Back 'where God wants me,' Jacksonville missionary returns 'home' in war-torn Ukraine

Back 'where God wants me,' Jacksonville missionary returns 'home' in war-torn Ukraine

Updated: 17 days, 13 hours, 20 minutes, 25 seconds ago

Back 'where God wants me,' Jacksonville missionary returns 'home' in war-torn Ukraine

Power outages frequently cut off heat and water, but Kathy Gould is 'where God wants me'play

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Ukrainian interior minister killed in helicopter crash in Kyiv suburb

Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi was killed in a helicopter crash near Kyiv. The cause of the crash is currently unknown.

Cody Godwin, USA TODAY

For five months Kathy Gould was safe in her native U.S., but her heart and soul remained in war-torn Ukraine.

Gould, a Jacksonville-based missionary, spent almost 30 years in Ukraine where she runs a child-services nonprofit called ABC's of Life. After the Russian invasion in February 2022, she fled to the U.S. but prayed daily that she would be able to return to her adopted homeland.

On July 28 she was back on Ukrainian soil.

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"It was very difficult to watch what was happening in Ukraine from afar," she said. "I was trying to help Ukrainians and educate and explain things to Americans. I would be up during the night talking, texting with Ukrainians, finding out what they need, crying with them, praying with them, giving advice and encouraging them and then at 7 or 8 a.m. Americans would contact me about different things. 

"I was quite exhausted. I really wanted to return home to Ukraine," she said. "The whole time I was in America, I was thinking about when I could return."

War in Ukraine 'in different stage now'

After the Russian invasion, she left for her own safety, as an American, and that of her staff, who at the time could face trouble for helping an American. The U.S. consulate had suspended services in Ukraine and recommended Americans in the country depart if it was possible to safely do so.

"Back in the beginning of the war, there was a person who had unique insights into the situation who had advised me to leave Ukraine stating that the Ukrainians I was around would be at risk if I was there," she said.

But by June that person's advice had changed, Gould said. "The war was in a different stage now and that was no longer a concern," she said. "I almost jumped with joy."

Gould also asked one of her staff, Vova Fedorovich, if he felt her presence would put him and others in danger, and he said no. She bought her plane tickets the same day.

"Kathy's returning to Ukraine meant returning somewhat to a normal life," Fedorovich said. "Since Kathy's been back — and even before because she gave things to do in advance of her coming — she has been keeping all of us involved with a lot of work that is needed here in Ukraine. We feel like we are doing something. Even with the war, this ministry is very needed and we are all a part of helping others and doing things that are very needed in Ukraine right now."

Gould said she is now back "where God wants me."

"I am called to be here," she said. "Also, honestly, the reactions of Ukrainians when they see me here, when I could be elsewhere, helps me to understand how important it is that I am here, trusting and following God."

Gould's love affair with Ukraine began in 1992 when she briefly visited as part of a mission trip sponsored by her home church, First Baptist of Jacksonville. When an opportunity arose in 1993 to go there as a permanent missionary, she completed her teaching certificate and relocated.

The ABC's of Life provides financial and in-person support for a ministry that serves at-risk children in the Zhitomer region about two hours west of Kyiv. The nonprofit also organizes church-based Sunday school and pre-school programs for children and evangelistic outreach called Family Festivals.

Numerous North Florida churches support her work, including First Baptist, which has provided funding and prayer. During her time in the U.S., many of the downtown church's members meet with her when she provides ministry updates.

"The Christian faith has spread throughout the millenniumin spite of risk and danger because we believe that the message that Jesus is the world’s only Savior is one that is worth spreading whatever the cost," Senior Pastor Heath Lambert said. "Kathy’s commitment to preach the gospel in the Ukraine despite the danger is a wonderful example of this fundamental Christian commitment."

Another of her lifelines back home is the Jacksonville-based Christians in Alliance mission board, which provides logistical and financial backing for Gould and other missionaries serving worldwide. The board is a group of business owners "who have a passion for foreign missions," board secretary Scott Williams said, and several members have visited Ukraine and volunteered with Gould's ministry.

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"The work Kathy has done in Ukraine over the years is remarkable. God has allowed parts of the world to hear the good news of the Gospel that have never heard it until recently," he said. "Kathy’s willingness to return to Ukraine in spite of the danger of the present situation makes me think of Acts 1:8 where the disciples are told they 'will be witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.' God has called Kathy to be his witness in Ukraine, something she has devoted most of her adult life to."

Ukrainians resilient, despite ongoing war

On July 26 Gould began the two-day journey back that required flying into Poland then being driven to the Ukraine city of Lviv near the country's western border. As Fedorovich drove her from Lviv to her Kyiv apartment, she observed stark reminders of the war.

"We saw the remnants of some businesses and houses. There were military checkpoints along the way and when we stopped for gas, bathroom and lunch, we could not enter the gas station because there was an air raid alert that was active," she said. "As we approached Kyiv, we traveled through an area where horrible acts by the Russian soldiers occurred and many Ukrainian civilians — women, fathers, children — were murdered."

Despite such horrors, the survivors are somehow resilient.

"Ukrainians are amazing people, especially the ones that are still in Ukraine. They find ways to survive.  What would crush many other countries, seems to make Ukrainians stronger," Gould said. "Some Ukrainians are fearful, especially when Russia sends missiles and kamikaze drones and seems intent on destroying every single thing they can. But they continue to live, to serve, to work, to try to be a blessing to others."

The day after she returned to Kyiv, she tested positive for COVID-19. "But I was home, so it was OK. I did not infect anyone else," she said. "Our office, my team and their families and homes are all OK.  When I returned, they were absolutely ready to continue the tasks God has for us."

Among the upcoming tasks is planning the nonprofit's two-day Equipping Children's Workers exhibition in March, which gathers in one place organizations that provide or sell materials or services that help churches and other Christian groups minister to children or teenagers. The event includes 15 "practical and encouraging" seminars, Gould said. People have attended from all across Ukraine and Russia, Belarus, Moldova and other countries.

Also, Gould and her team plan evangelistic outreaches for families in various regions of Ukraine, as well as other outreaches and ministries. One of them would help provide small, modular homes for Ukrainians whose dwellings have been destroyed in the war.

Meanwhile, the staff is preparing the nonprofit's offices for use, if necessary, as temporary living quarters. Daily life in Ukraine is difficult. Power is turned off and on, sometimes on a scheduled basis, other times not. When power is off, access to water and heat depends on location.

"The higher up, the less likely you have those services because there is no electricity to pump them up the building. My apartment is on the 12th floor," Gould said. "When the power is off, I have some cold water, but the hot water and heat ebb away to almost nothing. A person on my team lives on the 19th floor of his building and they have no water, hot water nor heat when the power is off."

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The nonprofit had its annual Christmas party despite the lack of power and guests having to tackle 12 flights of stairs to Gould's apartment.

"There was food, lights working on batteries, lights working on a charging station, fellowship, games and sharing about the greatest gift we have ever been given," she said. " I think all of us children, no matter our ages, needed this time together."

Continuing international aid critical

Gould said she is grateful for financial, military and other support the U.S. and other countries have sent to Ukraine. The support was generous, she said, but "slow in coming."

"Most people who thought the war would be over by now, thought that Ukraine would give up. With all the horrible things Russia has done, it makes Ukrainians more determined to fight and resist," Gould said. "Ukraine didn't start the war.  But I believe, if given the right weapons, they will end it and win it. Russia has to be driven from all of Ukraine. They will never be happy with just part of Ukraine. Most Ukrainians want Russia totally out of Ukraine and are willing to sacrifice for this."

Gould hopes to take her annual sojourn back to the U.S. this fall. But Ukraine will remain her home.

"Living in Ukraine I have learned to have several plans, A, B, C, D, etc. and then I realize I will end up using parts of all of those plans in reality," she said. 

The public can help through prayer, donations and advocating for continuing U.S. government support of Ukraine. Not just peace talks, Gould said, but "what it needs to win the war."

bcravey@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4109

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