Ukraine conflict prompts local church response
UKRAINE (BP) -- Artillery shells rock buildings. Armed men run through the streets firing their weapons. Citizens take refuge in any safe haven they can find. Yet, Christian workers in eastern Ukraine say the church has never been more alive.
In Kharkiv church members take turns preparing meals at the train station for refugees who are fleeing their homes from other eastern cities where fighting has intensified.
"We saw how hungry, hopeless and desperate they were," Nadia Morokhovets, the wife of a local Baptist pastor, said. "The Lord spoke to our hearts through Scripture where Jesus looks at His disciples and says, 'You give them something to eat.'"
Nadia said churches in the city came together and formed an agreement with local officials to provide free meals for the many refugees and displaced people who pass through the train station each day. For more than two weeks about 100 liters of soup have been cooked and distributed each day. Church members also bring essential medicines, fresh fruit, food for babies, and even toys for the children. They also provide copies of the New Testament.
"The refugees are really thankful," Nadia said, even though many in the predominantly Orthodox country typically regard Baptists and other evangelicals with suspicion. "All the people have been so grateful!"
While most who pass though the Kharkiv train station are native Ukrainians, Nadia said on occasion they meet foreigners who are fleeing for their lives. One such man was Bob,* an American citizen in his late 60s who has been living in an eastern Ukrainian city for the past four years.
"They [the pro-Russian separatists] thought he was an American spy," Nadia said. "He was kept in a dark cellar and his hands were tied to the point where they turned black. He was afraid his hands would fall off."
Nadia said the man was released by his captors thanks to a Jewish organization who paid ransom for him and another 11 people.
In nearby Izum, one of the Baptist churches has been working around the clock for several months to help refugees transition as they move from their besieged home cities to a new life elsewhere in Ukraine.
Pastor Slavik Veronen said 2,135 refugees are registered in the city of Izum and another 1,200 in the region. He said there could be many more since those numbers represent only those who have officially registered with the local government.
"Some of them are living in very bad conditions," he said. "There are some houses with leaking roofs or broken heaters. Some people are living in apartments without any furniture, kitchenware or beds."
Pastor Veronen and other church members are helping provide basic needs for these refugees. Many, he said, do not have money because they once owned their homes and now have to find new jobs and pay rent, leaving them with no money for food, medicine and clothing.
International Mission Board worker Tom Long* has served in and out of Ukraine for 20 years. He says he has never seen the local churches so active.
"It is amazing," Long said. "They have become vibrant, active communities of believers who are reaching out to the people of their cities."
In the 20 years since the fall of communism, Long explained, most evangelical churches have been timid about engaging their communities. Even today, most evangelicals are considered to be part of sects, or cults. "But, this crisis has given the church a new boldness ... a mission to reach out to their friends, their neighbors and their entire community."
Long communicates regularly with pastors throughout eastern Ukraine. "The one thing I hear over and over again is that even though people are leaving the region because of the fighting, most pastors have chosen to stay because they feel obligated to their community," he said. "One pastor told me that he wants the people in his city to know that the church is where you go when you are in trouble. How can you not be supportive of that?"
Long is working with Baptist Global Response (BGR) and others to help provide assistance for those in eastern Ukraine as fighting continues, despite an announced ceasefire.
Most of the refugees fled their homes, he added, while the weather was still warm.
"They were not thinking about winter," he said. "They just wanted to grab a few things and get out of their cities safely. Now, winter is on its way and they have no winter clothes, coats or even shoes that will protect them from the cold."
Long said they also hope to help provide necessities like medicine and food for refugees. He encouraged people to give through Baptist Global Response's refugee and Internally Displaced People (IDP) fund at https://gobgr.org/donate/product-detail/refugees-and-idps. People can also give to the IMB project, Rebirth Eastern Ukraine, by clicking here.
Both Long and Pastor Slavik encourage Southern Baptists not to stop praying for the situation in eastern Ukraine. "Pray that our hands will not loose heart," Pastor Slavik said.
*Name changed. Marc Ira Hooks is an International Mission Board writer based in Europe. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).