From Ukraine With Faith

From Ukraine With Faith

The words of Alma 38:4 have particular significance to Elder Kenneth McKenny, of Leduc, Alberta. “For I know that thou wast in bonds; yea, and I also know that thou wast stoned for the word’s sake; and thou didst bear all these things with patience because the Lord was with thee; and now thou knowest that the Lord did deliver thee” (emphasis added).

While Elder McKenney did not suffer the physical assaults that the Book of Mormon hero Shiblon received, he came close. In the case of the Leduc, Alberta elder and the army of missionaries with him, all were delivered without harm, though they found themselves in the middle of one of the world conflicts of 2014.
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His initial missionary assignment began in classic manner. “When I received the call, I was overwhelmed seeing my name on it,” he says. “I was shocked. I saw that I was to speak in Russian. I had tears on my face and then the Spirit confirmed to me that that is where I needed to go.”

That was the influence Elder McKenney felt at the opening of his mission assignment letter which would send him to the Ukraine Donetsk Mission. What a missionary’s letter does not explain is what will happen after he arrives.

Current news broadcasts now detail the protests, violence and military conflicts which besieged much of Ukraine. But Elder McKenney arrived before unrest erupted. For more than a year, he and his companion worked diligently learning the language, identifying how to approach Ukraine citizens and then testifying how the doctrine of Christ could enrich their lives.  “But after I had served in Donetsk for 15 months, things started to get bad,” he recalls. “We saw large groups of protesters and riots in front of major buildings, some of them near the mission office.”

What Elder McKenney and his fellow servants were witnessing unfolded in the aftermath of the Ukrainian Revolution. The nation’s president fled his country in February 2014. On March 3rd, citizens stormed the Donetsk Oblast administrative building, waving Russian flags and shouting, “Russia! Berkut are heroes!” As police retook the government buildings and authorities denounced the political status of Ukraine, the missionaries found themselves in the middle of the pro-Russian conflict in Ukraine.

As unrest escalated, Mission President Robert B. Lochhead sent messengers to inform all missionaries to pack their belongings and prepare to leave. “He had received word from the Brethren to take us out and move us to Kiev,” says Elder McKenney. “President Lochhead assured us that we would all be safe. ‘The Lord is in charge,’ he said. ‘He will take care of his missionaries and the Donetsk saints. Everything will be okay.’”
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The large entourage of elders and sisters boarded the train in the dark of night and the last pieces of luggage were hurried aboard. Then, the missionaries looked out the windows to see President and Sister Lockhead, and many of the Russian saints, waving goodbye.   

Before long, the train slowed to a stop. As the young men and women peered through the windows into the darkness, they saw another train travelling toward their beloved Donetsk, loaded with tanks, military trucks and men armed with weapons. “That made us feel very uneasy,” says Elder McKenney. “We worried about the members of the Church and the people of Donetsk. I prayed a lot, hard and long, for the members in Ukraine, for whom I have much love.”

Upon arriving in Kiev, Mission President Clebingat welcomed the displaced elders and sisters.  It was apparent though that this would not be their permanent new assignment. “We continued to pray and study and hope that we would see some sign of comfort,” remembers Elder McKenney. After a long month in stasis, the word came: all Donetsk missionaries were to pack for another emergency transfer. 

Before departing, the Lord’s refugee servants were gathered at a chapel near the temple on the outskirts of Kiev. “The mission president pulled out a folder with our names on it,” says Elder McKenney. “He reassured us that we were to go where the Lord wanted us at that time.”
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“Be glad for where you have served and rejoice,” counseled the president. “Be accepting and be happy where you are sent.” As he started calling names, missionaries sat with nervous attention. Soon, it became apparent to the group that each missionary was being reassigned to his or her homeland. “There were cheers,” said Elder McKenney. “Then it got to my name, and I was called to the Canada Halifax Mission. I almost jumped off my bench! I knew one of my friends from home was serving there.”

When Elder McKenney and another of his fellow Kiev missionaries arrived in Halifax, President Leavitt was there to welcome them. “We felt happy and warm. It felt like home,” he recalls.

Now, with only seven months of his missionary call remaining, the displaced elder had some renewed anxieties. “I remember feeling that I was not sure why I am here, though it felt right to come here when I was called. But I remembered the feeling that this is the right assignment for me to complete my mission. The Spirit confirmed that to me.”

Then he and his companion went to work. “We planned to knock doors on one street. At the first door we knocked, TJ answered and he asked us for a Book for Mormon. On the next Sunday, we got a call on the Church building's phone. It was TJ! He called the church to find us. He asked me for another copy of The Book of Mormon to give to his cousin. I was joyous and speechless, and then his next question was, ‘Can we meet today, right away?’” The pair of missionaries continued teaching the lessons to TJ and his cousin. “He is very humble and understanding. He’s one of those people whom the Lord has prepared.”
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After a transfer to Prince Edward Island, another area within his new mission, Elder McKenney reflected on how the challenges faced during his mission have helped prepare him for future service. “My favorite scripture that has helped me a lot on my mission is from Joshua 1:9. ‘Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.’'

“Unexpected changes come and go in life,” says Elder McKenney. “It is something that we must accept and overcome. But that is easier said than done, as I have experienced. We must first start with having faith in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Without Him, there would be no hope.  Having that faith in Him helps us overcome life's challenges and changes. There is much power that we can receive from the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”

“I know that the Lord loves every one of us and that he wants the best for us. I know that changes come into our lives for a reason. We may not understand that reason at first, but there is a reason. I know that we each have the capacity to accept change and become better from it. I know that God lives and that He is watching over us. I know that this is true and I know that the Lord is with us always.”