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My Christian life: A journey from Ukraine to the United States

From Ukraine to the United States, God watches over his children through good and bad times.

Fifteen-odd years ago, a little boy in Ukraine stood confidently in front of a room filled with people and began to recite a poem by Taras Shevchenko. He knew his lines. He knew his voice.

He didn’t know that his voice would take him to the United States to share the gospel as a pastor. He didn’t know his hometown would be ravaged by war after he was gone. He didn’t know his future wife would capture the likeness of each of his family members to tell the story of God’s grace in their lives, that she would use the poet Shevchenko’s words as the title of her art showcase (see sidebar). There was a lot that Kostiantyn (Kostia) Skorenkyi didn’t know as he began his recitation all those years ago, but his story is one that only a God who holds the world in his hands could imagine.

Exploring his passions

Kostia’s family knew that he was capable of great things—he just had to decide where to focus his attention. His childhood was filled with martial arts, music lessons, forensics competitions, and even a brief foray into the world of dance—his father’s profession. Kostia’s parents saw the way he wore his passion on his sleeve, no matter what he was doing. They encouraged him in all sorts of different avenues, all the while pointing him to God, who gave him his gifts in the first place.

Kostia and his family were members of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church (ULC), a church in fellowship with WELS. Kostia remembers his mother poring over the pages of Scripture or taking him and his sister to volunteer for church events. His parents’ faith was a constant in his young life. However, he admits that the gospel seed didn’t fully take root in his heart until years later. “I was in a family of Christians, but I didn’t know what I believed,” Kostia says. “I went to church on Sunday and then resumed normal life . . . the two weren’t the same for me.”

God was working in Kostia’s life then, even if he didn’t see it.

Finding his purpose

During Kostia’s sophomore year of high school, WELS representatives visited Ukraine to celebrate the construction of a new ULC church in Kyiv. When the church was looking for a young man to recite a poem at the dedication, Kostia’s mother volunteered him. “It was a beautiful poem—I remember a bunch of older women started crying,” Kostia says. “After the service, two of the WELS pastors came up to me and asked, ‘Have you ever considered coming to America to study for ministry?’ I answered honestly that I hadn’t. They continued, ‘Have you ever gone to a Christian school?’ My answer was the same. I didn’t realize it at the time, but God changed my life that day.”

After no small amount of persuasion, Kostia found himself on another continent at Luther Preparatory School, Watertown, Wis., surrounded by people from a different world. All at once, the promise of a land of opportunity was exchanged for an avalanche of culture shock, a language barrier, and the loss of all the comforts of home. He was convinced that it would be a one-year adventure. “I was focused on practicing judo! I didn’t want to leave my life behind for anything,” he says. “I figured I’d go to America, study English for a year, and then come back to resume life as I knew it.”

But what happened when he returned to Kyiv that summer was not what he expected. He sat in the pews of his home church and heard the gospel come to life. “It felt like I understood what the pastor was saying for the first time,” Kostia remembers. “All those days spent in the Word at Luther Prep, and I didn’t realize how much the Holy Spirit was working on my heart until I was home.” He had to go back. He had to learn more.

The following August, a different Kostia showed up on campus. For the first time, he found himself craving spiritual food. Suddenly, the classmates who seemed so foreign before were companions on a quest to know the Savior of the world better. Kostia’s lifelong search for his “thing,” for true purpose and meaning, brought him to the only One who can satisfy. “Everything that brought fulfillment to my life was stripped away all at once,” says Kostia. “All I had left was Jesus, and he was enough.”

The Holy Spirit was working powerfully in Kostia’s heart. The faith he learned from his parents growing up had become his own.

man with family
Left to right: Kostia when he was young with his family in Ukraine. After attending Luther Preparatory School, Watertown, Wis., Kostia decided to study to become a pastor. He graduated from Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minn., in 2023 (shown with his parents). After graduating, he spent a year serving as a dorm supervisor at St. Croix Lutheran Academy, working with international students. Kostia will be attending Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in the fall.

Trust during trials

But just a few years later, his faith would face its biggest test yet. “My parents woke up to the sound of explosions,” he says. “Not sirens . . . real helicopters, real missiles, and real explosions.”

In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine—the bubbling over of a conflict that had been simmering for the better part of a decade. Kostia was in New Ulm, Minn., at the time, a junior in the preseminary program at Martin Luther College. Most students in his program were preoccupied with Hebrew quizzes and the memorization of their first chapel devotion, but Kostia was haunted instead by the last words he’d heard from his mother over the phone. “If something happens to us,” she had said, “make sure you take care of your sister.”

Petro and Alla, Kostia’s parents, were separated almost as soon as war broke out in the town where they had raised their children. The couple was in a car, prepared to flee the city before another airstrike could put them in further danger. They had family in West Ukraine, which would position them farther from the Russian soldiers encroaching from the East. As they were departing, however, Petro felt obligated to stay behind to protect what was theirs in Kyiv. The coming days would see him put his life on the line, helping others who wanted to flee to safety and driving supplies to the front lines. It was not until Russian troops were rumored to be at the bridge just across town that Petro finally made his escape and reunited with his wife. They sought safe haven in Munich.

A short time later, they decided to emigrate to the United States to be closer to their children. Today, Petro and Alla have a new life in Sleepy Eye, Minn. Martin Luther College sponsored their passage to the United States and assisted them as they looked for jobs. Kostia’s sister Yeva is studying dance in New York, and Kostia and his wife, Abby, live in West St. Paul, Minn., where Kostia just finished serving as dorm supervisor at St. Croix Lutheran Academy, while Abby completed her senior year at Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato, Minn.

Serving through life

These days, Kostia often looks back at the tapestry of his life, overwhelmed by the ways that God consistently wove all the triumphs and challenges together for good. From the culture shock of switching high schools that revealed where true security is found to a war that left a family with nothing but their Savior and each other, God consistently proved his faithfulness. “I never would have asked for these trials for my family,” Kostia says. “But God used the good things and the bad things to open doors for us and to bring us closer to him. It’s more beautiful than we could have imagined.”

Kostia plans to talk about the goodness of God for as long as he has breath in his lungs. This fall, he and Abby will move to Mequon, Wis., where he will resume his pastoral studies at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He hasn’t lost his fire for learning more about the Word and how God continues to love his people. Kostia’s life is a powerful testimony—living proof that what an all-powerful, all-loving God has in store for us surpasses all understanding.

Author: Cameron Schroeder
Volume 111, Number 07
Issue: July 2024

Communicating through art

Abby Skorenkyi had no idea when she met Kostia at her high school graduation that they would someday be married, much less that she would be able to use her art to tell the story of his family’s flight from the Russo-Ukrainian War. “It feels like it’s my duty to capture their story in the most beautiful way I can,” Abby said when her senior capstone showcase at Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato, Minn., was featured on the local news.

woman in red shirt painting
Abby Skorenkyi working on one of her paintings.

Abby believes that art has the power to tell stories and share truth on a level that words can’t always accomplish. “Through the use of color, composition, and your choice of imagery, you can invite people on a journey to discover a message,” says Abby. “In this case, I communicated how one family found hope and love for the Creator, even while walking through loss and pain. The visual language is universal—communicating across cultural backgrounds, just like a storybook you read as a child.”

When it came time to choose a title for her capstone project, Abby selected some words from Taras Shevchenko—the same Ukrainian poet whose work Kostia often recited as a child—“Everything has passed, but not all is lost.” The showcase featured six larger-than-life paintings that introduced viewers to the members of the Skorenkyi family as they were seen in the days following the Russian invasion. The paintings range from Petro driving to the front lines to Kostia’s grandma and her sister, who still live in Ukraine and face the horrors of war daily.

Abby hopes that her art shines a light on the tragedy of an ongoing struggle on the other side of the world as well as the grace of our God, who is good even when our circumstances are not. “The Skorenkyis demonstrated strong faith and hope in their Savior, even in the darkest of trials,” she says. “Even through the pain, God was there. They clung to him, and he held them in his hands.”

More of Abby Skorenkyi’s paintings:

Abby Skorenkyi art_1

Abby Skorenkyi art_4

Abby Skorenkyi art_6

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This entry is part 1 of 53 in the series my christian life

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