Mission-Minded Couple Redirected by God Amid War on Ukraine

Scott (with Sammy) and Theresa (with Alex) on adoption day in 2014

In the fall of 2021, Scott and Theresa Cianciolo were where God had placed them, finally living the dream of on-site, full-time mission in Ukraine. After 20 years of ministry, pastoring local churches in the U.S. and serving American families with special needs children, they’d settled in Rivne, Ukraine.

There, Pastor Scott Cianciolo was preaching at orphan camps and in local churches (as was his longtime habit, he preached from the Adrian Rogers Legacy Bible), and Dr. Theresa Cianciolo, who is a neuropsychologist, was teaching university classes and serving in an advisory role to the nation’s minister of child development regarding resources for special needs children.

The couple’s choice of Ukraine had been no accident. When God directed them in 2014 to follow their hearts, add to their family, and adopt two special needs children, Ukraine, which has one of the highest per capita percentages of orphaned children in the world, came immediately to mind.

“It is very common to pressure women in Ukraine into giving up babies with special needs,” Theresa said. “Orphanages, they tell the mothers, give better care.” But Ukrainian orphanages, even before the war with Russia, were overcrowded and had never had the resources to offer appropriate therapeutic services for children with disabilities.

The Cianciolos were able to adopt their twin sons, Samuel and Alexander, both of whom have Down Syndrome and autism, as infants. At the point of that adoption, they felt God was redirecting their efforts and they began splitting their time between the U.S. and Ukraine.

Stateside, they continued to operate Camp Agape, a summer camp ministry they founded in 2004 for children and adults with special needs and special circumstances, as well as a pro-life ministry serving expectant and new mothers, both in rural Irasburg, Vermont, 20 miles south of the Canadian border. When visiting Ukraine, Scott preached, Theresa taught, and the couple developed relationships with clinics, orphanages, and families.

They were thrilled last fall to move their own family of five to Ukraine “permanently” because they believed that is where God had called them.

Vladimir Putin had other ideas.

War-time Evacuation, February 2022

“When we went to Ukraine, we thought we were there for good,” Scott said. “Then suddenly, we were evacuating.” The Cianciolos packed quickly, leaving their car and most of their belongings behind.

“It was devastating,” Theresa said. “We left our home and ministry and the people we love. We were in a fog.”

The two went back to Vermont and began a period they call a “sabbatical,” a time of fasting, praying, and seeking God’s direction.

“You hear pastors tell stories of how something happened in their lives, and they grew closer to God,” Scott said. “And you go to the altar and say, ‘Lord, will You teach me how to love You and trust You more.’ And time goes by, and something happens, and now you know you have to trust Him more. It’s these times where what man meant for evil, God meant for good.”

The Shapovalova family, pictured here outside their home near Zaporizhia City (now Russian-occupied), includes four adopted special needs children. The Shapovalovas are living as refugees in Poland and seeking sponsorship to come to the U.S. Mr. Shapovalova is a pediatrician.

What the Cianciolos saw as they came out of their sabbatical was an unclouded vision to help Ukrainian families—specifically those with special needs children—relocate to the U.S. where they can live safely and find services such as physical and occupational therapy. Their ministry is currently in the process of purchasing an additional property near their home in Vermont to be used as the “Agape House of Mercy” for refugee families. They also plan to form a bilingual Ukrainian-English church.

As with all the preaching Scott has done over the last 20 years, much of the biblical teaching he plans for the new church will be influenced by Adrian Rogers. “I use something from Pastor Rogers for probably two out of every three messages I preach,” Scott said. “I can’t tell you how much Adrian Rogers has affected my life both as a pastor and as a Christian.”

Active While Waiting

While the Cianciolos are waiting to work out the details for House of Mercy, they are actively serving Ukrainian families through a family sponsorship program, supply missions, and an online prayer and encouragement program.

According to the BBC, as of the end of May, more than six million Ukrainians had fled to neighboring countries while another eight million had been displaced inside the war-torn country itself.

Collaborating with other individuals and ministries, the Cianciolos have secured sponsorships for eight Ukrainian refugee families to come to the U.S. While the process is arduous, time-consuming, and tangled in red tape, they hope to expand sponsorship quickly.

Their encouragement program is focused specifically on pastors and on families with special needs children. The Cianciolos worked with others to create a “net pals” program that enables interested Christians to correspond regularly with Ukrainians in crisis. “We have paired up people from America with people who were in underground shelters and just needed prayer,” Theresa said. Many of the net pal participants utilize programs that enable immediate language translation on social media. “We need to remember in ministry that technology can be used for good,” Scott said.

Since those who have been displaced are best able to specify exactly what supplies are needed, the Cianciolos utilized net pals, in part, to inform a recent medical supply mission. While Scott stayed in Vermont to continue the ministry there and to care for their sons, (Gabriel, 16, and twins Alex and Sammy, now age 8), Theresa led a team of three to Poland in May. The mission was made possible through several churches in Vermont and Florida and the medical supply ministry, Blessings International. A pediatrician and other medical professionals joined the team once in Poland. The goal was to get medications, vitamins, and other medical supplies over the border and into Ukraine.

“Blessings gave us a huge discount for what we took on the plane, the airlines were generous to us on baggage costs, and we were able to buy several thousand dollars of additional supplies in Poland. We carried literally over a thousand pounds of medical supplies into Ukraine,” Theresa said. “We also saw about 40 children who had been displaced from Ukraine into Poland who had no medication and who had been unable to see a doctor.”

Most importantly, Scott added, “We were able to take in hundreds of Gospel tracts translated into Ukrainian.”

The Cianciolos are awed by what God is doing with the little ministry they started nearly 20 years ago to serve people with special needs. “We would never have imagined that it would be an international ministry today,” Scott said. They are equally amazed at God’s gift of a new vision for the ministry following their departure from Ukraine.

The Cianciolos were thrilled to serve in Ukraine, stunned by the war with Russia, and redirected by God to a new ministry vision.

“What we continue to learn,” Theresa said simply, “is that His grace is sufficient. He’s sufficient for us when we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. And for Ukraine, even in this horrible time, even for the mother of a special needs child living in the bomb shelter, His grace is sufficient. People in Poland and in Ukraine and all over the world are growing close to Christ because of this devastation.

“That’s the testimony,” Scott said. “People are drawing to Him. When you are at your least, He becomes the most.” 

NOTE: The Cianciolos may be reached through their ministry website, agape4ukraine.com.