From the outside, the First Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Church of Santa Barbara, just past the In-N-Out Burger on Calle Real, resembles a well-maintained visitor center at a national park. Inside, the building is also practically furnished, posters of Biblical passages hanging from its bare white walls. Its pastor, Mikhail Smiyun, speaks with a languid voice; he looks peaceful and relaxed. Perhaps he has to look this way in order to reassure his congregation.
Four weeks ago, on the morning of February 24, service was interrupted by news that Russian forces had invaded Ukraine. Almost all the congregants had family and friends there, and the reaction was one of spontaneous distress.
“Many were praying, others crying; some were doing both at the same time,” Smiyun recalled. The following services were also heavy with emotion. “Over the next two weeks, we held continuous services and prayed for peace. Many community members — Christian, Jewish, and others — came to join us.”
Although the majority of Ukraine’s population consists of Orthodox Christians, most of the Ukrainians in Santa Barbara are Baptists. “The first Ukrainians who moved here shortly after World War II were Baptist,” Smiyun explained. “Naturally, other Ukrainian Baptists followed them here in search of a community.” The Ukrainian community in Santa Barbara now numbers around 200 people, with 70 of them regular congregants at Smiyun’s church. The First Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Church has been providing services to Ukrainians here since 1955.
Smiyun originally lived in the western Ukrainian city of Rivne, before moving to Santa Barbara in 1995. “I feared the political situation at the time,” he said. “I did not want to be there if the Soviet Union ever came back.” In Santa Barbara, Smiyun worked at AJAX Refrigeration & Air Conditioning for 11 years before becoming an HVAC superintendent at UCSB.
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Many of his relatives still live in Ukraine and are suffering from the war. One of them is his brother-in-law, whose wife and three children lived in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, not far from the pro-Russian separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. As Russian troops poured across the border, his brother-in-law and family crammed with hundreds of other refugees on a three-day train ride to the west, leaving most of their belongings behind. One of Smiyun’s friends, a pastor from the Black Sea port of Mariupol, managed to flee despite most of its environs falling under Russian control. Smiyun does not know how he got out. “He did not want to talk about it,” he said simply.
Both Kharkiv and Mariupol are being fiercely contested by Russian and Ukrainian forces. “Kharkiv used to be pro-Russian,” Smiyun noted. “But now that Russia has invaded, that feeling has gone away.”
For each service, Smiyun takes care not only to offer consolation to his listeners but also to enjoin them to think and act in a healthy, upright manner. “During these times, it is very difficult for people to find joy or feel any hope. But in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul the Apostle reminds us that in everything, we should keep faith and give thanks to the Lord.”
Other Biblical passages he has invoked include Psalm 90, in which Moses prays for God to hold “the work of our hands for us” (i.e., protect us and let all go well), and 1 Thessalonians 5:15, in which Paul the Apostle says to refrain from “[paying] back wrong for wrong, but always [striving] to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” Smiyun emphasizes it is important for people not to open themselves up to hate and other negative, hostile emotions. According to Smiyun, many congregants came to services feeling embittered, as their loved ones in Ukraine lived in bunkers, fearing for their lives and subsisting on rations. “I always remind them that anger and hate does not help,” he said.
Smiyun, paraphrasing Jesus, says that people should instead focus their energies on living righteously and helping others in need. “After the invasion began, we started collecting donations for Ukrainian refugees,” Smiyun said. “We’ve been getting at least six, seven calls every day.”
As of the time of the interview last Thursday, $25,000 had been collected by the First Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Church, in addition to clothing, food, and medical supplies. Other local churches have also collaborated in donation efforts, including the two Russian Orthodox churches on Castillo Street.