A psalm of ‘our dwelling place’
SOPOT, Poland — During the 51 days church members were…
KOŠICE, Slovakia — This central European city, it seems, was made to serve its Ukrainian neighbors.
Flags of blue and yellow — Košice’s colors, just like Ukraine — fly from wires suspended above its downtown promenade and appear in the windows of shops throughout.
Related: A psalm of ‘our dwelling place’
At a relief center set up near the central bus station, city workers push trolleys loaded with mattresses for their Ukrainian guests. U.S. First Lady Jill Biden visited and prayed with refugees in a tent chapel near the Ukrainian border, less than 60 miles to the east.
There are, however, signs of tension in this nation of 5.4 million, once part of the communist Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Commenters on social media decried images of the “foreign flags,” confusing them with Ukraine’s. One asked, “Is this Kyiv … or Košice?” Amid rising inflation across Europe, some expressed resentment toward Ukrainians who drove across the border in BMWs and received aid while some Slovaks live on just a handful of Euros per month.
Slovakia has registered more than 400,000 refugees since the war began in late February. A few with financial means, fearing that their currency may soon lose its value, have bought apartments, said Peter Haluštok, who ministers for a small Church of Christ here. Outside the city, some Slovaks fear that Ukrainians are taking their jobs.
But Haluštok doesn’t focus on social media chatter. He and his fellow Christians know the needs, and they volunteer to help their hurting and traumatized neighbors, many of whom crossed the border on foot, carrying their meager possessions in shopping bags.
On a Tuesday morning Haluštok took a team from Sunset International Bible Institute and The Christian Chronicle to a makeshift village set up by the city, a small apartment building and a collection of container pods with showers and bedrooms.
Sixty refugees — 25 families, mostly women and children — were living in the temporary housing.
In the apartment building’s kitchen, Lidia Karpenko fixed cereal for her 6-year-old son, Sasha, and for another child whose mother was working at a laundromat. Karpenko’s brother had sent her photos of their home in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv that was devastated by Russian forces in the early days of the war. There were massive holes in the walls.
She wants to go home, even though there’s not a lot to go back to, Karpenko said. Then she began to cry. “But people here have been so good to us,” she said.
As she listened, Adela Liftakova also fought back tears. The director of city facilities for Košice, she has heard countless stories like Karpenko’s. She and her coworkers marshal what resources they can to help. (Right now they could use more washing machines, she said.) But she knows that the refugees’ needs go far beyond the physical.
The temporary housing is overseen by the city, not a church. But Richard Baggett nonetheless sensed a “divine spark” in Liftakova and her coworkers. “You could tell that, for them, their job is more than a job,” he said.
Baggett and Brandon Price represented Sunset, a ministry training program that has campuses around the world, including Ukraine. The visit to Košice was part of a tour of European churches and agencies that are serving refugees. Texas-based
Sunset, associated with Churches of Christ, has raised more than $1 million for Ukraine relief. Baggett and Price surveyed immediate needs and collected ideas for long-term relief strategies.
“More than any other place, I got a sense of how lonely, disconnected and vulnerable they were,” Baggett said of the refugees he met in Košice. “While they were appreciative of a safe place to stay … they were in a foreign land without their husbands, not knowing the language and not knowing what to do or where to go next.
The language barrier played a role in Vitaly Samodin’s decision to leave Slovakia for the U.S. But there were other factors as well.
“There is an older generation in Slovakia that sympathizes with Russia,” he said. “Those few encounters … made life really miserable.”
Samodin, his wife and their four daughters, ages 7 to 14, lived in Kyiv, where he is outreach director for the Ukrainian Education Center. Before the war, the campus ministry supported by Churches of Christ hosted study sessions and Bible lessons for students and immigrants. Samodin served refugees from around the globe, including the Middle East.
As the bombs fell on Kyiv, “we experienced a lot of what they went through,” said Samodin, now a refugee himself. “It became very personal very quickly.”
His family stayed in Michalovce, a small town about 40 miles east of Košice. A Brethren Church hosted them, and Samodin stressed that its members and many of the Slovaks they encountered were kind, generous and hospitable.
Now the family is in the Nashville, Tenn., area, where they’ve struggled to find housing in the city’s booming real estate market. The girls, who took some online classes while in Slovakia, are enrolled in school for the fall.
“They are finally able to make friends that are not virtual,” Samodin said. The family worships with the Hillsboro Church of Christ in Nashville, a congregation with a history of mission work in Ukraine.
The church has embraced them warmly. And the girls, who once were afraid to leave their home, “jumped at the opportunity to go to the church youth camp,” Samodin said. “That’s how starved they were for real relationships.”
The family plans to stay for at least the next school year to give their girls a sense of stability.
“Ultimately, we do want to go back,” he said. “Home is home.”
The majority of refugees want to return to Ukraine, but about two-thirds expect to stay in their host countries until the fighting subsides, according to a recent survey by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
For those who return, whenever that is, “we’re going to be by their side, step by step, to help them replant congregations and help the hurting,” said Tim Burow, president of Sunset International Bible Institute.
From 2000 to 2006 Burow and his wife, Mina, served as missionaries in Mariupol, the coastal Ukrainian city that endured months of onslaught before falling to Russia in mid-May. He trained a generation of evangelists through the Ukrainian Bible Institute, now in exile in Poland.
In 2014, when pro-Russian separatists seized parts of eastern Ukraine, those evangelists spread out across the country and breathed new life into churches in central and western Ukraine, Burow said. Now the war has pushed many Christians farther west. Ukrainians are filling the pews of once-struggling churches in Romania, Germany and France.
There’s still plenty of immediate need, Burow said. Funds from Sunset’s Global Relief Ministry pay for supplies sent across borders into Ukraine. As the war drags on, the ministry is beginning to focus on winter clothing and firewood for those still living in Ukraine, Baggett said. Sunset also is considering counselors who specialize in grief and trauma to address the refugee’s emotional needs.
Beyond the immediate needs, Burow said, “In many ways, this is a movement of God in our time. While we would prefer it not to be taking place, while we believe that there is evil behind it, God is able to use this in a way that will expand his kingdom and bring glory to him.”
“In many ways, this is a movement of God in our time. While we would prefer it not to be taking place (and) believe that there is evil behind it, God is able to use this in a way that will expand his kingdom and bring glory to him.”
He noted that, across Europe, the strongest and fastest-growing Churches of Christ tend to be fueled by immigrants “who have brought their faith with them, brought their fervor with them.”
Ukrainian Christians have that fervor, he said. As they begin to heal, they have the opportunity to share their faith in Jesus with an increasingly post-Christian West.
For refugees like Vitaly Samodin, the question of where he will minister — Ukraine, Europe or Nashville — is still undecided.
“We want to be where God wants us to be,” he said, “and we think that’s Ukraine at the moment. But then, you know, who knows?”
To contribute to Sunset International Bible Institute’s Ukraine relief efforts, see sibi.cc or call 800.658.9553.
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.