ORLANDO, Fla.—A Christian group that sends Bibles to Eastern European countries has a report from the field: The war in Ukraine is a “spiritual war,” and the Bible is bridging divides between groups that have hated one another for centuries.
About 10 years ago, Ukraine came to Eastern European Mission and asked for Bibles to put in the public schools, Dirk Smith, the mission’s vice president, told The Daily Signal at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in May.
“They shared with us, and we met with this group of people, all different denominations, all different faith backgrounds, and we felt this real spirit of unity,” Smith said. “And they said, ‘We’ve decided that if we’re going to get our nation back to a biblical and Christian worldview, we’ve got to start with our kids, and we’ve got to go back to the basics and just teach the Bible. So, we’re going to set aside all of our different traditions, put aside our icons, everything else, and we’re just going to teach the Bible.’”
“‘But we’ve got to have Bibles, and we can’t get them. We have nowhere to get them. Can you help us out?’” Smith recalled the Ukrainians asking. “And we said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, yep. We’re your people. Absolutely.’ So we partnered with them.”
By the time Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, Eastern European Mission had put Bibles in “a little over three-fourths of the public schools in Ukraine.”
Smith said the Russia-Ukraine war “is very much a spiritual war.” He called Ukraine “the buckle of the Bible Belt of Europe.”
“So, as a result of what they’re doing in their public schools, we’re now putting Bibles in the public schools in Croatia, in Romania, in Bulgaria, in North Macedonia,” Smith added. “It is growing and it is spreading. God is using them and their faithfulness because as this horrific war takes place, they’re fleeing and they’re moving, but they’re sharing the Gospel, not only with their mouths, but really with their hearts and their attitudes.”
Eastern European Mission does not just send Bibles to Ukraine, however. Smith noted that the ministry prints Bibles in Russia-aligned Belarus and sends Bibles to Russia as well.
“There’s definitely evil in Russia. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is evil, no question about it,” he said. “He and his regime and all those that support him are evil, and it’s straight up evil. But the Russian people don’t want this. They don’t want this war.”
He recalled visiting St. Petersburg and Moscow in 2019 and he called the Russians “beautiful people.”
Eastern European Mission began in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union prevented Bibles from entering its territory. Smith said the ministry printed Bibles the size of cigarette packs and smuggled them past Soviet officials who were watching for “guns and Bibles.”
Smith shared inspiring stories about the Bible breaking down barriers between people.
“I’ve sat around a table with Orthodox priests, Catholic priests, evangelical, Protestant, Pentecostal, all locking arms and all saying, ‘Let’s work together. We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to get Jesus out there,’” he recalled. “It’s happening in Ukraine. It’s happening in Croatia. I mean, literally, every nation I go to, we have meetings just like that.”
He said the meetings seem like God fulfilling John 17, a passage in which Jesus prays for unity among his disciples.
“The divisiveness comes from Satan,” Smith said. “I think Satan invented denominations. I mean, we have got to come together around Jesus. They’re doing it. They’re doing it over there and it’s powerful. It’s extremely powerful what’s happening.”
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Tyler O’Neil: This is Tyler O’Neil, managing editor at The Daily Signal. I’m joined by Dirk Smith, vice president of Eastern European Mission, an organization dedicated to providing the word of God to former communist bloc countries, including Belarus and Ukraine. It’s an honor to have you here.
Dirk Smith: Great to be with you. Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
O’Neil: Yeah, my pleasure. So, before we get into the more modern stuff, I’d like you to just go over EEM. It’s been sending Bibles to Eastern Europe since 1961. Can you tell me more about how the mission got going?
Smith: Yeah. EEM started with seven couples in their 20s and they decided they were going to go behind the Iron Curtain, as it was called at the time, and teach people about Jesus.
So they go to Vienna, Austria, they register for grad school there. That got them visas that allowed them to go behind the Iron Curtain. They get behind the Iron Curtain, they start trying to teach people about Jesus. And the guy who I really credit with being the entrepreneur for Jesus in that, our organization at the time, was a gentleman by the name of Gwen Hensley.
And he comes back from one of his trips and he tells his wife, Gayle, “This is an impossible task. Nobody has Bibles in their language. How do we teach him about Jesus?”
So that really turned the ministry at the time, and they began printing Bibles. They got a little printing press in Vienna, and they began printing what we affectionately refer to as the Marlboro Bible because it was the exact size of a pack of cigarettes, because the guards didn’t care if you were smuggling in cigarettes. That was great. They’d always ask, “Do you have any guns? Do you have any Bibles?” That was what they were concerned about.
And so that started a smuggling operation ourselves, plus we were a supplier to lots of other smugglers that were doing the same thing. Well, of course, the wall comes down then in ’89, and thank God our board at the time said, “No, we’re staying put. We’re going to stay right here.”
So now, today, we publish, print, and distribute Bibles and Bible-based materials into 30-plus different countries and 20-plus different languages. Now, we don’t translate the Bible. We work with Bible translators. But we do translate any of the commentary or things like that that might be in those different languages.
And it’s all free of charge. So it’s all off of requests. We’re not out there knocking on doors and saying, “Hey, you need a Bible.” It’s just based on requests. And it is growing rapidly, Tyler. It’s unbelievable what God is doing in that part of the world.
O’Neil: Amazing. So, we’re talking former communist countries. It’s crazy to think because these were countries part of the heartland of Eastern Orthodoxy for long periods of time, and Kyiv obviously the beginning of what they called Kyivan Rus, which of course now the Ukrainians and the Russians disagree about who can lay claim to that heritage.
But what is it like—communism came in and kind of pushed Christianity out? What were the stumbling blocks that you ran into? Because the Eastern Orthodox, I mean, they read the Bible, too, at least the priests do.
Smith: Yeah, it’s been interesting. In Ukraine, for example—just to zero in on that nation, that one of 30-plus, I mean, last year, 35 different countries—they have really wanted to go back to their Christian roots to get their children back to a Christian biblical worldview. About nine, maybe 10 years ago now, they came to us and said, “Hey, we need Bibles and we need Bibles for our public schools.” And we thought, “Public schools? Tell us more about this.”
So they shared with us and we met with this group of people, all different denominations, all different faith backgrounds, and we felt this real spirit of unity.
And they said, “We’ve decided that if we’re going to get our nation back to a biblical and Christian worldview, we’ve got to start with our kids and we’ve got to go back to the basics and just teach the Bible. So we’re going to set aside all of our different traditions, put aside our icons, everything else, and we’re just going to teach the Bible. And we’ve created this class. It’s an elective called Christian Ethics, and we’re beginning to teach this in our schools.”
We thought, “You got to be kidding me.” So we said, “OK.” And they said, “But we got to have Bibles and we can’t get them. We have nowhere to get them. Can you help us out?” And we said, “If that’s what you want to do, yep. We’re your people. Absolutely.”
So we partnered with them. And that has grown to the point that right before the war broke out, we’ve put Bibles in a little over three-fourths of the public schools in the nation of Ukraine.
So when people talk about this war, they need to understand this is very much a spiritual war. This is a spiritual war. Ukraine is now—they don’t understand this terminology, but we do. They’re really the buckle of the Bible Belt of Europe. I mean, they are it. They are promoting it and it’s spreading.
As a result of what they’re doing in their public schools, we’re now putting Bibles in the public schools, in Croatia, in Romania, in Bulgaria, in North Macedonia. It is growing and it is spreading.
God is using them and their faithfulness because, as this horrific war takes place, they’re fleeing and they’re moving, but they’re sharing the Gospel not only with their mouths, but really with their hearts and their attitudes.
We’re hearing story after story of a nonbeliever traveling with a believer and saying, “OK, I’m going through the same hell you’re going through, but you’re handling this in a much more joyful, dare I say, peace that passes understanding. How?” And they’re telling them about Jesus and they’re either giving them their own Bible or they’re asking for a Bible give them.
So it’s amazing what we’re seeing take place.
And their faithfulness, it’s just so encouraging to watch the faithfulness of these all-in believers, these Ukrainian believers. And then the unity that’s taking place. They’re locking arms and we’re seeing that take place in, I mean, I just got back from a 13-day trip, five different countries, the 1st of May through the 13th of May, and every meeting, every meeting was, I came away and said, “Man, John 17, it’s being played out. It’s the unity amongst believers.”
And the power behind that, I wish we would wake up and see that Jesus prayed that prayer for a very specific purpose, and that is, “God, if you’ll make them one, everybody else is going to know that you sent me.” That’s the purpose of unity.
The divisiveness comes from Satan. I think Satan invented denominations. I mean, we have got to come together around Jesus. They’re doing it. They’re doing it over there and it’s powerful. It’s extremely powerful what’s happening.
O’Neil: And what have EEM staff faced in Ukraine and in these other countries as the war has broken out?
Smith: Well, we had to evacuate. I mean, we have a Ukrainian director there who, bless her heart, single mom, and she was from Donetsk. So when the separatists came into Donetsk, she had to flee there. And her little girl, Marsha, and her mom and her dad at the time—her dad has since passed—got them to Kyiv. We get them reset up in Kyiv and all of the little support staff that they had, and then they had to flee there.
O’Neil: Kyiv is under assault.
Smith: Kyiv is under assault. So she and her mom and her daughter all fled. We got them to Austria.
So they’re in Vienna, but our other staff have stayed because production and distribution is continuing. We still have places in Ukraine that are asking for Bibles. I mean, our distribution, in the Ukrainian language alone, of the 20-plus 26 languages that we did last year, that one language increased 40% last year.
So yes, we’ve faced challenges, but if you could meet them, and every Ukrainian I meet, smile on their face, resolve in their heart, dedication and a focus, and they’re just embracing God, and they’re recognizing, “OK, God is still with us, and that’s the kingdom that we live in. It’s not this kingdom. So let’s keep moving and let’s keep spreading the Gospel.”
O’Neil: Have you been also able to get Bibles to the other side, to Russia, to Belarus, to some of the countries that are on the other side of the conflict?
Smith: Absolutely. Yeah. We print in Belarus. That’s one of our printing locations. So yeah, we are working in Russia. So I want to make sure people know it’s real easy to do. We put people in boxes, we put labels on people, and we say, “OK, Russia bad. Ukraine good.” And that’s not right. That’s not good.
There’s definitely evil in Russia. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is evil, no question about it. He and his regime and all those that support him are evil and it’s straight up evil. But the Russian people don’t want this. They don’t want this war. These are their countrymen. These are their family. I mean, if their name ends in -ova, they’re Ukrainian. That’s their heritage. So it’s like they’re bombing their own family.
So they don’t want this. And it’s been in the news some, unfortunately, not as much in our mainstream media, but story after story of the Russian troops surrendering, saying, “I don’t want to be a part of this. This is not what I signed up to do.”
So no, we love the people of Russia. I was in Russia in 2019 in St. Petersburg, traveled down to Moscow, and I was never met any more warmly than I was by the Russian people. They’re beautiful people and it’s a wonderful, wonderful country. Same thing with Belarus. There’s good.
I mean, once again, it’s unity amongst the believers. It’s unity. And there’s a lot of hurt and pain going on both sides, very different. I would never sit here and say that the pain that the Russians are going through even comes close to the type of pain that’s being experienced in Ukraine, but it’s pain. I mean, they’re grieving over this as well.
O’Neil: When you talk about unity among the churches brought about by the Scriptures, I mean, that resonates very strongly. But many of these denominations, especially in Ukraine, you have the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church on opposite sides. And then have you seen coordination and unity between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox in these countries?
Smith: Absolutely. I’ve sat around a table with Orthodox priests, Catholic priests, evangelical, Protestant, Pentecostal, all locking arms and all saying, “Let’s work together. We got to do this. We got to get Jesus out there.”
It’s happening in Ukraine, it’s happening in Croatia. I mean, literally, every nation I go to, we have meetings just like that. And I walk away and I look up to God and I say, “You’re incredible. You’re unbelievable.”
O’Neil: What is bringing them together?
Smith: Oh, Jesus. I mean, that’s it.
One of my favorite stories is back in 2015, we were in Greece, and it was at the height of the Muslim refugees pouring into Lesbos, coming to Lesbos. And so we met with a ministry partner of ours there called Hellenic Ministries, great ministry, and they were reaching out to all these refugees pouring in. And every Monday night they would feed 600-plus refugees.
So we go to this gathering. I mean, there’s 600 Middle East refugees poured into the seventh floor of this building in downtown Athens. And I noticed a gentleman that I met who is Afghani, and he’s serving on the serving line, they’re serving spaghetti, with a fellow Afghani. And you can tell they’re friends because they’re serving, but then they’re having a little fun. One would take a noodle and flick it at the other one, and they’re laughing and having a good time.
And so afterward, I go up to Massoud, who I’d met, and I said, “Massoud, who’s your friend?” He said, “Oh, this is Yassar.” And I said, “Yeah, Yassar, good to meet you.” And I said, “You guys are both from Afghanistan, right?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah.” I said, “Well, were you guys friends there in Afghanistan?” And they both laughed and they said, “Oh, no, no, no, no.” Massoud looks at me and he says, “No, Dirk, he’s Shiite. I’m Sunni.” And I go, “Oh my gosh, you got to be kidding me.” And I go, “OK.”
And he says, “So in our nation, no, no, no, we’re mortal enemies, but in Jesus, we’re brothers.” So I go, “OK. What has the power to break down the walls of a 1,500-year-old Holy War? A new peace treaty, new ambassador? No, Jesus, the Prince of Peace. That’s it. That’s the answer.”
So we can do all we want to do politically. We can try and that’s great. But there’s one answer. When Jesus gets in the hearts of each individual person and we allow him to infect us, things change. Things change, transformation will take place.
O’Neil: So outside of the countries that Americans often hear about, especially right now, Ukraine, Belarus, I mean, you mentioned Greece, but what other countries in that Eastern Bloc—that Americans probably haven’t heard of—would you draw attention to?
Smith: North Macedonia. Huge, huge things happening in North Macedonia. … At their request, we supplied 250,000 children’s and teen Bibles to them last year. We’re fulfilling the other half of that. So another 250,000 this year for their public schools.
So North Macedonia, Slovenia. Slovenia is an amazing little country with some great things happening. Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia—even though a lot of people, there’s a lot of attention on Serbia not being a part of NATO. There’s some great things happening in Serbia.
O’Neil: Very Islamic.
Smith: And very Islamic. Yeah. Well, in North Macedonia 30% is Muslim. But so you think about that. They’ve asked for 450,000 children’s Bibles and teen Bibles, 30% of those kids getting that are Muslim. So those are going into Muslim homes.
So again, this is stuff you can’t make up. I mean, God is doing something huge. Croatia. Croatia, at the end of last year, we’ve now put over a million Bibles into the hands of their public school children.
And it’s a Catholic nation. We’re working with the Catholic Church there. They’re phenomenal. I mean, I’ve met with multiple bishops in the diocese in Dubrovnik, Varaždin, Split. I mean, all over that nation. And also in Bosnian and Herzegovina, the northern part, which is Croatian-speaking.
So yeah, I mean, that whole part of the world, it’s just very close. I mean, it’s very tight-knit. And I’ve used this example when we look at this war and people ask, because our distribution last year rose 28% in one year, and I tell people, “If we were a for-profit company, man, you’d be getting in line saying, ‘How do I invest? How do I get involved in this?'”
But why is it growing?
Well, this would be like Mexico being the superpower that Russia is and invading Texas, coming in and just obliterating southern Texas and maybe even into California. And now all these people start fleeing north in the U.S.
So the Texans are coming up North Texas, but then missiles are coming in and hitting Dallas-Fort Worth periodically. So where are people going to flee? Well, they’re going to come into Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma, they’re going to be pouring into those states. What would our soil be like at that time? Would we have this rock solid, “Oh, we’re America. Nothing’s happening. We’re so reliant in our nation and everything’s good”? Would we have that? No.
Think about our nation after 9/11. Post-9/11, I was living up there at that time. New York was a very different city. I mean, it was friendly. I mean, I grew up in that part of the world and it was a marked difference. Churches were full, Bible studies were full. People were going back to God’s word. People were looking for a solid foundation.
Well, welcome to the part of the world we’re working in. I mean, it is the parable of the sower, but it is churned up ripe soil. So we’re just throwing seed. We just need help buying the seed.
O’Neil: Yeah. Well, where can Americans, where can our listeners find your ministry and support it?
Smith: They can go to our website, eem.org. We’re in the middle or we’re coming to the close of a campaign that we call “Bibles for Kids,” which is a campaign to provide 560,000 children’s and teen Bibles in 20 different languages. It’s a matching fund campaign.
So we already have some very generous donors who have stepped up and said, “Hey, every gift, we’re going to match it.” So typically $5 buys one Bible right now, and that’s all in, $5, the whole thing. We keep our overhead extremely low, but right now, $5 gets two.
So they can go on our website, click on “Bibles for Kids” at the top, there’s a banner up there, and they can give online securely. They can read all of our transparency and everything if they want to know—I mean, we are a very, very well run organization, that’s kind of my area. I keep our overhead extremely low because that’s more Bibles out the door. So if we can streamline, we can get more of God’s work done.
O’Neil: Well, this is a notoriously troubled part of the world, a lot of mutual hatreds, a lot of wars even recently. But of course, starting of World War I, have you seen a lot of reconciliation through this ministry?
Smith: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And that’s what I tell people. It’s the one thing that’s going to bring people together. We want peace. Why not go to the Prince of Peace? I mean, God tells us that. I mean, Jesus says, “That’s who I am.” So what’s the answer? That’s it.
So when they focus on God’s word and they begin letting it infect them, and they open their hearts, unity happens. It’s going to happen.
You don’t look at somebody the same. It’s impossible. It’s impossible to look at somebody as your enemy. You look at them and say, “No, you were created by God just like I was. So let’s find common ground.” And when you find out they believe in Jesus, that’s all you have to know. I mean, that’s it. So now, “We’re brothers. We’re sisters. Let’s work together.” So yeah, we’re seeing it all over that part of the world.
O’Neil: Amen. Well, thank you so much, Dirk, and I wish you the best here at [the National Religious Broadcasters Convention] and going forward.
Smith: Thank you, Tyler. Great to be with you. Appreciate the time.
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