Ministering to Ukrainians in ‘the beyond’

Editor’s note: Through Send Relief, IMB personnel and their local partners are actively ministering to Ukrainians escaping the escalating war. Every dollar donated is used to provide emergency supplies, water, shelter and clothing and show the love of Christ in practical ways. Donate now.

Tensions escalated. An imminent invasion was on the horizon. The evacuation of IMB missionaries in Ukraine became imperative. Long-term missionary presence in a country now riddled with machine-gun fire wasn’t possible. So, what does gospel access in a country entrenched in a war with Russia look like?

For IMB missionaries who formerly served in Ukraine, maintaining and continuing their witness means continuing their ministry to Ukrainians in ‘the beyond’ — the countries surrounding the war-torn nation.

Linda Gray served in Kharkiv before evacuating in the days leading up to the war. Leaving her Ukrainian friends and Ukraine — where she invested more than 20 years of her life and ministry — was difficult. She’s now serving Ukrainians who fled to Bucharest, Romania. Opportunities abound to serve and share the gospel among refugees.

Linda Gray, right, and Ludmila visit on a park bench on the campus of a school that houses refugees. Ludmila is a Christian and shared her testimony with Gray. IMB Photo

Some of the opportunities to serve take place in a local school that is now home to roughly 125 Ukrainian refugees. In addition to IMB missionaries like Gray, Southern Baptist volunteers have invested time showing Christ’s love.

Gray, Romanian Christians, a pastor’s wife and a volunteer team from Indiana recently visited the school. The volunteer team and Ukrainian youth teamed up to play a soccer match with the soccer balls the team brought from the U.S. Other volunteers tossed frisbees. The volunteer team also distributed jump ropes, building blocks and therapeutic toys.

Sitting on an orange park bench on the school compound, Gray listened to the testimony of Ludmila, a Christian from Kyiv. Gray also had an extended conversation with a woman named Veronika, who shared Bible stories she read in a Ukrainian children’s Bible story book. Veronika asked for prayer to quit smoking. She told Gray she prays to Mary to help her kick the habit.

IMB missionary Linda Gray, left, and Veronika, a Ukrainian refugee, pause for a photo. Gray met Veronika at a school that became a refugee center. IMB Photo

“I prayerfully tried to bring her back to Jesus as her source of help, and how the stories from the Bible she was sharing with me all led to Jesus as the answer,” Gray said.

Naty is the pastor’s wife of the international church in Bucharest, and she organizes the refugee outreach in the school and city. Naty said the administrators of the school and refugee center invited them to come back weekly to meet with the children. The administrators were also interested in the Christians hosting a camp for the children. Gray said a camp will provide an opportunity to share hope and truth.

Ukrainians can worship in their heart language

IMB missionaries Ross and Kasey Lewis also served in Kharkiv and are now ministering to Ukrainians in Bucharest. The Lewises are involved in a new church plant start that began when a Ukrainian Christian struggled to understand and worship in English in an international church.

The Ukrainian Christian approached the pastor and his wife about starting a Ukrainian service. The church established a service, and Ukrainian Christians are now worshiping in their heart language, and non-Christians have committed their lives to Christ as a result. Ukrainian children are also able to learn in their first language. Kasey is helping in the children’s church, and more than 25 children attended a recent service.

Volunteers from Indiana play soccer with Ukrainian refugees. IMB Photo

Though many Ukrainians will remain in Romania or hope to return to Ukraine, many are immigrating — both to other European countries and the U.S. Some have family living in the countries where they are seeking asylum. Kasey is helping a Ukrainian friend and her children who hope to immigrate to the U.S. Once there, Ross and Kasey plan to connect her with Christians.

“I am praying that they will be able to start fresh in America within the next few months. [I’m] still praying and working for a somewhat happy ending for them,” Kasey said.

Though the Lewises and Gray aren’t physically in Ukraine, they are still physically present among the people they were commissioned to serve — whether that’s sitting on park benches or singing praise and worship music in Ukrainian. War doesn’t halt missionary presence. It may shift the location, but not the message or mission.