The makeshift chapel is really just a shelter on the edge of the base’s parking lot. It’s made of milled wood slabs, reed matting, and plywood floors. Couches, benches, and chairs are strewn around the perimeter. Camouflage nets, a red bedspread on the couch, and a few embroidered fabrics hanging on the walls serve as decoration.
The Protestant pastors, most of them from Mariupol, took over the abandoned artist workshop in an industrial zone of Zaporizhzhia after they were forced to flee their original Mariupol base at Church of Good Change, founded by Gennadiy Mokhnenko. Today the workshop is the base of operations for the Chaplain Battalion – Mariupol. The former atelier is filled to the rafters with sacks of flower, buckwheat groats, pasta, cooking oil, bottled water, and whatever else is donated to the organization from people all around the world.
Pastor Maksym gathers the 16 volunteers who show up for an 8:30 a.m. briefing. The 45-year-old chaplain was born in Kryvyi Rih but spent most of his formative years in Mariupol. Maksym’s severe features accentuate a strong, sinewy build – like a middleweight boxer’s – but when he speaks, everything softens and gives way to an almost childlike playfulness.
He first gives an overview of what was delivered yesterday and to whom, and what the plans for the day are. Then everyone speaks freely, sharing their most recent experiences.
Yesterday several of them went out to the front line, about 50 kilometers away, and helped a group of medics known as the Hospitallers. There were many wounded, some dead as well. The volunteer describes how some of the wounded just wanted to be held as they were transported to a hospital.
Others went to a town near Velyka Novoselivka, right on the front line. There, they need tents.
One young man just came back from Lviv with a new Ford Ranger he’d bought with donations. While driving through Vinnytsia, he heard and saw a missile fly overhead, but read nothing about it on the internet afterwards.
Pastor Maksym. Photo Stash Luczkiw
Another pastor went to a frontline settlement where soldiers rest and promised them he’d return with ice cream. The men here get tired of their rations. And the weather has been very hot. “Do we have any coolers?” he asks.
Maksym gives a brief motivational pep talk: “Progress is slow but steady… The Russians have already lost the war. Whether it’s on the battlefield or economically, they can’t sustain it. They’re fighting against the resources of all the world’s nations.
“Remember how last year this time we were planning for evacuation [from Zaporizhzhia]? Now we’ve turned the tables on them.”
At 9 a.m., along with the rest of Ukraine, we observe a minute of silence to remember the fallen.
Then a prayer: “God help us end the war. Bring us peace. Help us get rid of the orcs [Russian occupiers] so we can rebuild our country. Help us to serve.”
After the prayer, the 13 men and 3 women move around the parking lot, laughing and joking with each other as they prepare the cars and vans. Most are dressed in camouflage, and you might think they were soldiers if not for one detail – there’s none of the colorful vulgarity you normally hear from soldiers all over the world.
The road to Orikhiv
Petro Halka, 56, is from Chubarivka (now called Fedorivka), a village of about 2,000 just a few kilometers into the Russian-occupied side of the front line southeast of Hulyaipole, about 125 kilometers from Zaporizhzhia.
He pets a ginger cat the chaplains have adopted and tells me how Chubarivka was occupied on March 25, 2022. I ask if he’s a pastor, and he says, “No, just a believer who wants to help. I’m a teacher.”
He has been living in Zaporizhzhia since he left home right before the Russians came and took his town. “All they know how to do is steal. Everything they claim to be theirs is stolen. The Zhiguli is just a Fiat. Even their famous Kalashnikov is a copy of the German Sturmgewehr 44 designed by Hugo Schmeisser. Kalashnikov just tinkered with it and put his name on it.”
Petro says he’s been volunteering with the Chaplain Battalion since August 2022. He now lives with the parents of a soldier whose son died on the battlefield.
Petro Halka. Photo: Stash Luczkiw
Petro, Maksym and Pastor Oleksandr load a van with humanitarian supplies. Each canvas bag has wheat groats, rice, sugar, cooking oil and a variety of canned meats, beans and fruits.
Oleksandr, 45, gets behind the wheel and drives out. I ask him how long he’s been a pastor. He’s rather taciturn, focused on the road. “I’m still becoming a pastor,” he says.
“How long do you have to study to become a pastor?” I ask.
Petro offers the answer for the shy driver. “You don’t study to become a pastor. You live – and shepherd a flock that gathers around you through your deeds.”
At a pit stop for gas and coffee, Oleksandr explains to me that I should switch sides with Petro in the back seat, so I won’t be behind the driver. “We’ll be coming to a checkpoint where they ask for a password, and civilians aren’t supposed to hear it.” Petro hands me a pixelated camo windbreaker with a “Chaplain” patch on it. We pass through the checkpoints without any questions.
The sunbaked steppe offers soya, rape and bright yellow sunflowers at their peak of color. The fallow fields are black. Farmland reaching well beyond the horizon.
On the approach to Preobrazhenka, where we need to drop off the supplies, we stop to put on body armor and relieve ourselves – careful where we step, even though the Russians haven’t reached that far to mine the roads.
In Preobrazhenka, we pass by a few massive craters on the side of the road next to a bombed-out home. The electric lines are all down and strewn in the ditch.
We stop at Nadia Vitalivna’s house, a fairly typical Ukrainian homestead, fenced in with a yard full of densely planted fruit trees and several dogs barking happily.
After we unload the van’s contents, Nadia tells us about the shelling that’s been going on recently. Her house was hit by shrapnel several days ago. She was running down the road hugging her grandson tight, trying to reach a neighbor’s basement.
While she speaks, you can hear artillery fire nearby. Nobody even flinches. “Outgoing,” says Petro, who served in the Soviet Army in Central Asia. “M777s” he adds, referring to the American howitzers that changed the momentum in the fight a year ago.
The Chaplain Battalion comes to Nadia’s house regularly, and she distributes the bags of food to neighbors. Before we leave, she gives the pastors several dozen eggs from her chickens, a bag full of scallions, and a box full of savory cheese pastries, still warm from the oven.
When she finds out Kyiv Post is read by many Americans, she wants to explicitly thank Ukraine’s American friends for “helping us push out the Russians.”
I ask Nadia if she has anybody serving, and she immediately breaks into tears. “I have a godson right now near Bakhmut… Everybody. All the men in the family left to fight right after Feb. 24 ,” she says, trying to stanch any potential sob.
Before we leave, the pastors remind Nadia to use the flak jacket and helmet they gave her on a previous trip.
“I use it,” she says. “But when I walk around town the police stop me. ‘Are you military, Babushka?’ Then they ask to see my documents. ‘What documents? I live down the road,’ I tell them.”
“Don’t hold it against them,” Maksym says. “They’re just doing their job.”
The town of Orikhiv is just across the Konka River from Nadia’s house. Nine days earlier, on July 10, the local school was hit by an airstrike. The building had been designated as a “Point of Invincibility,” where people could go to shower, eat, charge their phones, use the internet, and get supplies such as oil lamps, candles, flashlights and torches.
A Russian aircraft dropped a bomb on the school, destroying the adjacent residential buildings as well. Maksym shows me what’s left of the bomb amid the ruins. Petro says, “8 people dead, 16 injured.”
Remnant of a Russian bomb that destroyed a school in Orikhiv. Photo: Stash Luczkiw
By noon, we’re on the way back to Zaporizhzhia. It’s hot, I drink water, and I wonder why we didn’t bring any fresh drinking water to Nadia. Petro explains that the wells in Preobrazhenka are still good. But in parts of Hulyaipole, the Russians showered the town with illegal incendiary bombs that can’t be extinguished. “When the phosphorus or thermite gets into the wells, you can’t drink the water anymore.”
“You can tell Petro is teacher,” Oleksandr says, poking fun at his need to explain everything.
Petro then rips a velcro badge from his vest and shows it to me. It says, “Separate Cocked Squad – Old Farts,” with the image of a geriatric man holding a cane in one hand and a pistol in the other. “We may not be in combat shape,” Petro says, “but we can still foul the air.”
Once in the city, we’re welcomed to the base by the smell of two factories – a unique combination of glass production and metalworks – whose massive chimneys loom in the distance, emitting a fine trickle of smoke.
“Separate Cocked Squad – Old Farts”
The food truck
The volunteers at the base eat lunch and prepare a newly acquired food truck. Twice a week, in the afternoon, they set up a soup kitchen, alternating between the bus station and the train station. Today, a Wednesday, we go to the train station.
There’s another truck in the base’s parking lot full of dental equipment, which regularly makes the rounds of the front line with dentists to take care of the soldiers’ teeth.
While loading the truck, two sisters from Mariupol, Lena Ivashenko and Natalia Klevatska, talk about their harrowing escape from the city under siege in March 2022.
Both had their homes destroyed. “First my windows were blown out by air raids,” Lena says. “We had no heat or light and were cooking outside with wood fires. We were sleeping in minus-10 degrees [Celsius] with our clothes and coats on.”
Eventually the two sisters went to a seaside village, waiting for the Ukrainians to push the Russians out. But each day it became increasingly clear that this would not happen soon.
“It got to the point where if I passed by Russians on the street, I’d keep my head down so they wouldn’t see the hate in my eyes. I couldn’t hide my loathing for their Z’s and white bands on their arms,” Lena says.
“Then I knew I had to leave.”
Arseniy (left) and Mykola (right). Photo Stash Luczkiw
They took back roads to Zaporizhzhia in order to avoid the notorious Russian “filtration” check points along the “green” evacuation routes to Ukrainian-held territory.
On the ride with Lena to the train station, I ask our driver, Mykola, if he’s a pastor as well. “No, just a volunteer,” he says.
Mykola is also from Mariupol. He fought with the marines in 2016, was wounded, then left Ukraine the following year to work in Estonia and Latvia. When the full-scale war began, he came back because he knew the army needed men with experience. He was fighting near Popasna in 2022 when he was wounded again – severely this time.
“I still have two micro-pieces of shrapnel in my brain,” he says, almost laughing as he doffs his camo baseball cap with Chaplain Battalion badge while driving so I can see the scar.
“All the same, the war keeps calling. But they won’t let me fight because I’m officially disabled. So I help as a volunteer.”
His parents and girlfriend are in Kyiv, he says. I ask about rehabilitation, and he thinks there’s a lot more that could be done. “But I don’t really know, because I haven’t had many problems. Some guys suffer afterwards. Nightmares, they can’t sleep. Thank God, I’ve been okay.”
Feeding the hungry, healing the sick
Jesus called on his disciples to tend to the most vulnerable among us, so the Chaplain Battalion does exactly that at the Zaporizhzhia train station.
Most of those who come for the free meal are old and infirm. The younger men and women are quite obviously those unfit for military service or civic activities: alcoholics, drug addicts, mentally disabled. It’s hard not to conjure images of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Woman at the soup kitchen. Photo: Stash Luczkiw
The Chaplain Battalion teams up with the Evangelical Church of Christ the Savior and its pastor, Oleksiy. Dressed in shorts, baseball cap and Nike T-shirt, he leads the people waiting for food in a quick prayer, then urges them to proceed in orderly fashion to get their food. “One at a time, don’t push.”
Lunch consists of a first course of borsht and a second course of pasta with a side dish of cucumber salad.
The small crowd verges on becoming unruly from time to time, with one mentally disabled woman requiring attention from a female volunteer. Meanwhile, the air raid siren wails for the third or fourth time that day – no one seems to count anymore. And the pastors brush it all off stoically, letting the drama play out organically, without intervening.
At one point, as the volunteers are wiping down the foldable picnic tables and benches, a man with arms covered with festering scabs comes to Pastor Oleksiy and asks for help. Oleksiy prays with him and helps clean the open wounds with antiseptic wipes they keep in the food truck.
Back at the base, the pastors and volunteers unload the truck and go home to prepare for tomorrow – villages to visit, soldiers to see, supplies to order and distribute, passwords to remember. And, of course, to pray.
Chaplain Battalion – Mariupol.
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