23 February 2024

Colonels Kelvin and Cheralynne Pethybridge

IHQ caught up with Colonel Kelvin Pethybridge (Territorial Commander EET) and Colonel Cheralynne Pethybridge (Territorial President of Women’s Ministries and Territorial Secretary for Spiritual Life Development) in Bulgaria towards the end of 2023. Here, they share some of their reflections about ministry during not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the Ukraine war.   

Colonel Kelvin Pethybridge and his wife Colonel Cheralynne Pethybridge arrived in Moldova in the Eastern European Territory (EET) in late March 2018, and took up their new roles on 1 April. They would ultimately serve in EET until 31 December 2023. Any humour around their start date was soon to be dispelled, first by the havoc and grief visited upon the territory by the coronavirus pandemic, and then the destruction and horror wreaked upon the region by the Ukraine crisis.

The beauty in Eastern Europe

Speaking to Kelvin and Cheralynne on a sunny afternoon in a quiet hotel in central Sofia (Bulgaria), it is hard to imagine how they may have felt a few years ago, pre-COVID-19 and before the war in Ukraine started.

Kelvin said, ‘It was hugely exciting and different. We’d only been to Europe on holiday. On arrival, sitting in the car with territorial leaders, driving down the streets we were confused by what we saw. It was just a bit of a culture shock because some of the buildings were so dilapidated. We quickly changed to marvel at this amazing place that is unlike anywhere else. I can’t really explain the beauty in Eastern Europe.’

Cheralynne added, ‘You really have to live in Eastern Europe to understand it. It’s a different world. We had moved from one side of the planet to the other, and many of the things that we knew and we felt really comfortable with suddenly weren’t there anymore.’

Kelvin said, ‘It was amazing because we were coming to roles that we had done in Australia and we just walked into THQ thinking we knew what we were doing. But the size of the territory is quite lean compared to the former Australia Eastern Territory. Working into a totally different culture meant there was a lot we had to let go of. Our two new grandchildren were born just before we left Australia, so we were terribly homesick for a while and that came in waves. We are very grateful for social media and electronic communication because it would have been terrible if we hadn’t had those.’

Cheralynne added, ‘In the early days of COVID, we could never get a flight out of the country to go home to Australia. When flights resumed, we had to get permission from the government. We felt locked into Moldova for a long while and we had to recognise that we were not the only people in that situation. It was another twelve to eighteen months before we were able to get out and visit people.’

Ministry during the pandemic

Kelvin recalls the changes brought by the global pandemic. He said, ‘It had a significant impact. Many things had to close in Salvation Army world at that time. There was a general fear of contracting the disease. Some officers were not concerned and continued as normal. Thankfully, Microsoft 365 had been introduced beforehand. We relied heavily on Teams to be able to communicate with people.’

Fighting to contain her emotions, Cheralynne said, ‘We commissioned cadets online. We had after-school programmes in Moldova, and that was tricky. Some officers really faltered and many were scared. We were living in a strongly Orthodox territory. There was a lot of fear and a lot of denial – like many places – and sometimes a reliance on alternative medicines. Tragically, we lost our Secretary for Business Administration during the second wave, and that was really traumatic for the territory because he had a big persona and was very loved. Ministering to his family was really difficult because, with lockdown, we couldn’t get together with them. Many officers didn’t have a chance to grieve his passing. It was really hard administrating in that context.’

Kelvin agreed, noting, ‘There’s still a sense we’re still trying to get over that time. We could see many good things happening, but there’s a feeling that growth took a dive and the territory is recovering from that.’

The build-up to war

Kelvin described the build-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He said, ‘Numbers of troops on the borders were quite high – we’re talking tens of thousands of armed personnel. We had seen other times when tensions were heightened then dissipated. This time, troops built and built and built, and we thought “something’s coming here”. The local people were in denial understandably. Some thought, or maybe hoped, that this was just another exercise or a show of strength.’

On 24 February 2022, Russia proved that this was not a military training exercise when armed troops crossed the border into Ukraine as the world watched aghast. Cheralynne said, ‘We had a phone call at six o’clock in the morning from the divisional leader. They said that Russia had come across the border. The airport had been attacked or bombed. Honestly, there were tears just falling on both sides, just in realising what this meant. And the fear was that once they had come through Ukraine, Moldova could be next. Everyone kept saying that these are people who have lived through this before, and for many it was fresh in their minds because the Russian Federation annexed Crimea in August 2014. There was a lot of concern.’

We can watch war reporters on TV, but the distress of being caught up in armed conflict is impossible to understand unless you have experienced it. Kelvin said, ‘We needed to put systems in place so that we could manage, but it was incomprehensible. If Russia took Ukraine, then the anxiety was that Moldova would be next. We were preoccupied with finding solutions for that possibility. We started thinking about how to protect our people and the Army’s interests.’  

Decisions to stay or leave

Reflecting on this unimaginable time, Cheralynne said, ‘We asked people about what they wanted to do. It wasn’t up to us. It was their decision to stay or leave. We had an awful conversation around the table. Some people chose to stay, and others chose to leave. Some said, “We’re staying put – this is our land. We’re not moving.”’

The impact of war is not just physical – it will take a psychological toll on everyone caught up in it. Kelvin said, ‘In the early stages, we became very sensitive to things that were happening around us. For example, there was a street sweeper that passed our apartment at night. When that woke me, I had to go to the window to investigate what the noise was. We did have that level of anxiety – especially in the early days of the invasion. We knew that we were no match for the numbers or the sophistication of the Russian Army, and should they cross the border into Moldova, Moldova would just succumb to their power.’

It is clear that Cheralynne has great affection for the territory and its people. She said, ‘The Ukrainians are very passionate about their country and there is a history of them being dealt with in a tough way by Russia, so they had this love-hate relationship; like they’re brothers who have treated each other rather poorly. I think the level of resistance took Russia by surprise. The way the Ukrainian people gathered to repel the might of the Russian Army was just astonishing for us to witness. We were seeing pictures of women and children preparing Molotov cocktails, standing before tanks and challenging soldiers with rifles, with many of them paying with their lives. It’s really mind-boggling for Australians who have really had very little experience of this type of thing. It has been amazing to see the way our officers have dealt with this in Ukraine – honestly, these people are my heroes.’

Kelvin agreed, saying, ‘Our Salvation Army officers have young families. Just to see the way they’ve been out serving, ministering and basically getting on with what they do normally throughout this time is astonishing. There is a sense of them needing to make life as normal as it can be. Some have seen rockets just across the border. They’ve been under attack – and then we see the programmes they put in place, like art therapy and other psychological activities designed to help with trauma. We could not get funds through when the West started imposing sanctions against Russia. Within the country, retailers refused credit cards, banks were closed and the ATMs would go down. Officers were using their own resources to continue ministry in their community. They’re just amazing people!’

From an extraordinary situation to a new normal

Looking back, Cheralynne said, ‘We just wanted to go and hug them all and cry with them, and we couldn’t do that. We were sending messages all the time, even though there was sometimes a language barrier. We would check in with divisional leaders and pray with them in online meetings. We were constantly asking “How is everybody? Are they safe?” For the first twelve months or so, the conflict in Ukraine took over the whole territory. THQ was basically turned into accommodation for Ukrainians. We put mattresses on the floor in our lecture rooms, officers were taking Ukrainians into their homes. Our buildings were one big bedroom!’

Kelvin added, ‘We are talking about the autumn of 2023, and now there is a lot more normality about it – which is very scary in one sense. They have put up this incredible defence against the might of the Russian Army and have had some successes. It’s amazing that they’ve been able to stand as long as they have. Their stand has probably lessened the threat to Moldova. In just two years, an extraordinary situation has become the normal way of life. Today, I may be talking to divisional leaders and I hear a siren go off in the background or perhaps a bomb hits somewhere with an explosion. I find myself asking, “Are you okay? Do you need to go to a bomb shelter?” Even Ukrainians who have left the country are going in and out of the country, checking on family. It’s become a really strange yet “new normal” situation.’

Cheralynne agreed, saying, ‘People now have to register for help. Once they have, they can keep going backwards and forwards, and Ukrainians can decide whether they want to stay in Romania, Bulgaria or Moldova. This is happening throughout Europe and in Poland in particular. It’s settled down because people need to find employment or volunteer, and also they need to have their children schooled so they can start to assimilate. At the same time, there’s a huge group – particularly in Moldova – who are not registering, so they do need help from The Salvation Army. It is interesting to see how it has changed. Our officers have learned new skills along the way. We didn’t originally have things like voucher systems in Eastern Europe. Now, other companies are collaborating with The Salvation Army to help them provide services.’

The amazing things God is doing

Kelvin said, ‘It’s important to understand that the EET team is not very old. We were only created from out of Russia Command in 2014/15. We didn’t have the infrastructure in place as an emergency service. You see pictures in the USA of big trucks helping in emergencies, but we didn’t have that. There was a lot of chaos in the early stages but now, after nearly two years, we are a lot more ordered with more things in place.’

He continued, ‘We’ve been officers for over forty years now and we have disaster-management training for floods, fires and cyclones. This is a whole different level and they never teach you these kinds of things in training college! We’ve worked some things out along the way. Europe is an amazing place. There is such a raw energy around The Salvation Army that I imagine it’s almost like the early days. We could never have imagined having this kind of journey.’

Cheralynne said, ‘We have had a significant learning experience throughout this – just coming to Eastern Europe in the first place was an experience too. We worked through two years of the pandemic and then went straight into the war. It is difficult to put into words. It has been a significant learning curve all the way along. When I first arrived, I started a file called “The things I have learned” and I think I’m up to 740 A4 pages! Even after six years I’m learning about life and ministry in this part of the world. Sometimes I shake my head in disbelief. I thank God for what he’s doing because there are amazing things happening here. Ministry is just so passionate and inspiring. We know that when we leave this place we’re leaving part of our hearts here, even though we know the territory will be in great hands.’

The Pethybridges joined the International Headquarters on 1 January 2024. 

IHQ Communications

Tags: Europe, Ukraine-Russia conflict 2022, News