LVIV, Ukraine — The Watertown exchange student who recently spent a night in a bomb shelter with his family in Ukraine has fled from one of th…
P. Ewan McFadden had his faith forged as a disciple in Adams.
“Mom and dad raised me in the church,” he said, recalling how his parents, John B. and Shirley P. McFadden, are longtime communicants of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on East Church Street.
“The church and the people there helped me to understand how important faith in God is,” Ewan said. “It really helped me to begin to live a life of faith. It gave me a great foundation. That’s where I began to see what it means to love and serve God.”
After college, Mr. McFadden elevated his faith by tackling challenges, including serving as a missionary in Ukraine for two years and in Russia for eight years. Now, as he sees those countries being devastated — Ukraine physically with bombs and brutality and Russia economically through sanctions — it’s a tale of two countries that is especially distressing for him.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” Mr. McFadden said in a phone interview from his home in Denver, where he now lives with his wife and their four children, and where, these days, he said he appreciates coming home and seeing his family, “in a warm house with four walls and a roof.”
Mr. McFadden still keeps in touch with friends he made in Ukraine and Russia.
“They’re sending updates over email and social media,” he said.
From Mariupol, Ukraine, the besieged port city on the Sea of Azov that was once home to 430,000 people and where Russian attacks have caused a humanitarian crisis, Mr. McFadden learned from a former ministry contact, Pyotr, sad news about Pyotr’s brother.
“His brother, the father of the household, went out for water because they’re sheltering in place, and was killed,” Mr. McFadden said. “I’m not sure if it was by gunshot or artillery. But now, three children have no father and his wife has no husband.”
Scores of Ukrainians have died in the city, with many bodies buried in mass graves.
From Russia, Mr. McFadden said he received a powerful image representing peace.
“They cut off Facebook, but my friend wrote on Facebook the other day,” he said. “I don’t know how he’s able to get around that. Maybe through a VPN or something like that.”
VPNs — virtual private networks — can be used to encrypt online data and mask locations of online activity.
“He’s just someone who is praying for peace,” Mr. McFadden said.
The Russian friend, Mr. McFadden said, sent him a link to a CNN story: From Kharkiv, Ukraine, correspondent Clarissa Ward witnessed a group of people kneeling, praying for peace in the town square hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“That was a real powerful image to me, that these Russian women would be praying for that,” Mr. McFadden said. “And he also just writes that he prays for peace and an end to hostility.”
faith and hope
The Christian bonds that Mr. McFadden has developed in the two countries has helped him to keep his faith that peace and sanity will eventually prevail, despite what he, and the rest of the world, are now witnessing.
“We don’t have tanks going down our streets or soldiers with AK-47s pointing at our heads,” he said. “So, it’s a real blessing to have freedom and safety. But at the same time, even with all that devastation, I believe that the Ukrainian people and the Russian people are going to pull through this. They’re resilient. They’re going to come back out and are going to keep that hope alive, and their faith in God is going to draw them through this.”
Joining a ‘Crusade’
Mr. McFadden, a 1996 graduate of South Jefferson Central School District, was drawn to Christian missionary work when be began attending Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Within two weeks, he became involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, now simply known as Cru. It was founded in 1951 and its ministries now serve throughout the U.S. and world. Its official mission statement: “Our purpose is helping to fulfill the Great Commission in the power of the Holy Spirit by winning people to faith in Jesus Christ, building them in their faith and sending them to win and build others.”
Mr. McFadden saw it as an extension of the faith he originally developed and practiced in Adams.
“It was kind of a continuation of that faith tradition,” Mr. McFadden said. “It was exciting to see young people getting out there and talking about their faith, talking about the Lord, reading the Bible and just making a difference in the world.”
After earning a degree in environmental studies in 2000, Mr. McFadden was told he could make a difference by leading a Cru missionary team in Odessa, Ukraine.
“My first thought was, ‘No, I don’t really want to go,’” he said. “I thought about it for a couple of weeks and eventually thought, ‘Why would I not go? This is such an adventure and it should be exciting.’”
He knew only a little about the country.
“I just basically knew that it was a former Soviet country and right next door to Russia. I think I knew three or four words of Russian before I got there, which was mainly what they spoke at the time. I had to learn the language from the ground up,” he said.
Mr. McFadden left for Odessa in July 2000 with five other students from Missouri colleges. The team was in Ukraine for two years, with a main mission of hosting English language camps.
“We did travel up to Kyiv quite a bit, as well as other parts of the country,” Mr. McFadden said. “We didn’t get over to the west part of the country. It was two full years, with bigger groups in the summer.”
He recalled the thriving summer English language camps that attracted up to 200 Ukrainian students.
“But we’d also study the Bible with people who were interested and were involved in local churches there as well,” Mr. McFadden said. “We met all kinds of people, just like here in the U.S. There were kind of the hard-line atheists, typically the older generation. I had a lot of interviews in taxi cabs, just driving around with guys, as we would talk about the Lord and they would be somewhat interested. But then, they’d say, ‘Well, I was raised in Soviet times, so I’m atheist, so I can’t believe in God.’”
According to the CIA World Fact Book, Russia officially recognizes Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism as the country’s traditional religions. However, the nation has large populations of nonpracticing believers and nonbelievers, a legacy of over seven decades of official atheism under Soviet Union rule from 1922 to 1991. The most popular religion is Russian Orthodox Christianity practiced by about 15% to 20% of the population.
“The younger generations were very hungry to read the Bible, think about God, think about ‘is there life after death?’ the meaning of life — all those interesting questions,” Mr. McFadden said.
He said that while he was in Ukraine, there was no sense that Russia was pushing to take over the country, formerly known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Ukraine became independent in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR. There was more movement away from Russian ties during the presidential election of 2004 and its Orange Revolution that brought Ukraine to the brink of collapse and civil war.
“The people clearly showed they really did not want closer ties with Moscow, especially through a corrupt election,” Mr. McFadden said. “Russia has always tried to be the bigger brother of Ukraine, and is now trying to force itself onto Ukraine. But we see Ukrainians standing firm and trying to resist that. They want to be their own nation. That’s the bottom line.”
Ukraine, Mr. McFadden said, is a country with a very “hopeful attitude.”
“It’s a hopeful spirit,” he said. “One guy described it to me as the land of poets. They have a deep soul and they think deeply about life. Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen them trying to move forward. They don’t want to move backwards.”
Mr. McFadden is trying to maintain his own hope as he witnesses images of death and destruction in the country.
“It’s been horrifying,” he said. “It’s one thing to see people struggle with a hurricane or other natural disaster, but this is brought on intentionally and by your closest neighbor. It’s just absolutely gut-wrenching.”
Cru still has a presence in Ukraine, with its missionaries caught in the middle. According to its website, Cru has over 120 Ukrainian national staff members. Some have been able to leave the country. As people flee the country, missionaries in the surrounding areas are receiving them. An emergency fund has been established by Cru to help address the situation.
Dedicated to mission
Mr. McFadden returned to the U.S. from Ukraine in 2002. In Orlando, Florida, that year at a Cru staff training conference, he met Jodi N. Harrington, a native of Colorado Springs, Colo. Jodi had served two years as a Cru missionary in China. They were wed in December 2003. The couple now has four children, ages 9, 12, 14 and 17.
The couple returned to Ukraine in 2018 for a ministry conference.
“Sam (17) and Andrew (14) have been in Ukraine with us, and all of the kids lived with us while we were in Russia,” Mr. McFadden said.
Ewan and Jodi did some Cru missionary work after they married, including at the University of Missouri.
“That was our first ministry project while we were married,” Mr. McFadden said. “But we always had a dream to go back overseas. That eventually led us to go to Russia in 2005.”
The couple remained in the country for eight years, returning to the U.S. in 2013.
Mr. McFadden said their children benefited from the experience by learning some of the Russian language and experiencing what life in a different country is like.
“They also got to experience meeting all sorts of different people,” he said. “On any given night, we might have a college student from Turkey or Mongolia or Tajikistan over for dinner. It was really fun to show the kids that they can connect with anyone, and that each person has a story to tell.”
Mr. McFadden said he could have gone to two other locations for Cru: Madrid, Spain, or Santiago, Chile. But he selected Russia.
“I have a love for Eastern Europe and Russia,” he said. “That whole part of the world fascinates me. There’s so much rich culture there and history and the people are fascinating to me.”
The McFaddens first served in Krasnodar, a city in southern Russia, for four years. They were later assigned to the area around St. Petersburg, port city on the Baltic Sea.
“Primarily, we would teach English at different times and offer that as a service and then we were able to meet students and see if they were interested in reading the Bible with us and hearing more about the faith,” Mr. McFadden said. “For some of them, it was actually just deepening the faith they already had as Orthodox believers.”
As in Ukraine, the Cru missionaries favored asking questions.
“We weren’t trying to force anyone to believe one way or another,” Mr. McFadden said. “Of course, we want them to believe in the Lord, but in the end, it was up to them.”
In addition to conversations, the Cru team hosted summer programs and sporting events.
“We just kept really busy and had a blast,” Mr. McFadden said. “In every student who comes along, you just see the future of the country. Those are the future leaders. It was fun to watch each one of them make the decisions that are going to guide their whole life and shape the future of the nation.”
But after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, that future may be bleak.
“Unfortunately, you always have the good versus evil struggle and not everyone is good,” Mr. McFadden said. “When I think about the students we worked with, I’m incredibly hopeful and encouraged of how they turned out and are turning out. And then, there’s just other people who are in charge and have power and making just terrible decisions that are destroying peoples’ lives, literally.”
Mr. McFadden often thinks about his friends in Russia.
“Ironically, they are getting hurt, not as much as the people in Ukraine, but by their government’s decisions,” he said. “They’re being hurt by these sanctions and having trouble getting money out of their banks and the price of food I’m sure is going up. So the good people on both sides are getting hurt, and for what?”
It seems the two countries will continue to be at war for the foreseeable future. Mr. McFadden may have faith things will somehow work out, but it could be a long haul to get to that point.
“Fortunately, and unfortunately, both the Russian and Ukrainian people know how to suffer,” he said. “That’s a huge part of their history. They know how to persevere. So, they’ll get through it. But, what a cost.”
In Denver, Mr. McFadden works as business development manager at The Master’s Craft Real Wood Floors. Mr. McFadden and his boss met in Ukraine and he said the company is involved in a lot of charity work. A trip to Poland could be in his future. Poland is where the majority of Ukrainians displaced by Russia’s invasion have fled.
“There will likely be an opportunity for me to go over there and lend a hand,” Mr. McFadden said. “I’m not sure I’m going to, but I definitely want to. They’re asking for help for people to man some of the shelters there and hand out food and supplies and coordinate the transportation of refugees to other places in Europe where they can stay for more long-term housing.”