Oleg Turlac usually doesn’t turn the TV on late at night.
But on the evening of Feb. 23, 2022, Turlac, who lives in Toronto with his wife Natasha and their two children, said God kept him awake.
“I just saw the news broadcast that Russia just started bombing Kyiv,” Turlac said. “My heart ached and remained heavy since that minute. … We didn’t believe that such a war was possible between two nations that share a common cultural heritage, family ties and belonged to the Soviet Union."
With such close family ties between the two nations, Turlac compared it to a scenario in which Alabama and Mississippi went to war with one another.
Turlac is a Beeson Divinity School alumnus who was born in Moldova. He leads Turlac Mission, which shares the gospel and meets tangible needs in former Communist countries, including Ukraine and other nations near the ongoing conflict.
After the initial shock, Turlac went to work. His phone began ringing nonstop with people requesting help evacuating Ukraine or looking for help in finding family members who lived in the country. Turlac and his team were able to send financial aid to churches in Moldova and other neighboring countries that assisted Ukrainian refugees. Those fleeing violence were met with hot tea, a meal and transportation.
“For the first three days, it was almost a 24/7 time of ministry for us,” Turlac said.
A few weeks after the invasion began, Turlac flew to Poland and worked with the Ukrainian evangelical church in Warsaw to supply a help center for refugees with food, medicine and whatever else was needed. People were arriving by train and bus every half hour, he said.
“People were getting off, scared, having traveled for days,” Turlac said. “And so, they needed welcome. They needed tea and hot food, so we provided that for them.”
Since last February, Turlac and his team have continued to share the gospel and serve refugees and others in countries near Ukraine. In recognition of his commitment to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment in a time of crisis, Beeson Divinity School is proud to recognize him as the 2023 Alumnus of the Year.
“Dr. Turlac is doing crucial work in Ukraine and among Ukrainian refugees elsewhere, not to mention in the rest of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This award is a timely way to shine a light upon his ministry in these places and ask the Beeson community to pray for and support the work of Turlac Mission,” said Douglas A. Sweeney, dean of Beeson Divinity School.
“My Heritage is the Heritage of the Persecuted Church”
When Turlac was born, Moldova was still part of the Soviet Union, which was dominated by an atheistic ideology.
Turlac was the only Christian in his class. His great-grandfather, a Baptist pastor in Southern Ukraine, was sentenced to 10 years in Stalin’s Siberian gulag camps, taken away from his home one night by men in a black truck. His grandfather spent five years in prison for being a Christian. His parents were denied an opportunity to receive a college degree because of their faith.
“My heritage is the heritage of the persecuted church,” Turlac said.
Seeing his family’s faithfulness, Turlac became a Christian at the age of 11 and began preaching at 16 years old in 1992.
Since then, Turlac has preached the gospel in 34 countries, 13 of which are former republics of the Soviet Union.
Turlac was able to come to America and earn both a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Beeson. Lessons learned here helped him down the road not only as he preached, but as he invested in students of his own at a Bible college in Moldova.
“I’m grateful to Christians that invested in me and now I’m already seeing the students of my students that I have trained, that have traveled all over the former Soviet Union and have continued to preach the gospel,” Turlac said.
Turlac remembered Beeson fondly, from learning New Testament theology from Frank Thielman to studying Calvin’s Institutes with founding dean Timothy George, and practical courses and lessons that have helped him in pastoral ministry. Christians in the Birmingham area also played a vital role in his development.
“It wasn’t just Beeson and Samford that impacted me,” Turlac said. “I went to several churches like Mountain Brook Baptist, Shades Crest Baptist, Shades Mountain Baptist. Dear friends from those churches embraced me and my wife, Natasha; they showered us with love, and this was a learning experience for us as well.”
Hope in the Name of Jesus
After the war broke out last winter, it didn’t take long for Turlac and his team to come together to help those impacted by the crisis.
“The good thing was that we had a wide network of churches with which we cooperated,” Turlac said. “Quite a few of my students are pastoring churches all over Moldova, Ukraine, Central Asia, all over the former Soviet Union. So, in a way it was easy to just reach out to them and involve them in this network of helping the Ukrainians.”
Ukraine became the primary focus of their ministry, but the other work Turlac Mission was engaged in, which included assisting the persecuted church and combating human trafficking, became a need in Ukraine as well.
“The war fueled and raised the number of vulnerable women to human trafficking,” Turlac said. “And that became a wider avenue for ministry in Moldova and Poland and other countries.”
It is estimated that between 10 and 14 million Ukrainians left the country, Turlac said. Most of them settled in Eastern Europe, with about half a million settling in his home country of Canada.
“We’ve been helping Ukrainians (in Canada) by handing them food cards, providing clothing for them, going with them to medical tests that they need to obtain needed paperwork,” Turlac said.
Turlac and his team have also helped refugees find jobs wherever they ended up.
In addition to meeting tangible needs, Turlac said there has been an increased opportunity to share the gospel and provide hope in the name of Jesus.
“As followers of Jesus, we realize that war affects not only the physical condition of human beings, but also their spiritual and emotional well-being,” Turlac said in a recent newsletter.
The Ukrainian evangelical church in Warsaw jumped from 25 members before the war to more than 700 people attending the Sunday morning worship service, Turlac said.
“People, when they are vulnerable, open their hearts to the preaching of the gospel. They start seeking God,” Turlac said. “When they can’t rely on earthly riches or the systems that no longer exist, they search for God and come to church.”
About 80 percent of those now attending churches in Ukraine, which has an Eastern Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox background, are un-churched.
“That’s a great joy to all of us because people accept Christ. They are coming not just to receive humanitarian aid but to listen to the gospel. That is the prime opportune time for mission work in Ukraine, even under these difficult circumstances,” Turlac said.
“People, when they are vulnerable, open their hearts to the preaching of the gospel. They start seeking God. When they can’t rely on earthly riches or the systems that no longer exist, they search for God and come to church.”
Yuri and Anna, Ukrainians who escaped to Poland, are two people who have benefited from Turlac’s ministry.
The couple escaped the bombing of Mariupol, traveling for more than two days through Ukraine on trains that were kept dark to avoid Russian bomb attacks. At the time, the pair did not know Christ.
While in Poland, they were invited to attend an evangelical church and decided to go.
“Though they didn’t know God, they admitted that they prayed to Him, that He would save them and their two children from the bombs,” Turlac said. “They opened their hearts to the message of the gospel, and they made a decision to follow Jesus Christ.”
Yuri and Anna are “full of this zeal for the Lord,” Turlac said.
“They love to sing and to proclaim Christ. It is amazing to see how much this story of escape impacted their lives and led them to the Lord. Now it serves as a testimony to other Ukrainians to whom they are witnessing about Jesus Christ,” Turlac said.
“Here I am, Lord. Send me.”
The events of last February have changed the lives of many, including Turlac.
“I’m learning that I have to be prepared to serve the Lord in very different circumstances, and I just see His plan in my life,” Turlac said. “God was preparing me from childhood. Having experienced persecution as a child, I can now minister to those who are persecuted. Having lived under the circumstances of the atheistic Soviet Union, where things were scarce, I can now understand refugees and minister to them.”
Turlac said he is being taught to “be prepared to preach in season and out of season,” as the apostle Paul told Timothy.
“I am ready to preach whenever I am asked in churches, at train stations, on the streets, to the big crowds or even three or four people,” Turlac said. “I am also learning that the time I live in is one of unexpected crises. That teaches me to be ready 24/7 to minister to other people."
“I always have my suitcase packed, just in case I have to hit the road,” Turlac said. “My motto for this year is the text from Isaiah 6:8, ‘Whom shall I send?’ In faith, I respond to the Lord, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me. I am ready to go.’”