littered the sidewalks. The Bolsheviks made know their hostility toward religion.

Still, the Voronaev group found high receptivity to their message. There were also other Pentecostal evangelists at work in Ukraine and Poland. Chaplain Pavenko’s home church traces its history back to Polish Pentecostal missionaries who returned in the 1920s after having religious experiences in the United States.

By November 1921 under the leadership of Voronaev, the Pentecostals established a new denomination, the Christian Evangelical Faith (Confession). By 1927, they counted over 350 churches with 17,000 members. Voronaev’s Odessa church grew to 1,000 members. However, the rapidly growing movement attracted the fearful attention of the Communists.

On July 6, 1930, Voronaev was among the 800+ Protestant pastors arrested as part of the emerging Great Terror administered by the Bolsheviks to their opponents, real and imagined. In all, tens of millions of Ukrainians and Russians were jailed and put to death. The classic books of this era are: Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror; George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

Voronaev and his wife disappeared into the gulag prison system in Siberia of the Soviet Union. Their six children (Vera had died) were cast adrift, eventually being rescued by American and British Pentecostals. One son, Paul Voronaev, became known for his persistent criticisms of Communist totalitarianism and its persecution of Christians. Perhaps, his most well-known book was Christian under the Hammer and the Sickle, which was originally published in 1935 and was republished in many editions. Surprisingly, Voronaev’s wife survived the Siberian exile and was released in the 1960s to rejoin her family in the United States.

Today, Ukrainian Pentecostal churches are active in supporting the people of their country undergoing a new onslaught, this time by a Russian nationalist dictator.

Sources: Українська Церква Християн Віри Євангельської/Ukrainian Pentecostal Church

Telegram channel Obozrevatel 

Dony K. Donev. 2011. The Life and Ministry of Rev. Ivan Voronaev. Spasen Publishers.

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