by Stephen McQuoid
Stephen is the General Director of GLO
Whenever a crisis breaks out, it is astonishing how quickly things can change. At the time of writing the invasion of Ukraine is just over a week old, yet already over a million refugees have been displaced and have made their way into neighbouring countries. By the time you read this article, the scene will have changed again and Ukraine could be almost unrecognisable from what we knew of it just a few weeks ago.
I have fond memories of Ukraine, having been there on a number of occasions. It is impossible to go to a country like Ukraine and not be impressed by all that God has done. Ukraine is an important bridge between East and West. It is a large land mass, more than twice the size of the UK, with a population of around 45 million people. With its Slavic Christian heritage going back 1,000 years, most Ukrainians are part of the Orthodox Church. However, evangelicalism is spreading and Evangelical Christians now comprise about 4% of the population (almost 2 million people).
A Vibrant Church
I have had the joy of preaching in different Ukrainian churches and my overwhelming sense has been of vibrant Christians with a real heart for the gospel as well as a desire to serve the community. Some churches I visited feed the hungry, give shelter to drug addicts and the homeless, care for people with disabilities and express Christian love in tangible ways. It has been a thrill to preach at new church plants that have sprung up in many parts of the country. I have one fond memory of preaching in a new church whose building was nothing more than a glorified shed with no heating, running water or toilet facilities. It was winter with snow on the ground, so I preached wearing a heavy coat and warm gloves, but nothing could disguise the warmth and joy of the Christians who met there to worship God.
Geographically, Ukraine is in a key position with Russia to the east, Belarus to the north and bordering Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Each of these countries has featured in Ukraine’s history and they vary greatly from prosperous Poland to much less-developed Moldova. Each of these countries has a role to play in dealing with the huge flow of refugees out of Ukraine.
Life for ordinary Ukrainians quickly degenerated following the Russian invasion. As expected, Russia attacked on several fronts with a major incursion from the north aimed at taking out the capital, Kyiv. The invasion sparked a refugee crisis as people fled their homes to find safety. This rapidly made over a million people dependent on the goodwill and kindness of others. In this highly volatile situation, the church quickly became an emergency service.
With Open Arms
Many churches opened their doors and welcomed refugees with open arms. I received messages from church leaders who had bought generators, food supplies, water and blankets so they could help displaced persons who came across their path. Believers opened up their homes and invited total strangers to stay with them, simply because they wanted to express the love of Christ to their frightened fellow countrymen. The crisis caused panic buying throughout Ukraine. Shops emptied and queues became long. Prices went up as goods became scarce but this did not stop Christians sharing what they had.
The invasion sparked a refugee crisis as people fled their homes to find safety. This rapidly made over a million people dependent on the goodwill and kindness of others.
Churches in the west of the country became staging posts as people fleeing from the east made their way towards destinations such as Poland. Churches offered a night’s sleep and shared whatever rations they could offer as the refugees went on into Poland or other neighbouring countries.
The generosity did not stop at the Ukrainian border. Christians in neighbouring countries, even very poor Moldova, began to open their hearts to help the fleeing refugees. Churches began to get organised to accommodate refugees and to offer practical help. Some of these countries had Christian campsites, and conference and training centres that were repurposed to house refugees. Many families also opened up their homes and welcomed anyone who needed a bed and a good meal.
It is here, and in this way, that the reality of the universal Church was evidenced. Christians, churches and mission organisations from across Europe, the Americas and even from as far away as Australia, began to collect money and send supplies, not just to help believers in Ukraine itself but also to support Christians in neighbouring countries who are working hard to care for refugees. The effort has become highly coordinated, which is important because when such a crisis occurs it can become difficult and even dangerous to get help to people. Banks were closing and normal methods of conveying money were not working effectively. However, my perception is that many churches and Christian organisations have creatively found ways of getting help to where it’s needed.
For people on the ground, ministering in this pressurised situation can be exceedingly difficult. It is not just tiring to give yourself so completely to help others, it can also be emotionally draining to deal with their burdens and trauma. In the early days of this conflict, I was in touch with a Ukrainian friend via messenger. I had stayed with her and her husband and baby daughter during my last visit to Ukraine. They ran a small family business that was only just getting going when I visited. Once the invasion began, she, her daughter and her mother fled to Poland while her husband stayed to fight with the Ukrainian army. It was clear from the messages she sent me that she feared for her own future as well as her husband’s life as he had no military experience. She was staying with a Polish family with her daughter and mother but they were not able to stay there for long. Because of the number of refugees in that town, finding work or accommodation impossible so she asked about the possibility of coming to the United Kingdom. I gave what advice I could. Anyone helping in such circumstances needs emotional fortitude while offering their support.
An Uncertain Future
It is almost impossible to predict what will happen next. Indeed, any assumptions that I might make may prove to be entirely incorrect by the time this article is published. Volatile situations are by their very nature unpredictable. Much will depend on how long this invasion continues, how ‘successful’ it is, the lengths that President Putin is prepared to go to in order to achieve his objectives, the resistance offered by the Ukrainian people and the impact of Western sanctions. The one thing we do know is that the longer this crisis continues the more damaging it will be and the longer it will take for any kind of normality to return to Ukraine.
Naturally, we should pray for the church and pray that Christians will be able to express the love of Christ in this terrible situation. We should also pray that the church in Ukraine will not be snuffed out or suppressed but will continue to be a bright light in the midst of the suffering. Pray that the church in the countries surrounding Ukraine will be strong and generous and continue to help needy people, even at significant cost.
Only God knows the future but it strikes me that at times like this, we should be humble and thankful for the blessings we receive as well as compassionate towards those in need. With war so close to our borders, we need to recognise the instability and fallenness of our world as well as the importance of hope, which we find in Christ alone. If this crisis teaches us anything, it is that the transforming gospel of Christ is good news because it offers not just the security of eternity but also Christlike compassion when Christians share with those in need. Please pray for Ukraine.
‘In the shelter of your presence you hide them from all human intrigues; you keep them safe in your dwelling from accusing tongues. Praise be to the Lord, for He showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege. In my alarm I said, “I am cut off from your sight!” Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help…Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord’ (Ps 31:20-22, 24).