Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of war violence.
Southern Baptist volunteers who spent time serving Ukrainian refugees on the Ukraine-Poland border can’t unsee the horrors they witnessed and now can’t not care about the crisis.
Eleven volunteers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, Alabama and Kansas traveled 5,000 miles to serve refugees. The group, led by Brad Horne, associational mission strategist for the Keystone Baptist Association in Pennsylvania and a former International Mission Board missionary, ministered to emotionally shell-shocked families and individuals, providing practical supplies, prayer, and the love of Jesus. Team members listened to stories that shook them to their core and returned with a burden to help more and a vision for revival in Ukraine.
Victoria (Vicka) Kolosey is a Ukrainian American and member of Kingsville Baptist Church, a Slavic congregation in Baltimore.
“Seeing my people displaced from their homes and their livelihoods running for their lives was unimaginable,” Kolosey said. “Many of these people had to split from their families. Many had sons or husbands or boyfriends fighting on the front lines, not knowing if they would survive another day. These stories were no longer something I would read on Instagram or hear about, but this was reality. Real people.”
“I will never understand the depths of their sorrows or be able to put myself in a position to understand them; the most I could do was listen to them and pray with them. So many of these people still had hope in Ukraine and in God that one day they would return home. They lacked anger toward the Russians. They had no understanding of the barbarity that was thrust upon them. But they continued to have hope. That is what changed the entire experience for me. Despite everything, they all had hope.”
To the border and beyond
Kolosey and the other team members arrived at the border only to find it saturated with volunteers from a variety of organizations. So they pivoted, engaging refugees at a train station near the border, in a passageway under the train station, and at a refugee center.
They gave away backpacks, supplied by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and distributed through the Baptist Resource Network (BRN) in Pennsylvania and South Jersey, suitcases, socks and coloring books for children. Russian Christians provided Bibles for the team to give away, and Ukrainian Christians supplied booklets to help deal with trauma. The team also set up an electronic charging station and served cookies and tea. But most important, they provided care, prayed with and for people, and shared the love of God.
Team member Kent McDowell, a former IMB missionary to Ukraine who now serves as a Hospice chaplain in Florida, said the group functioned similarly to disaster relief in a war zone.
“People are traumatized,” he said. “They don’t know what to say. They had that ‘thousand yards away’ look.”
At the train station, team members chatted with refugees as they passed, giving away backpacks and food. They planted hundreds of spiritual seeds and were thrilled when one of those seeds bore fruit. A boy named Sasha, 15, shared his story with Horne.
“After what he had been through, he was scared,” Horne said. Horne listened to and encouraged the boy and shared the gospel with him. The boy prayed to accept Christ. Afterward, he told Horne, “They might kill me if I go back.” Horne replied: “Then you’ll be in heaven.” Sasha said, “That’s right!”
At the same train station, the team witnessed a train arrive with two cars full of orphans. As the team watched the children file sadly onto the platform, heavily protected by authorities, the reality of the war’s effects hit hard.
Thousands at refugee center
Ministering at the refugee center was an incredible open door for ministry, and yet it was emotionally difficult. Horne, describing the expo center turned into a refugee camp, estimated there were about 6,000 people staying there.
“They have refugees in separate large rooms, and there are thousands in each room,” he said. “People are taking turns sleeping on and off. They can’t sleep at night because there is so much distraction — people getting up, making noise and crying.”
Horne ministered to some women who, with their children, had been crammed into the basements of bombed buildings trying to survive.
One woman told Horne she and 200 others were staying in a wet, damp basement with no running water. “Sometimes they couldn’t find water, and they would have to drink any liquid available to survive,” Horne said. Mothers were without formula. Since the men had to fight, the women would send teenage boys under 18 above ground, and they would look for food.
“They searched through stores that had been ransacked, and nothing was left,” he said. “The boys would go from apartment to apartment, breaking into the ones people had abandoned, rummaging through to try to find food and water.
“Another woman I spoke with was in a different building in the city of Mariupol. She said that her sister had been killed when a bomb hit close by, and the explosion blew off her legs. She told terrible stories.” Horne added that the woman also told him Russians sent buses, offering Ukrainians the opportunity to move to Russia, become citizens, and have food to eat and places to live.
“She said the Russians told them, ‘We’ll give you a new life,’” Horne said, adding that TV stations later reported that those who took up the offer did not receive what was promised.
“She also said the Russians forcibly removed hundreds of children,” Horne said. “They pulled a few aside and pulled out their teeth and fingernails and used them as examples as scare tactics so the other kids would obey them. I asked her, ‘How can you tell about this and not cry?’ She said, ‘I have no more tears.’”
Horne said the woman adheres to the Orthodox faith, but he does not believe she’s born again. “We prayed with her and gave her a Bible. She said, ‘We lost everything. There’s nothing to go back to.’” Horne said the woman plans to immigrate to Canada.
Carol Schneider, a member of Redeemer’s Grace Church in Wichita, Kan., said the visit to the refugee center was a wake-up call. Though a welcome sanctuary, it was very challenging for the occupants.
“The people were wall-to-wall, the noise was horrific, and the smell was not much better,” she said. “These poor people, mainly women and children of all ages, were crammed side by side in a huge warehouse-type room with cots as far as you could see. All they had was piled around them in bags and suitcases. There was no privacy.”
Schneider was overwhelmed. “I had an emotional breakdown after seeing all this. So much so that I had to leave the building and sit in our van. I told myself, I can’t go back in there. But then I did what I should have done sooner. I prayed, ‘God, if you want me to go back in there, you are going to have to help me because I can’t do it on my own.’”
God answered her prayer. The next day she was ready. “I spoke with as many people as I could without a translator,” she said. “And my husband, Darrel, and I handed out Bibles, backpacks, and socks. We prayed with them and for them. We gave away all the stuff we had brought there. We even gave away suitcases.
“The impact on me was profound; I still see their faces and pray for them daily.”
Kolosey said she had “never seen so many people in one place at a time. Let alone people who have been living there for at least over a month.”
But she added that it was a blessing to be a part of bringing help.
“There was nothing that they were lacking,” Kolosey said. “Ask anybody there if they needed anything, they said that they got everything from the center – shoes, clothes, food, entertainment and medical care. It was like nothing I have ever seen before. Polish people, Canadian soldiers and American doctors, all working in one place, volunteering continuously. I am so blessed to have been able to see this firsthand.”
God opens doors
McDowell said he had not used his Russian language skills for many years, and he prayed that God would bring them to memory. God answered that prayer, and it was especially useful while talking with a young man named Illya.
“He and his younger sibling and mom had a rocket go over their apartment,” McDowell said. Illya, in a matter-of-fact manner, showed McDowell a photo of a piece of shrapnel he and his brother found. McDowell talked with Illya and his mother, getting to know them and hearing their stories. Using a Russian Bible, McDowell shared the Gospel with Illya. When he read from the book of Acts, the teen was intrigued with the concept of the trinity.
Illya responded, “Wow, you know, it’s God in three persons!” McDowell, pleased, told the boy he was exactly right. Illya said, “I’m the third of three children, our street number is 3, and I live on the third floor. I think there’s something to that.”
McDowell agreed, telling him: “I don’t doubt that [for] a second. God uses numbers. He is in three persons. He loves you and hasn’t forgotten about you. Would you like to know Him and trust him? Illya said, ‘Yes, I would.’”
Illya prayed to receive Christ, and as a gift, he gave McDowell a ribbon bracelet with a picture of Kharkiv on one side and the colors of the Ukrainian flag on the back.
“God took him from darkness to light,” McDowell said. McDowell is now discipling his new young friend on Instagram.
Another story of God’s providence came when McDowell and another volunteer had to leave the expo center to get more supplies.They had on vests given to them, but not “official” vests. The guard at the door had changed, and when McDowell returned, the new guard would not let the men in.
The men were stymied — they only had a short time in the country, and there were so many people to talk with. Within moments, God opened the door.
“On the other side of the guard, I saw a man who turned around, and it was my friend Victor, a Ukrainian American from Florida who had worked with us in Russia in the past,” McDowell said. “He turned, and we hugged, and he asked, ‘What’s the issue?’” After McDowell shared his and his friend’s dilemma, Victor reached into his backpack and pulled out two “official” vests. “God put Victor there at that moment in time. It was an incredible answer to all the prayer,” McDowell said.