By Chad Koenen


The ongoing war in Ukraine is hitting home for approximately two dozen people, who went to the country as part of mission trips. 

Over the course of approximately 15 years, around 25 people from what is now Water’s Edge Church traveled to Ukraine to help spread the word of God in the area. During their time the group would set up day camps to teach about God, while also getting to know the people of Ukraine on a more personal level.

“You might come back with a few trinkets, but your heart was overfilled with the giving that you received back from those people.”

Pastor Wendell Wahlin, who led several trips to Ukraine

On Feb. 24 Russian tanks and fighters entered the country of Ukraine as part of an invasion. Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union that gained its independence in 1991. Since that time, Ukraine has been an independent country with a democratically elected President and government.

The invasion ended weeks of speculation and troop build up along the Ukrainian border with Russia and even Belarus. The military build up dated back to late 2021 and included Russian President  Vladimir Putin recognizing the independence of two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

“I stayed in touch with some of them. They are experiencing some pretty incredible times,” said Wahlin. 

One thing that has always stuck out to Wahlin about his time in Ukraine was how gracious and caring the people were during their visits. Even though the Ukrainian people didn’t have much in terms of possessions or money, they were always willing to share what they had with their new friends. 

“The people are gracious. They are very thankful people and they were just 10 years coming out of Soviet control,” he said. “One of the things I noticed was the incredible appreciation for their family being able to go to school, being able to speak their Ukrainian language. There was just a resurgence for life and hope.”

Dorothy Heschke traveled to Ukraine eight times beginning in 1994 through the mid 2000s. She said the group helped with a summer Bible school program and helped the community of Khudyaki with their church. They also brought medical and dental supplies to the country, which had just recently broken away from the former Soviet Union.

“The interesting thing for me was the officials would ask us to pray for their facility, their teachers and staff. It is quite a bit different from here where they try to separate church and state. There they were eager for people to come and pray for them.”

Dorothy Heschke

Donna Smith was also a part of several of those early trips. She spent time in a small village providing day camps to residents in the region.

“It just tears you apart just thinking about it,” she said of the war in Ukraine. “We were in a real small village. I have been looking for it on TV and they haven’t ever identified it.”

As part of his visits to Ukraine, Wahlin was a mentor to a young pastor in a small Ukrainian village just a few hours south of the capital of Kyiv. The pastor he was a mentor to, named Alexi, moved his family to Canada about five or six years ago when he began to notice signs of trouble between Ukraine and Russia.

“I said Alexi what prompted you to move your family out of Ukraine. He said Wendell I know the history with Russia. I could see it happening and it was not going to be good,” said Wahlin of his conversation with Alexi. “He said it was just so obvious there was going to be some very dark times for Ukraine in the future.”

Wahlin said a few weeks ago that Alexi told him he hadn’t seen the flurry of war in their hometown yet, however, the crisis surrounding food shortages and getting products was real. 

While she has not been to Ukraine since 2006 or 2007, Heschke said she has remained in contact with several people she met in Ukraine. Since the start of the war, she has remained in almost daily contact with one person in particular, who was able to flee to Warsaw in Poland. The person has since returned closer to the Ukrainian border and is ministering refugees in that region.

As a whole, Heschke said the Ukrainian people enjoyed color and were always willing to give visitors and friends just about everything they had—even if they didn’t have much at all.

“They were warm, giving, gracious loving people,” she said. “If they have anything they would gladly give it to you.”

Especially in the early years, Heschke said some Ukrainians were unsure of what to think of their new American counterparts. That was due to past Soviet Union propaganda, which portrayed their new Western friends as the enemy. 

“She said the only time I ever thought I would see, an American was when they were dropping bombs on us, because that was the propaganda they were given.”

Dorothy Heschke

Smith said the people they came in contact with were extremely friendly and were grateful for their American guests. She said most people had gardens to help provide necessary food to survive the winter. At that time, gas was only delivered to the gas stations on certain days of the week and general stores carried much of the necessary items for the town. 

“It was very pleasant and they gave us stuff. They fed us very well. We were invited over into a couple of homes and you knew they laid out probably more than they usually had,” she said. “They were very nice and generous with what they had.”

While the trips were meant as a way to share the word of God, Smith said they were able to see different parts of the country like the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, they flew out of the capital of Kyiv and some of the markets. 

Many of the small town churches doubled as a food pantry during their time in Ukraine, where people could bring their harvests to share with other people. Those same food pantry’s are helping to feed the people today.

“There are young people who cared for us in those summer camps. Some of those young people who have been trained and who have grown in their faith, they are the ones who are serving in their faith in a time of need,” said Wahlin. 

As the war in Ukraine transitions east from the central area of the country near the capital of Kyiv, Wahlin said they rarely went to the eastern part of the country due to that area’s allegiance to Russia. 

“Even back then we said we are not going to travel into eastern Ukraine. There was a heavy Russian family and Russian descendents (who had) a loyalty to Russia that did not exist in the rest of Ukraine,” he said.