The nearly 100 steps up four flights of stairs to the beautiful chapel of the Novo-Darnytska Branch meetinghouse are as much a testament to the hearty members who meet here as they are a sign of the rising Church in Ukraine.
People throughout Ukraine are embracing the gospel in a country steeped in old-world traditions and skepticism. Located on Russia's southwestern border, Ukraine is a vast country sometimes overshadowed by Moscow. Yet, here, gospel seeds are falling in rich soil of faith.
Eleven years ago, the Church was unknown in this former Soviet Republic. Now, there are 2,700 members in the capital city. In all Ukraine, 8,000 members are organized into 54 branches and two missions.
"The Church in Ukraine is growing steadily," said President William West of the Ukraine Kiev Mission. "The members are eager to learn and progress in gospel understanding and spirituality. There are more than 1,000 temple recommend holders, and buses take members to the temple in Germany every month. It is a trip that takes nearly 30 hours in each direction.
"Church leaders in the branches and districts are diligent and anxious to organize the full program of the Church. They look forward to the creation of a stake in Kiev. I get requests nearly every week from members who want patriarchal blessings, which can only happen in a stake.
"The Ukranian people have a long legacy of Christian belief," President West continued. "They are well-educated, well-read, and open to gospel learning. They become wonderful, obedient Church members. They are diligently praying for, and inquiring about, the progress of the temple in Kiev."
On a Sunday afternoon prior to President Gordon B. Hinckley's visit to Ukraine on Sept. 9, more than 110 members of the Novo-Darnytska Branch gathered for branch conference.
Among the congregation were Olena and Anatoliy Vivcharyuk and their six children. Two years ago they were looking for spiritual answers. Following their country's independence, they investigated various religions but felt no need to be baptized. "I didn't feel anything inside," said Brother Vivcharyuk, the father.
Missionaries knocked on their door one day. "Something inside me said I should let them in," he said. The family accepted an invitation to attend Church. There they noticed people smiling and felt a happy spirit.
"Everytime the missionaries came, I felt that good spirit," Brother Vivcharyuk said. "We remember Elder Johnson with his glasses, and Elder McKinley who was tall. We saw in their eyes that they loved our family more and more."
The parents were baptized first. Anatoliy was soon ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood and baptized his children. "Now, it's really good for us as a family," he said.
This same miracle of conversion is repeated in each of the lives of these first-generation members. Natasha Shelyakina is a sister missionary who served in Kiev.
She joined the Church four years ago after her attempts to destroy the faith of the missionaries became the catalyst to building her own faith.
"I was studying at the university when I learned about an English course taught by the missionaries," she said. "I attended and started to argue with them over religion and felt to destroy their faith. One elder was Ukrainian. He understood life here and helped me understand the gospel. My questions that other churches couldn't answer were answered in the Book of Mormon. I joined within a year. My brother is now serving a mission in London, England."
Today, Sister Shelyakina serves as Young Women president over 30 young women in the branch.
"Most are first-generation members," she said. "Few of their parents are members. They come because of their testimonies. One young lady is very popular because of her personality and has many friends. They try to influence her, but she uses every opportunity to share her testimony with them. Her mother and sister were baptized because of her."
Tetyana Chernobay, second counselor in the branch Young Women presidency, also joined the Church four years ago. She became intrigued with the Church after seeing the missionaries. Each morning, as she left her apartment for school, missionaries who lived in the area waved to her. After a while, they introduced themselves and invited to their English class, then to Church.
"I felt in my heart that this was the only true Church," she said.
She was accepted as a foreign exchange student and lived with a family in Utah County during her senior year in high school.
"One day our Young Women's group was in the Salt Lake Temple doing baptisms for the dead when President Hinckley walked by," she said. "I'll never forget shaking his hand."
When the branch conference ended that afternoon, some members of the branch scurried across Kiev to the Voskresenska Branch meetinghouse to attend the baptism of a 20-year-old student. The meetinghouse is one of several meetinghouses remodeled and dedicated by the Church in Ukraine. Many branches meet in rented facilities. The baptism that evening was one of three that day.
Seated in the baptismal congregation was Boris and Alla Vyshnevska and their 12-year-old daughter, Maria, from the Kharkskiy Branch.
They joined the Church during the summer of 1994 after being taught by three sets of missionaries.
Brother Vyshnevska learned of the Church on the street one day when a stranger offered him a copy of the Book of Mormon. "I like to read," he said, so he accepted the book.
Several months passed. "I had forgotten about the conversation when I met the missionaries one day. I recognized their book and invited them to teach us."
"The Church made our family happy," he said. "Each one in our family serves in some capacity."
After much investigation, Brother Vyshnevska said he was unable to find the stranger to thank him for preparing him for the gospel.
On the night before the member meeting, Andrey and Dasha Danko climbed on the train with their two boys, Evan and Petro, at 8 p.m. and traveled during the night from Lutsk, in western Ukraine, to arrive in Kiev by 6 a.m. They could have taken a more convenient train, but the late arrival time would have jeopardized their attending the member meeting with President Hinckley.
So they arrived early and walked to the mission office. They spent the day strolling the streets until they could enter The Ukranian Palace, where the member meeting was held that evening. By then, the boys, ages 7 and 9, were exhausted and slumped over their chairs asleep until President Hinckley arrived.
The cost of four train tickets was $28, which is roughly equal to the average monthly income in Ukraine. "The cost doesn't matter," said Brother Danko. "It's worth the trip. The prophet may come to Ukraine only once in my lifetime. I want to be there."
The Dankos joined the Church four years ago. Brother Danko was soon called as a Sunday School teacher, then several months later, as branch president.
Also on the train from the Lutsk Branch was 18-year-old Olga Korolchuk who wanted to commemorate her one-year anniversary in the Church by attending the member meeting. "My friends and I testified to people on the train that President Gordon B. Hinckley is a prophet," she said. "I think it helps them to understand what we believe. One young man showed interest and wrote his phone number."
The city of Kiev is a sprawling metropolis that is divided by the beautiful Dnipro River. The right bank of the river is hilly and offers scenic views of the expansive left bank. It's a city with a rich past. Once the cradle of Slavic civilization in the 9th-11th centuries, Kiev has also been a protectorate of Mongolia, a provincial capital in the Soviet Union, and a Nazi battleground before its current role in an independent Ukraine.
Much has changed in the decade since the country gained its independence. Many cars on the street have been imported from the West and replace the Soviet models. Those who know the city say Kiev is slowly shaking off the gray Soviet image. Members are proud of their city and express their appreciation for living in Ukraine.
"You are pioneers like the pioneers who followed Brigham Young to the West," said President Kay H. Christensen of the Ukraine Donetsk Mission. Speaking during the member meeting with President Hinckley, he reminded members that "pioneers face challenges."
"In as much as you pioneers are faithful, God will bless you in the land
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