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Olena’s ministry of tea and Agatha Christie: a Ukraine story

Olena’s story of gentle courage – and how tea and Agatha Christie can be a ministry in the face of conflict in Ukraine.

Written by Tarryn Pegna | 05 Jan 2024

Olena, a woman with light brown hair and kind eyes sits with her chin resting on her hand and a small smile on her lips.

Against a backdrop of war and pain, Olena, encouraged by Tearfund’s local church partner in Ukraine, is using the ministry power of a cup of tea and company to bring hope and comfort to people in Zhytomyr. Credit: Tearfund

A quick google search for ‘Zhytomyr’ (the city of Olena’s home), turns up images of beautiful buildings against blue skies, a museum of cosmonautics and some interesting historical facts – including that Zhytomyr is one of the oldest cities in Ukraine.

Alongside this, a series of video news reports tell a story of devastation and destruction – of shelling that has brought the reality of an ongoing violent conflict very close to home for the people living in Zhytomyr.

Hearts, minds, tears and scars

Olena’s city, like many others in Ukraine, has been indelibly scarred. Long after the buildings are rebuilt and this conflict has reached some form of conclusion, the echoes of these losses are likely to live on in the minds and emotions of Zhytomyr’s residents.

And if the news videos are anything to go by, for some people the attacks have inspired a growing hatred for an enemy that many saw as a friend so close it was almost family. (Indeed, many families bridge the Ukraine–Russia divide.) It’s a hatred that cries out for retribution as a means to heal the wounds inflicted. An imperfect, instinctive response to the injustice of shattered lives, livelihoods and peace.

Possibly, as we consider footage of homes reduced to rubble, of decimated classrooms and of midwives forced to move a maternity ward into a basement for safety, it’s a hatred that may seem justified. For those facing the fallout of international conflicts, it’s an uprising of emotion that more and more people in similar circumstances in other parts of the world – no matter which side of whichever war they find themselves on – might reasonably share in the current climate of conflicts and carnage.

But Olena Lahovska has a different focus.

‘Social ministry means serving society, and there are many groups of people for whom you can build your ministry.’
Olena Lahovska, Ukraine

Tea and company

She has been part of a programme run by one of Tearfund’s local partners, The Ukrainian Evangelical Seminary (UETS) in Kyiv*, helping churches find ways to support people in their communities through this time of conflict.

Olena is a pastor’s wife, a mum, and a qualified English translator. And for more than 12 years, she has been a mentor for women, founding an organisation called Fly Mama, which provides educational services for women. Now, Olena has also helped set up the Super Starist Club ministry for older adults in Zhytomyr.

She tells us, ‘When the full-scale war started, our church went through many transformations. Many people went abroad, including our pastor. We started asking ourselves what we, as a church, along with those who stayed, could do for our society and city. Then, we learned about the Social Ministry Workshop at UETS, gathered our initiative team, and came to study at the seminary.

Serving society

‘The first insight that struck us during the programme was that social ministry doesn’t only include families in crisis or people with addictions or orphans. Social ministry means serving society, and there are many groups of people for whom you can build your ministry. At once, our team understood that we always paid special attention to elderly people in our city. So we started thinking about what we, as a church, could do for them.

‘After the first session, we knew that we wanted to create a space for these people where they would come to communicate, discover new talents or remind themselves of the old times. A place for them to relax, play chess, play some board games, chat, and find new friends. Many of them are very lonely, and they think that they are of no interest to other people, abandoned by all. So our club is a way for them to re-connect with others and feel that they are once again seen and heard.

‘When we were planning our first meeting, we expected about 100 people to come. We started at 11am, but there were already people gathering at 10am! They were saying: “I couldn’t wait to come here and have some tea with you.” By 11am, we had about 150 people. We’ve never seen so many people in our church at once.

‘Every club meeting is different. For example, on one occasion we divided everyone into teams and played contests with them. Another time, we watched an Agatha Christie movie adaptation. At one meeting, we played bingo – just like in foreign movies. Each time we do something creative, something new. We always provide a warm welcome and a treat. Our team usually picks two or three of the people who come to the meeting, and we try to arrange a personal meeting with them during the week just to get together and chat over some tea.

Strategy, finance and being bold

‘Our studying at UETS helped us to formulate our strategy, understand our team’s values, and form a budget. It was very important for us to get a clear understanding of how much our ministry would cost. As a rule, we conduct our ministries at our own expense, but here we realised that we could apply for grants. We would have never even thought to apply for a grant for a church ministry! At UETS, we learned how to write grant applications. And we saw an ocean of opportunities open before us. We then were also encouraged to write a list of patrons and various organisations who provide grants in our city, in Ukraine and worldwide. And then we were given one hour during which we had to call them… And so we did it! I talked to three people from our city, and we agreed to meet the following week. I was amazed at them being so open to helping us and so genuinely interested in our project. It really helped to get over that fear of asking for financial support.

‘UETS’s Social Ministry Workshop gave us a truly great start. It was very helpful to come and study with the whole team and just to be able to stay for two weeks without work and kids and to delve into planning, researching, and discussing – we could stay up talking till 3am or 4am. We really needed that to get going with our idea.

‘If I’m thinking big, really big, it would be great to have a big centre, where lonely older people could come every day, and those who can’t take care of themselves anymore could even stay and live there, and feel human till the very end.

Life to the full

‘We have plans to expand so that such meetings are held in different parts of our city every day. We would still hold bigger events at our church, but we really want more events to be held for older people every day across the city so that they don’t just come for free meals but can live life to the fullest.

* You may have seen they hosted the Archbishop of Canterbury in November 2022!

Pray for Ukraine

    • Pray for churches, like Olena’s, that are providing places of hope and comfort in the midst of the conflict.
    • Pray for all those who are feeling lonely and afraid because of situations of conflict.
    • Pray for peace in Ukraine.

Written by

Written by  Tarryn Pegna

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