Eugene Pogorelov had a thriving basketball ministry with Admirals Basketball Academy in Kiev. His holistic discipleship method had young athletes not just experiencing the love of God through the sport and Huddle time, but engaging with others as well.
Relationships grew, especially with one 15-year-old leader who began helping with the younger kids in the program. While not a believer, Vlad’s openness to learn more about the way Eugene lives his life was evident.
Then the war struck, scattering millions of Ukraine citizens and shifting the life they knew. Vlad and his family evacuated Kiev and went 250 miles away to safety.
Meanwhile, across the world, Eugene and his family were in the U.S. for the FCA International Capacity Conference, and as Russia invaded Ukraine, they could not go home. They’ve settled in Kansas City for the time being as they assess the situation and continue ministry. One day, Eugene received a phone call from Vlad, who told him there was a New Testament where he was staying, but he had no idea where to begin.
Eugene began meeting with Vlad a few days a week via Zoom, going through the miracles of Jesus in the book of Mark. “I always ask questions when we read—how does this relate to you? How do Jesus’s miracles relate to you?” Eugene said. “He’d think about it and what his response would be. Many times, he has said, ‘I need to learn how to pray.’”
Vlad has taken an interest in talking to God, asking Eugene for prayer when his mother went back to Kiev for more clothes, and even beginning to pray by himself.
The war has shaken the foundation of so many Ukrainians and left them searching to hold onto something. For Vlad, this has become God and His Word. “Because of this tough situation, he is reading the Bible and looking for hope now that wouldn’t have happened if this wasn’t the circumstance,” Eugene shared.
Ministry continues, and Eugene is finding greater opportunities to gather his teams together over Zoom for Bible studies and one-on-one meetings. The beginning of his days consists of calling his players and checking in on how they are doing. Twice a week, they meet on Zoom for time together.
“I ask what they are thankful for, what we can pray for, and what is something they are learning through this time,” said Eugene, who coached three teams back in Ukraine and spends the second part of his days raising support and strategizing for his ministry. They also have Bible reading time and listen to guest speakers.
For Eugene, basketball was his way into the lives of many young athletes, but he sees, now more than ever, his players’ urgent need for knowing Jesus.
“We used to use sports as a tool to share the Gospel, but sport is not going to save you if a bomb goes off,” he said, “Jesus will.”
This urgency encourages Eugene to continue connecting with his players, who search for answers for unfathomable questions. But he is seeing that their hearts are extremely open to the answers Eugene gives, pointing to God.
“We pray that they begin to think, ‘Basketball is a good thing, but what about hope and the meaning of life?’” said Eugene. “Not all will be professionals in basketball, but all will be pro in something—husbands, wives, parents, workers. We want them to be people of character. The spiritual part is important.”
He added that parents are hearing what their children are talking about from the team time and ask questions themselves. “We pray for our athletes to have courage and share with them. We want kids and their families to be saved.”
It’s a hard world to navigate, and Eugene wants to be faithful with what God has given him. This includes wisdom and compassion in the face of horrific tragedy. “I found out a player’s dad died fighting in the war,” he shared. “It’s extremely important for us to be there, just to listen, and serve them as best we can.”
God always paves a way for perseverance, and Eugene is committed to focus on His presence amidst pain. “In hard situations, I see what God is doing. It’s easy to start panicking, but tough times build tough people, and we want to use them for the Kingdom.”
Please pray for open hearts of Eugene’s players and their families, and for wisdom for Eugene on how to encourage and care for them. Tough times build tough people, and Eugene and his family are leaning on God’s provision and direction. Please also pray for continued protection and guidance for this family.
To support the FCA Ukraine Crisis Relief, visit here.
Photos courtesy of Admirals Basketball Academy and Eugene Pogorelov