99990_000_005Since the gospel entered their lives, these young Latter-day Saints in Ukraine are spreading their wings and are …
Commuters hardly notice the statue at the back of a train station in Kyiv, Ukraine. The statue is of a woman releasing three doves to fly free. Created years ago under another regime, the statue now seems symbolic of Ukraine’s future. It could also serve as a symbol of young Latter-day Saints in this land. They, like the doves, are testing their wings, praying that the breeze of freedom will sustain them as the restored gospel spreads throughout their land.
“Put your foot inside this shoe,” seminary teacher Tatyana Mutilina said, holding out a boot nearly large enough for Goliath. Her student Anzhelika Kovalova timidly placed her foot inside.
“Now,” the teacher said, “put it here on the table where everyone can see.”
That got the class’s attention.
“Don’t go on a journey wearing shoes that don’t fit,” Sister Mutilina said. Then she taught the Kharkovsky Branch youth a powerful lesson from the seminary manual, reading scriptures, discussing questions, and bearing her testimony of how important it is to be prepared when the Lord calls upon you.
The point? “That the future of the Church in Ukraine will require youth like us to step forward,” Anzhelika says. “We need to be ready for the challenge.”
“It makes a big difference to be a member of the Church,” says Galina Trohemenko of the Sviatoshino Branch. “It means living standards that others don’t. That’s what attracted me to the Church in the first place. I have a friend who is a member, and she and her family have such high standards I wanted to find out more. Now that I’m a member, I need to set that same kind of example for those around me.”
“You Can Be a Light”
It was just such an example that led Natalia Yereskovska to the gospel. As a 15-year-old exchange student, Natalia left Cherkassy, Ukraine (south of Kyiv), for Sleepy Hollow, Illinois (northwest of Chicago). She gave her Latter-day Saint hosts quite a shock when, on the way home from the airport, she said, “I know God sent me to you.”
She had been praying to be placed with a religious family, “so I could find my spiritual life.” When she read the profile sheet of the Bruce B. and Jean Bingham family, she saw that they didn’t smoke and that they attended church regularly. She also felt something—a prompting that she should listen to the Binghams and follow their example. Natalia spent the next year participating in family prayer, home evening, Young Women, sacrament meeting, and Sunday School.
Her sensitivity to the Spirit grew. She found answers she’d been seeking for years. She took the missionary discussions. She fasted and prayed and received an answer that she should join the Church. Fearful that her parents would never approve, she gathered her courage, made her request, and received permission. She was baptized on 7 January 1996. But soon she faced concern of another kind: She must return to Cherkassy, a town of 350,000, where she would be the only Latter-day Saint.
“I was scared,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine going where there is no church, where I wouldn’t be able to go to meetings or take the sacrament. But on the flight home I remembered what Brother Bingham told me: ‘No matter where you are, you can be a light.’ That gave me some comfort.”
After spending two Sundays studying scriptures, praying, and singing hymns by herself, Natalia heard of an LDS youth conference in Kyiv. She went, and there she met Wilfried M. Voge, president of the Ukraine Kyiv Mission. Together they mapped out the required steps for the Church to be recognized in Cherkassy. The process started with getting signatures on a petition inviting missionaries to come. But the invitation had to come from adults.
Natalia made friends with a university professor who had once stayed with an LDS family in the United States. He agreed to help and prepared an official letter of invitation, got a group of business students to agree to listen to the missionaries, and even arranged a meeting with the mayor of a small town nearby. After Natalia explained about Church standards, the head counselor of her school also signed the petition and requested that missionaries speak to the entire school!
In September 1996, the first missionaries arrived. In October, Church meetings were held. In January, the first convert was baptized. Then another in February. Then families. Additional missionaries were assigned. Young Women, Relief Society, Sunday School, and Primary were organized. Picnics and service projects were held. Men were ordained to the priesthood. A branch president was called. Natalia led one of her lifelong friends to the Church, and even the professor’s wife was baptized! In short, the branch kept growing and growing.
When Natalia first thought about establishing the Church in her hometown, she was nervous. But President Voge said, “Heavenly Father will support you.” That kind of faith has paved the way for others.
“I Tried to Be Only with Good People”
It takes faith to stand alone, as Natalia did; it also takes faith to change your life, to leave behind friends who are a bad influence. That is what Viktor Russo found out when he learned about the gospel of Jesus Christ and had to make a few changes in his life.
Life had been rough for Viktor. As a boy, he was scrawny. Other boys beat him up. Out of resentment, he made a mistake. He joined a gang at age 15. “I wanted the others to be afraid of me,” he says.
And that’s what started to happen. He became one of the “bandits,” as he calls them. But before he got in too far, he discovered the Church. His aunt, a Latter-day Saint, invited Viktor and his mother to attend Sunday meetings.
“Right from the opening prayer there were tears in my eyes,” Viktor explains. “They didn’t just recite words. They spoke with their Father in Heaven. I felt a great love overpowering me, an understanding that I also have a Father in Heaven who loves me.” Viktor was so impressed he continued to attend. And he began meeting with the missionaries.
“I had always wanted to know if there really is a God,” he says. “So I prayed, ‘Please tell me if what I am learning is true.’ The same powerful feeling I had during sacrament meeting surrounded me again.”
He was particularly impressed as he learned about the priesthood. “I felt this love among the men, something I had never felt in the gang. During one of the missionary discussions, I remember thinking, ‘I can’t be in a gang and serve God, too.’ From then on, I tried not to meet with my old associates. I tried to be only with good people.”
And what happened was remarkable. “I was amazed,” Viktor recalls. “Some of my former ‘friends’ teased and taunted me, but most of them just said, ‘All right then, go. We’ll leave you alone.’” Enemies didn’t retaliate. True friends took an interest in his new religion. Some of them even met with the missionaries, but Viktor is the only one so far to be baptized.
“I had a lot to repent of first,” he acknowledges. “But I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Today Viktor is 18. He has been a Latter-day Saint for almost three years. He spends his time with other Aaronic Priesthood holders, helps with the sacrament, and goes home teaching. He looks forward to serving a full-time mission and to the completion of the Kyiv temple. Day after day you’ll find him with the elders when they’re teaching. “I like to share my testimony of Jesus Christ,” he says. “I like to tell people they need to believe in Him.”
“I Was Afraid They Were Crazy”
Like Viktor, Kira Gulko learned of Heavenly Father’s love for each of His children when she learned about the Church. But the decision to be baptized didn’t come easily to Kira. At first when her parents decided to join the Church, Kira remembers, “I questioned their sanity.” Fortunately, instead of criticizing or rebelling, she decided to find out for herself if their new religion was true.
“We weren’t practicing Jews,” explains Kira, “but we were of Jewish origin. In our family, talking about Jesus Christ was forbidden. But when perestroika began, allowing greater freedom to look at new ideas, my parents started to explore different religions and philosophies. My mother was president of the international friendship club at the school where she teaches English. She found a letter from a teacher in Riverton, Utah, who was looking for pen pals. My mother’s class responded, and in return they got a big box of maybe 100 letters. Many of the students mentioned they were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; my mother didn’t know what that was.
“Then we were passing by the bridge near our house, and we saw a notice inviting people to attend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! My parents decided to go, first so Mom could answer her students’ questions, but also because they were looking for another religion themselves.
“That was in October 1991. After that, the missionaries started coming to our apartment. Soon my parents understood that Jesus Christ is their Savior. They also loved the doctrine of eternal families. We have a wonderful family, and that was an important principle to us. They also went to a baptism and felt the Spirit. In December they decided to be baptized themselves.
“I listened to all of the discussions, but I couldn’t understand why my parents decided to join the Church. I was afraid they were crazy, that something had happened to their minds. But as I read the Book of Mormon, my testimony of its truthfulness grew stronger and stronger. The key to my conversion was that I came to realize I am truly loved by my Heavenly Father. I could feel this big love that’s around me and see it in my parents and in the members of the Church. That’s why I was baptized in February 1992. I knew it was right.”
Since then, Kira has helped bring her friend Lena into the Church and has watched three of her four grandparents embrace the gospel. She has seen her mother help with the translation of the Book of Mormon into Ukrainian and has witnessed her father serve as a district president. And Kira has served as a Relief Society president, contributing her own time and talents to the growth of the Church.
“The Gospel Saved Our Family”
Nikolas and Sergey Chemezov and their parents are also helping the Church grow. And they have seen their own family become closer and closer since embracing the restored gospel in 1992.
Of course, like all brothers, they have similarities and differences. Sergey is 20, Nik, 12; but Nik is the taller of the two. Nik is quiet; Sergey is bolder. Both are athletic, lift weights, and love helicopters. Both are musicians: Nik plays piano; Sergey, violin. Both love the gospel and all it stands for. And both are fiercely loyal to each other and to their parents, Sergey Sr. and Valia.
That loyalty was tested when Valia and the boys returned from an extended visit with her parents and found that Sergey Sr. was investigating the Church. But he persuaded them to listen to the missionaries, to learn what he was learning, and to give it a fair chance.
“I can say the gospel saved our family,” Sergey Jr. says. “I decided to be baptized because of the example of my father. I saw a very big change in him when he joined the Church. He became so nice, so loving. It was a testimony for me.”
“Before,” Sister Chemezov explains, “the family didn’t come first. But now we understand we are an eternal family, and we appreciate one another on a whole new level.”
“I used to think because I was the big brother, I always had to lead the way,” Sergey says. “But now when I stand next to Nik, I see that he is taller than I am. I know that sometimes he teaches me, that when I need help I can count on him.”
Nik has been there not only for Sergey but for his parents as well. “From the time he was baptized, he’s been saying, ‘I want to pass the sacrament; when can I start?’” Brother Chemezov explains. “That kind of excitement has strengthened our own testimonies and our faith. Helping other people and helping his family—Nik understands that’s what the priesthood is all about. He was very happy when he turned 12 and I ordained him a deacon.”
Nik was also happy when the family was sealed in the Freiberg Germany Temple. “After finishing the sessions, we had free time,” Brother Chemezov says. “Other people went to the city and went shopping. I asked the family, ‘Do you want to go to the city?’ and Nik said of the temple, ‘This place is so good; I don’t want to go to another place.’”
“The priesthood has the highest position in my life,” Nik says. “It helps me live as Jesus Christ says we should. I know if we will honor it, God will help us and make us better.”
That’s a reminder Sergey thinks of every day, especially now that he is serving full time in the Japan Tokyo North Mission. Nik, of course, hopes to someday follow his example.
Legend says Kyiv was founded by three fierce brothers, Kiy, Shchek, and Khoriv. But in the statue that memorializes them, their sister Lybed stands at the bow of the boat, arms outstretched and expression earnest. In this ancient place, her image could also represent the young Latter-day Saints of Ukraine. Eager to soar, they are already flying toward the future.