Thousands Commit to Christ at Hope Festival in Ukraine
People hear message of hope in the midst of war
PLANNING THE FESTIVAL OF HOPE
While the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) focused in on Ukraine as a location for a Festival of Hope event even before its war with Russia began, the tenuous situation there was one of the reasons the Franklin Graham-led organization felt the message of hope needed to come to Ukraine next.
MIWC partnered with the BGEA to provide a choir and orchestra last summer at its festival in Tblisi, Georgia.
On the heels of that Georgia experience, the BGEA brought MIWC Associate and Ukrainian Serhiy Bilokin on board full time last fall, charging him with developing a 2,500-member choir that would include representatives from 10 regions in western Ukraine, and having it ready for a June 20, 2015 Festival of Hope in L'viv.
Bilokin uprooted his family and moved them to L'viv to began the task of recruiting and training choir members. He met with local pastors and leaders of Christian ministry organizations, working with the music ministers in each region to find the voices needed to fill the L'viv stadium.
As he spoke with those of different denominations, Bilokin encountered some serious opposition along the way. Some leaders did not want their members participating, while others criticized the style of music to be used – both traditional and contemporary.
For months, as battles cropped up between military troops in the east, Satan waged spiritual battles against the BGEA team in the west.
"One of the biggest challenges," said MIWC President Stephen Benham, "is to preserve unity in the church. The devil wants to destroy that and worked incredibly hard to destroy unity in the music."
Other MIWC associates, Oleksandr Kreshchuk and Vitaliy Bolgar, worked to train the K'yiv choirs for the festival, as Bilokin traveled the western part of the country recruiting and holding rehearsals throughout the winter and spring.
By the time Benham arrived in Ukraine in late May, Bilokin had not found 2,500 voices.
He had found 2,800.
THE FESTIVAL BEGINS
Going on two-to-three hours of sleep a night and on the brink of exhaustion, Bilokin's days leading up to the festival were nothing less than intense. He and other volunteers made thousands of phone calls to confirm festival participation and searched citywide for housing for more than 2,000 people.
Bilokin and Benham traveled by car through the night, holding last minute rehearsals and outreach events in every region. They never knew when the reality of the war would creep in, whether it was someone called up to serve, or someone whose home was destroyed by the fighting.
Hundreds of refugees participated in the orchestra and choir, Benham said, providing incredible inspiration that one could still have hope in such a dark time.
The stadium crew hosting the event braced itself for a capacity crowd, the venue having the ability to hold 36,000 people.
Instead, 39,000 showed up.
The standing room only crowd led to people sitting on the field and standing in aisles and walkways.
During the days immediately leading up to the June 20th event, it had rained and stormed. When Franklin Graham took to the podium and gave the call, the skies opened up with sunshine.
One could not help but notice, Benham said, the parallels between the fight for freedom from political oppression and the fight for freedom from spiritual oppression. Even the mayor of L'viv spoke to the crowd and gave a clear testimony for worshiping and submitting to God.
So many people came forward to receive or recommit to Christ, that the BGEA ran out of printed materials.
The choir and orchestra performed together with Michael W. Smith, Huntley Brown and other Christian artists.
Smith (picture courtesy Anatoliy Yakobchuk) said he was, "so blessed to be able to work with Stephen Benham in the countries of Georgia and Ukraine. What a gift he has in pulling together choirs and leading them so well. "
Choir members said the experience was overwhelming, calling it the highlight of their life and ministries. Many said they learned much they could bring back to their ministries at home, including practical knowledge about conducting, singing and using the choir in church ministry.
MIWC supporters enabled much of this to take place, including providing financing to support Bilokin and his family, as well as Benham's travel. With the Ukrainian economy plummeting in the last year, costs ran incredibly high, leaving MIWC with a budget deficit for this project.
Huntley Brown said, "The impact of MIWC is one for the ages. [MIWC] has made a major deposit in heaven and one day you will hear the words, well done good and faithful servants. Putting a group together like we did for the Festival is not an easy task. The reason Steve and Serhiy were able to do that is due to the support of your donors and the countless hours of time they put in. Saying I was impressed would be the understatement of the year."
Please pray not only for the new and renewed believers who came forward during the Festival of Hope, but for the families of the ministry leaders – the leaders who spent so much energy and time away from their families and homes to make the event possible. Pray for their spiritual renewal and rest and that they will receive the support and encouragement they need.
"The greatest impact from this event," said Benham, "are the results of lives transformed in Christ. It was the tears on the faces of the unbelievers who experienced true hope for the first time next to the tears on the faces of the believers who realized the hope is not in vain and that God is doing a great spiritual work in their country."