JEFFERSON CITY — Points along Vova Gorbenko’s journey to Jefferson City are marked with air raid sirens, explosions, bitter temperatures and a 20-hour drive under the cover of night.
The details sound much like they were ripped from a movie plot. But for Vova and his family, every turn, every mile and every step of their story has been real — very real.
Vova, his wife Marina, their 17-year-old son Andrei and 15-year-old daughter Katya, call Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, home. One of the country’s largest cities with a population of more than 700,000, Zaporizhzhya is located in the southeastern part of the country — a few hours from Donetsk, and about six hours south of the country’s capital of Kiev.
It is where Vova worked as an academic dean at the local seminary and a minister at his church. It was where Marina served as a public-school teacher and where Andrei and Katya grew up with friends and went to school. It was home.
But on Feb. 24, 2022, life turned upside down. After many weeks of speculation, Russia finally invaded Ukraine. The attack was one they knew was possible, but many, like Vova, didn’t think a full-blown war was likely.
The Gorbenkos quickly learned the reality of living in a war situation. Air raids quickly became a part of life, with sirens occurring every two hours. “Once the sirens are going, nobody was allowed to leave the building except for running to a shelter,” he said.
The thought of leaving was still not in the Gorbenkos’ minds. Vova never ceased ministering to those at the school, friends and church members, receiving calls as they would come in.
Like many Ukrainians, the Gorbenkos found shelter in the basement of their home. With continued air raids and cold February temperatures, the family sought ways to care for one another. As time passed, word came that more and more people were fleeing the city.
Two thirds of the Gorbenkos’ church had already left. Most of the faculty from the seminary had departed. Stores closed and the availability of food decreased as the level of panic increased.
The time for a decision to leave became evident.
“I remember that day,” he said. “It was a Sunday, and I knew in two or three hours it would be dark. That’s when we made the decision to leave the city.” Without knowing how far they would be able to drive or what they would do if faced with car problems, Vova packed their Kia with water, blankets, food, clothes and a tent. “I wanted to get my family out.”
Having taught some previously in western Ukraine, Vova knew friends who could provide shelter. With sights set on a location some 18 miles outside of the Romanian and Moldovan border, the Gorbenkos began a cross-country drive into the night.
“If not for God, it would have been impossible.”
Word came of massive lines at certain checkpoints, particularly at the Ukrainian and Polish border, where people were waiting for days to leave. The Gorbenkos’ plan was to cross at Moldova and make the short one-hour drive through the country and into Romania. But they were aware of restrictions put in place since the war’s start.
“I wasn’t sure if they would let me through … because when the war started, no men 18 to 60 years old [were allowed to leave],” Vova said. “There were some exceptions like having three or more children or a medical exception. I did have a military document, like a medical exemption, from my teenage years. I never thought I would need it for any reason. …”
As they advanced closer to the checkpoint, Vova vividly remembers the scene — families were being forced to say good-bye.
When they reached the front of the line, “they took my documents and said, ‘you can’t go.’ But they did give them back to me. They just kept going through it and passing it from one to another for almost an hour. We were just praying, because there is nothing we could do.”
Vova said he and his family were already preparing themselves for the worst: Marina and the children would travel on, and he would stay.
With anxiety building as they sat in their car, the family finally received their answer. “After about an hour, they …handed me my documents and said, “you can go.”
It was determined that Vova’s scoliosis was enough of a medical condition that it allowed the Gorbenkos to remain united.
“We cried. … It was very special and very emotional.”
As they traversed from one country to the next for several days, Vova gives credit to God’s provision. “We had to find shelter several times. It was actually special appointments that God arranged for us to stay at several places. We had several events when we thought ‘if not for God, it would have been impossible.’ ”
A longtime relationship with a retired pastor in Columbus, Ohio, resulted in an offer from a church in the States. The option to stay in its parsonage in Columbus for as long as they needed, was one they could not pass up. The Gorbenkos accepted.
In reflecting on all he and his family had undergone and witnessed, Vova is very clear on where he got his strength to endure such harsh realities. His faith. It was this same faith he discovered as a teenager within the pages of a Gideons’ Bible.
“The Lord’s hand was in all of it,” he said of the past several months. “We could sense it. We prayed and asked him for strength. In a situation like this … you sense both the heaviness of it and the nearness of the Lord.”
A new home at Carson-Newman
In Ohio, Vova and his family began adjusting to the reality of what had taken place. As Ukrainians, they had tourist visas that were open for 10 years. It was a time of contemplating the next steps for their family.
It was then that Vova learned about Carson-Newman University — something he refers to as a “God event.”
“I was sending applications to different universities,” he said. “But when we (learned) of Carson-Newman, I thought ‘this is it, this is probably the place where we will be ministering and working.’
“To me, this is a miracle that I can actually do the same (as I was doing) and our family can be involved in both ministering to students and teaching the Bible. But not just teaching but discipling and mentoring.”
The Gorbenkos arrived on Carson-Newman’s campus to a furnished home in July. Along with serving as the university’s assistant director of campus ministries, Vova starts the fall semester as guest professor, teaching New Testament in the School of Biblical and Theological Studies.
As they settle into their East Tennessee home, the Gorbenkos understandably cling to the hope of one day returning to their Ukrainian home.
It’s been several months since they endured the sounds of war or cold nights huddled in a cellar. Viewing his family’s circumstances through the prism of his faith is something Vova continues to do and contemplates often — seeing his family’s experiences within something far greater.
“It’s one thing to trace God’s hand in biblical narrative and see the overarching story of God’s movements within history and the biblical story of Israel — Old and New Testament,” he said. “But this story continues. It is the story of God building His kingdom and God restoring His creation. This story of every one of us is interwoven into this larger story.”
“It’s one thing to see it unfold in biblical narrative — for us as a family, it’s a story we are witnessing.”
As he returns to the classroom, Vova says he has specific hopes for what his students will take away from his classes.
“I hope they understand that the Bible is not a set of rules, but it’s a living story that invites us to participate in it right now,” he said. “It’s God’s story. It’s Jesus’ story — and it’s beautiful. It’s a story that unfolds even as we speak.” B&R