SALISBURY — Between checking the TV and his phone, Jeff Richards has been struggling to focus on just about anything else lately.
Richards, who lives in Salisbury, is the pastor of the Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church in Statesville. He has been in ministry since the late 1970s and has presided over churches in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. He also ventured abroad, teaching and preaching in many foreign countries.
In 2011, Richards made his first mission trip to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. He returned nine times to the city and befriended students and other clergy there. Most of his time in Ukraine was at the Gospel Church, a Baptist church, and the Kiev Regional Bible College.
Watching Russia invade the country across the ocean news, Richards was glued to his phone waiting for the latest updates from his friends in Kiev.
“It’s heartbreaking because I really consider them family,” Richards said.
Text messages he received from friends in Kyiv came with a clear message: “They pretty much intend to stay.”
His friends didn’t express much fear either, despite the Russian attacks on their town.
“I’m going to text and they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, we’re fine. We’re going to stay,” Richard said. “They will never say, ‘We are afraid. Please pray. It’s just not their makeup.
Their decision to remain in a beleaguered country comes as no surprise to Richards. The unflappable nationalism in Kyiv was the first thing that struck him when he first visited the city.
“One thing I immediately understood was how much they love Ukraine,” Richards said.
And, he said, how much they hate Russian control.
On subsequent trips to the country, Richards learned of their politics and experienced the religion, culture, and climate. The springs are beautiful and the winters cold, like those Richards experienced growing up in Minnesota. The food, he says, is delicious. The music: incomparable.
“Their musicians rival the best orchestra I have attended here in America and their soloists are exceptional,” said Richards.
He describes the people he met there, especially those from Gospel Church and Bible College, as gentle, but powerful.
Not fluent in Russian or Ukrainian, Richards relied on an interpreter when traveling. They helped him teach Bible lessons to future preachers and deliver sermons at Gospel Church.
“You have to get used to that a bit,” Richards said.
Because he grew up a Baptist, Richards said he could recognize the melody of hymns sung in church, but he could only nod as those around him sang the lyrics.
His familiarity and fondness for Ukraine, coupled with his concern for his friends, made it difficult for Richards to bear some of the scenes he saw in the news. The images of bombed-out condominiums and injured civilians are particularly stark.
“I actually just got teary eyed seeing the footage,” Richards said.
In 2018, the Alliance Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Gospel Church officially became sister churches, sharing spiritual guidance with each other and occasional financial support.
The Covenant congregation prays weekly for the Gospel Church. The words of these prayers will carry a little more weight as the fighting continues. Richards said the church has also started a prayer channel for Ukraine and will pray for the Russian people as well.
Richards last visited Kyiv in May 2019. He preached on Jonah and told the congregation to heed the call the first time and be ready to follow the Lord’s example.
As Russia pushes into Kyiv, Richards said he expects communication with his friends to be cut off soon. In the meantime, he will continue to pray and keep up to date with the news.
Richards is optimistic that he will be able to travel to Kyiv again in the foreseeable future.