Local Faith Leader Delivers Aid, Comfort to Ukraine

Reverend Rod Stone (second from left) alongside Crimean chaplains. CONTRIBUTED


Insider Staff Writer

Rev. Rod Stone, a man of faith and action from Community Presbyterian Church in Pinehurst, recently concluded a two-week journey to Ukraine. Despite the ongoing geopolitical tension and domestic division regarding American foreign aid policy, Stone’s mission was not about money or politics; it was about the people he served.

Sponsored by the Outreach Foundation and in conjunction with the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary, Stone and his team of seven delivered food, medical kits and maybe most importantly, engaged front-line Ukrainian chaplains in resiliency training.

“Our purpose was to care for the caregivers, to give them enough renewal to go back because they are the ones on the front lines,” Stone said in a recent interview with The Pilot.

Stone is no stranger to crisis-oriented stress management.

“In addition to being a pastor, I’m a law enforcement chaplain, have been for eight years,” he explained. “I am a certified crisis intervention specialist trained in critical incident stress management. That’s why I was interested in this program; I have some experience, passion and education in the area of crisis and stress management.”

Before the trip, Stone and his congregation at Community Presbyterian, alongside efforts from the Outreach Foundation — an organization aimed at spreading the Christian faith through global relationship development — set out to raise money for Individual first aid kits (IFAKs).

“We asked, ‘What can we bring with us?’ and the (Ukrainian) military said, ‘We want you to bring IFAKs because we don’t have them.’  So, through support and fundraising, we had enough money for 1,000 of them.”

Stone added, “Delta Airlines allowed us to ship them for free at no cost, so I had four huge duffle bags, and we took them over. That was our gift to the military, and they loved it.”

Upon arrival, Stone and his cohort, which included a retired brigadier general, retired special forces colonel, retired chaplain colonel and the director and associate director of the Outreach Foundation, settled into their main area of operations in the capital city of Kyiv.

Stone described the group’s primary effort.

“We went over to do resiliency work with the military chaplains,” he said. “Ukraine did not have military chaplains embedded in their units until two years ago.”

Stone explained that the Ukrainian seminary, understanding the hardships unfolding along the front, ardently advocated folding chaplains into various military units.

Stone’s first three days in Ukraine were spent with those very chaplains.

“The seminary has a really tight relationship with the military, so the seminary said, ‘Let’s pull the military chaplains that are serving, both volunteer and paid, and some of the pastors on the front lines. Let’s pull them back and let’s give them a three-day retreat and allow their spouses to come.”

Stone said around 50 chaplains and their spouses attended the three-day retreat.

“During the morning program, we would have a time of worship together, and then we would move into a teaching moment about trauma and stress,” Stone explained of the resiliency retreat. “Since the military chaplaincy is a fairly new position, we are reinforcing the importance of being a supportive presence to those who serve. We spent time discussing what that looks like as well as teaching at a very elementary level methods of trauma care.”

Stone’s group carved out time in the evenings for fellowship with the chaplains.

“In the evening, we would hang out together. During this time, we introduced them to corn-hole. We brought a portable set with us. They were not familiar with the game, and now we have many converts. They loved the game.”

Following the three-day retreat, Stone’s team, along with Ukrainian translators and military escorts, headed eastward toward the more highly contested parts of the country.

“Our whole motive, our faith response to this, is that compassionate care is going to the epicenter of suffering and standing there with them. We don’t always have the words, we may not always have the resources to provide for the needs, but we have the presence, and by our presence, we are letting them know that they are not alone,” Stone said of the group’s excursions.

“When we let someone know that they are not alone, and we are standing with them, sometimes that can bring about a greater sense of hope, and that was our task. Sure, we brought IFAKs and supplies to the refuge center, but our greatest gift was saying, ‘We want to be with you; you are not alone. We will pray with you, we will care for you and we stand alongside you.’”

Among other areas, Stone traveled to Moshchun and Bucha, both northwest of Kyiv, and Donetsk in the Donbas breakaway region.

A car memorial in Bucha, Ukraine. CONTRIBUTED

Following the initial invasion, Russian forces were repelled from Kyiv, and several military units holed up in Bucha for nearly a month. Reportedly the site of severe human rights violations, nearly 450 civilian bodies, many left in the street, were recovered after the Russian retreat.  

“The first Sunday there, I was asked to preach at a church in Bucha,” Stone said. “So I’m interacting with the people that went through this atrocity. We heard terrible stories of the suffering and the torture, and then we went to the mass grave. We met the priest who oversaw the mass grave and the memorial.”

The priest, Father Andrew of St. Andrews Church, narrowly escaped Russian efforts to eliminate Ukrainian faith leaders. Father Andrew went on to help bury the bodies of Ukrainian citizens left in the streets of Bucha before assisting in exhuming the mass burial site and identifying the dead after the Russians left.

“The Russians were leaving them in the streets, and the Ukrainians said, ‘We can’t just leave them in the streets, we have to give them some dignity.’ So, they created the grave to put them in,” Stone explained.

“Once the Russians were repelled, they came in and said, ‘Let’s bring them up and try to identify them.’ They began taking DNA from the deceased and the family members who were looking for people, and they began to build a database to match them.”

The Donbas region, including Donetsk and Luhansk, are areas initially invaded by Russia in 2014.

“When we went to Donetsk, we brought supplies,” Stone said. “We had three vans, and we brought supplies to a church that was providing outreach to the people of that community.”

Considering active and ongoing engagements in Eastern Ukraine, Stone indicated that while there were concerns, the mission was important enough to take risks.

“One of the chaplains figured a drone drives about 80 miles per hour, so we go 90 miles per hour,” Stone said with a smile.

“When we got toward the front, we were eight miles from the very front; I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “I thought I would hear drones, I’d hear gunfire, I’d hear artillery, but I didn’t hear anything. I said to the general, ‘The silence is surprising to me; I don’t understand it.’ He said, ‘Well, they aren’t fighting every minute, plus it’s a 600-mile front line. Life goes on.”

Stone told the story of an intrepid group of Ukrainian civilians on a trip to Moshchun.

“That was an incredible place because the whole village took up arms against the Russians. The soldiers came in, but the farmers were going to the front lines on their tractors with their hunting rifles, and the women were right behind them with supplies, food and care. The mayor used his own personal van to haul shoulder-fired rockets.”

Stone said that the stories from Moshchun illustrated the indomitable Ukrainian character.

“Their will to live and their freedom is so strong. They’ll say to you, ‘We will die before we come under Russian occupation,’ and you can see why now when you see the brutality of the Russians, you can see why it’s life and death for them. It’s not a fight over territory; it’s a fight over life.”

For Stone, the story of the Ukrainian people is most poignant. While Ukraine remains embroiled in conflict, and faith leaders reportedly continue to be targeted by the Russian military, efforts like that of Stone and his companions provide solace for troops continuing a fight with no foreseeable end in sight.

“What the Ukrainians told our team is, ‘Bring our story back to America to let people know what we are experiencing.’” He added, “There’s so much going on in the world that we can forget about Ukraine; we are thinking about Gaza and other parts of the world when the Ukrainian conflict is still very real.”

Contact Matt Lamb at (910) 693-2479 or mlamb@thepilot.com