Bus after bus arrived at the border, filled with women and children, separated from husbands and fathers. Most men stayed behind, now needed in cities and towns throughout the Ukrainian countryside. The grief of those who fled was palpable.
It is one of many scenes International Mission Board President Paul Chitwood can’t forget after a recent three-day trip to eastern Poland, 20 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. While there he met with various IMB personnel and humanitarian groups and saw Baptists step into a role desperately needed during a historic refugee crisis.
Speaking with Baptist Press March 6, the jet lag and lack of sleep were in Chitwood’s voice.
“Didn’t sleep a wink on the way to London,” he said, referring to an overnight flight that landed Feb. 26. A vision trip connecting churches in the U.S. with IMB personnel and partners in Europe took place over the following days. The original plan was to leave London and go to different locales throughout Europe, including Ukraine.
Growing tensions along with the Russian military buildup and eventual invasion altered those plans. Instead, Chitwood traveled to Poland Feb. 28. Over the course of three days, he witnessed the resolve of Baptists and other ministry partners meeting the spiritual and physical needs of those fleeing an unprovoked war in its second week of destroying homes and separating families.
After landing in Krakow Feb. 28, Chitwood met with mission teams and a church planter from Ukraine. March 1 took him to Chelm (pronounced “Helm”) Baptist Church and a visit to the border. March 2 brought a visit to Warsaw Baptist Seminary and meeting Michal Baloha, who is Ukrainian and serves as pastor of Warsaw Baptist Church.
While the situation for those fleeing into Poland is heartbreaking, there is inspiration to be found in the response, he said.
“From the very moment this crisis began we had missionaries and relief workers on the ground providing resources and offering help,” Chitwood said. “It wasn’t something that we had to work up. The response is growing, but our people were there and ready. It speaks to the incredible work God has allowed Southern Baptists to be a part of and the generosity that makes that work possible.”
Approximately 1.5 million refugees have crossed from Ukraine into neighboring countries since Russia’s invasion, the United Nations’ refugee agency commissioner said March 6. In what’s been called “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II,” the European Union is calling for nations to brace for some 5 million refugees.
In Krakow, Chitwood met with the IMB’s missionary team and a church planter from Ukraine. “I’m sorry for getting emotional. I wasn’t prepared for this in seminary,” he told Chitwood.
The visit to the border brought the crisis up close. On a cold day where a cutting wind joined temperatures in the 30s, things remained orderly with Polish military and police on hand. Chitwood and others spent a few hours greeting people coming off the buses.
Back at Chelm Baptist, he met with the church’s pastor, Henryk Skrzypkowski, who is also a member of the council of the Polish Baptist Union. Chelm Baptist resembles your typical mid-sized American church. The sanctuary has a balcony and the fellowship hall is downstairs. Modest space is sectioned off for offices and classrooms.
All of it has found a new purpose.
Pews and even the pulpit were moved to the stage to make room for 20 cots. It soon became evident the number of refugees on the way, so an additional 200 cots were purchased and put into any bit of floor space that could be found.
The several dozen volunteers at Chelm Baptist have taken any step possible to give comfort. A reception area with coffee, tea, sandwiches and desserts welcomes refugees. The smell of meals heavy with potatoes and meat rises from the extra stoves in the fellowship hall downstairs. Washers and driers continuously keep linens clean for those needing a night or two of rest before moving on.
Efforts also include distributing clothes and finding ways to get food and supplies back into Ukraine. Southern Baptists wanting to contribute directly to the effort can do so through Send Relief.
At Warsaw Baptist Seminary, Chitwood spoke with seminary leaders and the pastor of Warsaw Bible Church, who is Ukrainian.
“He shared with us some of the stories that are coming out Ukraine,” Chitwood said. Included was a report of Russian soldiers with a list of pastors who have spoken out against the war. Even the media’s use of the term “war” has been banned in Russia. Those using it can face 15 years in prison.
As inspiring as seeing the Baptist response, the heartbreak making it necessary is also present in the faces of those arriving.
“I was rocked by the horror of the situation for the Ukrainian people,” Chitwood said. “Suddenly, their country is invaded and everything about their lives has now been rewritten. Their homes are destroyed; their families divided; their loved ones killed. They were in established jobs and homes and now are fleeing for their lives. They’re going to other countries where they may not know a soul.”
In addition to giving through Send Relief, Southern Baptists can also offer prayer support for those trying to get out as well as those choosing to stay. “Pray for some efforts we’re trying to create to support those on both sides of the border,” Chitwood said. “The food shortage is becoming a humanitarian crisis. People are waiting hours in line in the cold. Pray also for us in coordinating assistance with local partners, churches, seminaries and other relief agencies.”
Polish Baptists are working to meet those types of needs and others, he added.
“They are people with limited resources and are giving everything they have to care for total strangers,” Chitwood said. “Out of compassion, they’re wanting to help and show the love of Christ.”