*Svitlana’s house in the suburbs of Lviv, Ukraine, is full these days. Her schedule is too.
She’s taken in a refugee family from the eastern side of the country, and she’s coordinating a team of counselors and relief workers who are caring for the hundreds of others who have flocked to her city.
She’s a seminary graduate, and a lasting ministry connection with one of her professors, Oleg Turlac, is helping her in a time when she needs it most.
“I am grateful to Turlac Mission and all Christians from North America who are helping us Ukrainians at this hour,” Svitlana said. “Because of your help, we purchased food, water, clothing, hygiene and bedding items for families in need.”
Turlac—a two-time graduate of Beeson Divinity School (M.Div. ’99; D.Min. ’06)—said that’s the space his ministry is trying to step into at this time. Since its founding, Turlac Mission has focused mainly on aiding victims of persecution and human trafficking in former republics of the Soviet Union torn apart by ethnic conflicts and civil war.
And as of late February, that included Ukraine.
Turlac said ministry to Ukrainians both inside and outside the country had been intense, fruitful and round the clock. That’s included ministry in western Ukraine through Baptist leaders like Svitlana who have been giving out hundreds of thousands of bottles of water and hundreds of thousands of pounds of food along with clothing and medicine.
It’s also included ministry to the thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have been spilling over the border into neighboring Moldova and Poland.
Oleg Turlac delivers medical supplies and hygiene items to the Ukrainian refugee help center in Warsaw, Poland.
“I’m grateful that together with many American Christians we’ve joined hands and are providing help for Ukraininan refugees who are pouring into Moldova, more than 100,000, and into other countries,” Turlac said in a conversation on a recent episode of the Beeson podcast. “We’re helping them.”
Partners of Turlac Mission are on the ground meeting refugees, helping them connect with resources and get the documents they need.
“Pray that God would give us strength,” he said. “We don’t know how long this military campaign will last. We pray for peace, but it may last longer than we expect.”
‘Dear to my heart’
Turlac is no stranger to the issues that the former Soviet republics face. He was born in Moldova during the time of the Soviet Union. His grandparents, who were born in eastern Ukraine, fled to Moldova in 1961 because of religious persecution—the church in their small town was destroyed. Both his grandfather and his great-grandfather served prison terms for their faith.
Turlac has a long, rich Baptist heritage in his family, but the Soviet environment in which it grew “makes my background very interesting,” he said.
When he was a child, the Soviet Union was “a huge empire which incorporated Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and 12 other republics,” he said. “We didn’t consider all of these 15 republics as separate entities—we were called Soviet citizens, or many referred to us as Russians.”
He learned Russian in school growing up. And then in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Turlac became a citizen of Moldova. That transition didn’t come without baggage for everyone though.
“Russia is still governed by the generation that was raised, educated and grew up under the USSR,” he said. “Putin and other people in power belong to the generation that still considers Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova to be one country. They’ve never considered Ukraine to be independent.”
That’s one of the reasons why the war is happening now, Turlac said, though he said there is “no justification” for Russia’s imperial ambitions or the loss of life that’s happening. He loves and grieves for the people of Ukraine.
“In the decade I taught in Moldova, we graduated more than 1,000 students and sent some to Ukraine. It was dear to our hearts at this time and always was,” he said. “We have seen tremendous work of God during all these years preceding the war. Many of my students became pastors, church planters, evangelists, missionaries. Many female students became social workers. The ministry expanded greatly. It was like multiplication.”
This happened after his time at Beeson.
“There was a time when American Christians invested in me—they brought me to Beeson, and after returning to Moldova I trained many students,” Turlac said.
His time at Beeson also brought a vision for another type of ministry that he and his wife, Natasha, began. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the aftermath brought economic problems for the former soviet countries, human trafficking became “one of the most pressing problems,” he said.
More than 100,000 women have been trafficked out of Moldova since 1990, Turlac said. “So while studying at Beeson and serving on staff at the global center with the director, reading books and communicating with Dr. Mark Elliott who was the director at that time, we received a vision and a calling of going back and starting this important ministry.”
He and his wife opened a safe house for women who were victims of trafficking and began teaching women job skills to help prevent them being trafficked.
“It had a Christian component, we witnessed about Christ,” Turlac said. “All who provided training were Christians, and many became Christians.”
As the war continues, Turlac—who now lives in Toronto, Canada and leads a Russian-speaking church there—has shifted his focus in eastern Europe to helping Ukrainian refugees. He is currently on the ground helping with ministry in bordering countries.
Oleg Turlac meets a war refugee family from Zhitomyr, Ukraine, at the Warsaw, Poland, train station.
He asked for prayer for him and his ministry partners as they serve those who are hurting.
“Pray for endurance because there are more refugees coming with each new day,” he said.
“There is a shortage of bed spaces in Moldova and other countries. Just pray God would give us wisdom of how to impart all the resources and serve the needs of the people who are in distress. The most important thing is meeting their spiritual needs. Many are broken. Many are hopeless. So pray God would use this very difficult time to turn people to him.”
*We are not disclosing her full name in order to protect her privacy.