On a quiet March evening last year, Dr. Esther Shin Chuang was having dinner at the home of a Ukrainian friend, Vera Willoughby in Penang. Although all seemed peaceful as the families dined together, their conversations and hearts were far from being at peace.
A few days prior to the meal, news had broken that Russia had invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022 in a sudden escalation of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war.
“Vera had still graciously cooked for us, and over the meal, she shared what was going on with her parents and family in Ukraine. She shared how her heart was breaking but also how the Christians in Ukraine were holding onto God,” Dr Esther says.
As Vera shared, Dr Esther felt her heart being moved for Ukraine.
Dr Esther, a Korean-American award-winning concert pianist, worship leader and lecturer at the Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary began following developments in Ukraine more closely.
And whenever she was invited to preach in churches in Malaysia in the months that followed, she would share about the unwavering faith of Ukrainian Christians amid hardship and struggle.
“After my sermon, several people came up to me saying they wanted to support Christians in Ukraine financially but did not know which trusted organisation to give to. I spoke to Vera and her family in Ukraine, and we were directed to give through Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Kyiv,” Dr Esther shared.
It was then that Dr Esther realised Malaysian Christians were looking for opportunities to support their Ukrainian brothers and sisters in Christ, and the idea for a fundraising concert came to mind.
Understanding and meeting real needs on the ground
At the time, YWAM Kyiv had begun distributing groceries and household detergents (USD20 per week per family) to the families in Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine Dr Esther began selling tickets with dollar handles of RM60, RM100 and RM200 each to raise funds for families to receive these kits.
“The tickets were sold quickly, and several donors also offered to give more to help cover the venue cost so that 100% of the proceeds could go to YWAM Kyiv instead of operational expenses,” Dr Esther shares.
The concert was held in December, just at the start of the Christmas season. Dr Esther’s husband, Rev Dr Tony Chuang, suggested the event be called Our Christmas Gift to reflect the collective desire to bless the people of Ukraine.
More than 200 people came to support the event, a turnout that amazed Dr Esther.
No more lives torn apart, that time would heal all hearts
Dr Esther remembers how many attendees were not aware of just how dire the situation was, and continues to be, on the ground for Ukrainian families and children.
“My husband opened the event with a sharing of the reality on the ground, and afterwards we received feedback that it was eye-opening. Many Malaysians were unaware of the plight faced by internally displaced people in Ukraine,” she says.
Vera then stepped forward to share her personal account of her family’s situation in Ukraine, blackouts, harsh winters and the daily struggle of civilians. At the same time, she spoke of the people’s resilience and determination to overcome, thanking Malaysians for their generous giving.
Dr Esther began her musical programme with Carol of the Bells, a popular Christmas carol written by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych. Its melody is based on the Ukrainian song, Shchedryk.
In between songs, she shared about the gift of giving. One of her last pieces, My Grown Up Christmas List by Kelly Clarkson, was especially meaningful to her.
“Just like the song lyrics, I said the gifts I want are “no more lives torn apart..that time would heal all hearts, every man would have a friend, that right would always win” and that this war would end. I shared that those words are my wish for this world and Ukraine, and sang it as one of my last pieces. Many people teared up as I sang that song,” she says.
A Ukrainian community encouraged to keep pressing on
Altogether, Dr Esther was able to raise over RM22,000 to be sent to YWAM Kyiv. They were in need of groceries, but also firewood to burn, blankets for babushkas (grandmas) and sleeping bags for some of the families.
A Ukrainian woman living in Penang was so touched by the initiative, and when she informed her father that a benefit concert was being held to help Ukraine in the small Malaysian island of Penang, he broke down into tears.
“I received messages from Ukrainians and those that are in Ukraine that they were very grateful for and encouraged by the benefit concert I put together. People were so thankful, and Vera’s family even gifted me a beautiful artwork from Ukraine,” Dr Esther says,
YWAM Kyiv also sent a heartfelt note of thanks, and Dr Esther shared part of what was sent:
“Thank you for your heart for Ukraine for your desire to see [our nation] whole and her people cared for… you and your friends have served Ukraine in a very important way. Even more than finances, thank you for praying. Prayer is what changes things. You have given us a huge gift in helping to serve and [towards] God’s move in this nation.”
Christians are to embrace both social justice and their faith
For Dr Esther, the call of Christianity requires both the talk and the walk. If it’s just one or the other, the impact is lost and the message remains incomplete.
“If we talk about loving our neighbours, we need to show that through real actions — it could be food, financial support or caring for their emotional and spiritual needs. But if we only do the walk and not the talk, people may not know God’s love for them. So both have to happen together,” she explains.
In Scripture, God has a heart for the broken, orphans, the weak, widows, sojourners and so forth. Dr Esther quotes James 2:14-16 and challenges us to identify ways to show love to others.
“When our brothers and sisters in Christ have a physical need, how can we just ignore them? If we are able to, we should help them and provide for their needs. My husband and I set aside 10% of our income for God and those in need as well. There are so many needs around the world.
I hope that we Christians will make a difference in this world by doing missional work as well as giving to mission partners and organisations that do God’s work,” she adds.
Dr Esther hopes her experience will inspire more Christians to step out and use their God-given talents to make a difference. How can we as Malaysians contribute to social justice, care for the poor and show God’s love in this broken, hurting world?
The Ukraine invasion is still ongoing after more than a year as Russian and Ukrainian forces continue to battle for territory and power. According to the UN (February 2023), over 8,000 civilians have lost their lives, 18 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and 14 million have been internally displaced.