Report from April 1-4, 2022
I traveled to Warsaw, Poland to get a first-hand view of the general situation in light of Russia’s war with Ukraine and what our staff was doing in reaching the refugees in Poland and Ukraine. It was a blessing for me to travel to Poland with Jonathan Bernis, the founder and president of Jewish Voice Ministries International (JVMI) and to meet with some of his team members upon arrival in Poland as well.
It was my great joy to spend time with Kazimir Barczuk, our Chosen People Ministries Poland Director, and with his son-in-law Marek Pasnik. While there I also met with our Israel Director Michael Zinn who was visiting Warsaw along with Maxim Katz, our Missionary Director in Israel and Toivo Maki, Chosen People Ministries Director in Finland. Michael and Maxim are both fluent in Russian and Ukrainian.
Maxim Katz was there with a group of volunteers, which included three Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking volunteers who were there to help serve the refugees. This was Maxim’s third trip to Poland since the war began, as he had already been there with his wife and was now waiting for her to join him in Warsaw. The team has focused our ministry among refugees in the greater Warsaw area and will soon begin some additional weeks of more intensive ministry at the Christian campground in Ostruda, where we have been working with a few hundred refugees now living there.
I had the privilege of attending a number of orientation meetings with our own staff to find out what was happening, what the needs were, and what the possibilities were for greater ministry. We met at Kazimir and his wife Dorota’s apartment, located above his church, which is engaged with a tremendous ministry among Ukrainians in Warsaw. We learned that there are about 40 people a day who sleep in the facilities, and 400-600 people a day who enter through their facility, which is very close to the Ukrainian embassy. Many Ukrainian refugees are spending time at the church refugee center trying to get help with filling out their “official” documents, feeding, and finding interim housing and jobs and educational possibilities for their children in Poland. The refugees are also learning basic Polish as well.
It is clear that many of the 2.5 million Ukrainians are currently viewing Poland as a temporary place to go and stay as long as needed, or to use Poland as a “jump off” point to emigrate to Western Europe or to the United States, Canada, and Israel for those who are Jewish.
I spoke to quite a few of the Ukrainian refugees, primarily women whose husbands, brothers, and sons were still in Ukraine, either caring for their property and for their elderly relatives, or were fighting in the war with Russia. It is illegal for any male between 18 years old and early 60’s to leave the country, so most of the women and many of the younger mothers who have left Ukraine, have done so leaving their husbands behind. This is tragic, of course, and very sad.
I also heard that many of the families from Ukraine asked friends crossing the border to take their children with them. We found this to be true when we visited the Christian campground (almost 3 hours northwest of Warsaw) in the town of Ostruda, where Chosen People Ministries has been focusing most of its ministry. Thus, a major part of the ministry at the Christian Camp in Ostruda—where we are intensively involved—is to care for children who are separated from their parents.
This is a campground we use regularly, where we bring Holocaust survivors, camp-aged Israeli children, soldiers, and others for retreats with Polish Christians who have the opportunity to serve the Jewish people we bring to them. If you think about it for a moment, it is a powerful testimony, especially for the Holocaust survivors, as the last time they were in Poland they were persecuted, mistreated, and killed by some Poles who were complicit with the Nazis. This time, born-again Polish Christians are able to show the survivors and others God’s love and concern, which has radically transformed the views of some of the Holocaust survivors, and even younger soldiers, about Jesus.
We have brought over 3,000 kids through the years to Poland from Israel for a camping experience. Our director in Poland has been doing this kind of ministry for almost 30 years—especially focused on the Jewish people from the former Soviet Union. As an aside, it is critical to understand that between 1990 and our current day, more than two and a half million Russian or Ukrainian Jewish people have immigrated to Israel. In fact, most Israelis who know the nature of the Body would say that 60% of the Jewish believers in Israel speak Russian or Ukrainian as their first language.
During the evening of the first day, Saturday, April 2, we met with an elder from a large local church who was helping JVMI and was quite willing to help us as well. We discussed the current situation and went over our itineraries and began to get a feel for the struggles of the refugees and what his church was doing to help. The primary needs seem to be housing; food; and psychological, emotional, and spiritual counseling for moms with young children who have left their husbands behind. The refugees also need considerable help and advice about “what to do next.”
The above will become the more dominant issue that many of the refugees will face in the days ahead. All of this and the timing for making decisions about the future all depend upon when the war ends and to what degree their home and cities will be destroyed. Once again, those who stay in Poland for the most part are hoping to get back to Ukraine as soon as possible. I’m sure that some will stay in Poland because of the opportunities available to them, but most, at least in their minds and hearts, are trying to get back as soon as it is safe.
I also met some Jewish believers who are involved with what is probably the largest messianic congregation in the world—the Kiev Messianic Congregation—who have about 1,300-1,400 people in services on Saturday morning. Most of them are now scattered throughout Romania, Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Germany and Ukraine with a remnant left in Kiev. They are trying to reach Jewish people with the gospel while trying to take care of themselves and their family in the midst of their own difficulties.
Saturday was a great day for learning, which continued on Sunday.
Camp in Ostruda
After renting a 15-passenger van with a driver, the Chosen People contingent along with the JVMI team drove up to Ostruda to see what God was doing at this campground. We were surrounded by children and spoke with many of the young mothers as well. Of course, this was a Sunday and so it was not a particularly normal schedule as people were more relaxed. The kids were playing games, and there were some opportunities for Bible studies and worship. Their storehouse of clothing, shoes, and other kinds of necessities was also available to people that day, though most use it during the week.
For the last month, the camp has usually had at least 200 people, of which a hundred are children and the rest are primarily younger mothers along with some older women, of course. There are also about 40 children without parents.
It was heartbreaking listening to the stories of how homes and churches were destroyed and Christians scattered. Indeed, during that visit I have witnessed believers learning to trust the Lord in the face of great trauma and discouragement. We had the opportunity to pray with the camp director who is a very capable and generous soul who now has his hands full with handling the needs of the refugees.
I was especially moved by the children whose lives will be changed forever by the war.
Sunday Evening Fellowship and Orientation
After we returned from Ostruda, we had dinner and another orientation with some leaders from Life Church North, believers from Ukraine, and a team of Americans involved with emergency relief. In fact, this group had just done a seminar at the church for Ukrainian refugees about handling trauma. They also trained church members how to help Ukrainians going through these difficult periods and how to handle trauma in a way that ultimately turns them to Jesus.
One of the Ukrainian brothers was from Kharkiv, where we had planted a congregation as part of Chosen People Ministries almost 40 years ago. It was wonderful to hear that some of the folks from the congregation were still alive and functioning to some degree, but we were also told that the congregation had not really been meeting. Alex Serada, the planter and leader of the congregation died of a stroke two years ago, before COVID-19. Many people valiantly tried to keep the congregation going, but COVID-19 brought tremendous difficulties and now the war has caused those who were left at the congregation to scatter to safer parts of Ukraine—mostly in western Ukraine.
We also started a congregation in Kiev almost 40 years ago—immediately after Perestroika because of the great openness of Ukrainian Jewish people. At this moment the congregation is not meeting regularly either, as far as we know. Many of their members have left the country or have tried to find a safe haven in the western part of Ukraine.
Once again, there are four and a half million people who, as of this past weekend, have crossed the borders and left Ukraine, and another six and a half million who are in Ukraine but are displaced. This number, of course, is growing every day but slowing down for the moment. Cities like Mariupol, where up until the war we had been helping a couple of Messianic congregations, are 90% destroyed. Kharkiv and Kiev, so far, have withstood the invasion and are still functioning. Kharkiv, according to most observers, is between 15% and 20% destroyed. Chosen People Ministries is trying to keep in contact with those who have scattered from both congregations and we have ways of providing funding and help to those scattered believers—many of whom have regathered in western Ukraine. We currently provide quite a bit for their everyday needs as they have left their cities with almost nothing!
Further, those gathered that evening and most of those we talked with about “what to do next” agreed that the work of relief and helping Ukrainians might be viewed as a three-phase process.
The three phases are:
Phase #1: Emergency Relief
This involves doing whatever we can to make sure that people have food, medicine, housing, and financial, emotional, and spiritual support, and that they are helped as much as possible as they cross the border into other countries if they choose to leave. This is what most of those sitting at the dinner table have been involved with each and every day at the camp in Ostruda, with the church in Warsaw and through all we are doing directly in the Ukraine by caring for the displaced Messianic community, mostly in and around the cities of Ternopol and L’viv. Our Chosen People global ministry partners in Germany and Israel are also trying to take care for those who are immigrating to Israel and making Aliyah.
For example, in Israel we are securing two apartments where we can directly care for families immigrating to Israel from Ukraine and we will think about opening more depending on the number of immigrants. We are helping them learn Hebrew, assisting them as they work their way through Israeli bureaucracy in order to get benefits, and helping them find more permanent housing and schooling for their kids.
Phase #2: Surviving Longer Term Displacement
Phase 2 involves our helping to meet the needs of Ukrainian refugees who choose to remain outside of their homes and cities for the foreseeable future. Again, the length of displacement depends upon the damage to their homes and to their cities and will change with Russia’s military choices and the ability of Ukraine to fight off the invasion. Those displaced will find their ways to countries immediately across the border and further west as far as North America. Many will try to stay in Ukraine by living in seemingly safer or less-destroyed parts of Ukraine for now.
They will need more permanent housing, new jobs, or their old jobs back at the companies where they worked and see if they can continue to do so remotely. Their kids will need to learn a new language if they land outside the country, as they must go to school.
Many of the moms I spoke to in Poland did not want to go far away from Ukraine as their husbands and sons could not leave with them and they are hoping to return to Ukraine as soon as they are able and it is safe for their children.
Phase #3: Rebuilding Lives, Congregations, and Ukraine
The final or third phase is rebuilding. This is going to be one of the most difficult phases of our response to the invasion and will require a long-term approach to relief efforts. The timing of this process depends upon the ongoing extent of the Russian invasion and resulting level of destruction to Ukraine. Cities, homes, churches, congregations, schools, hospitals, and so much more will need to be rebuilt and the infrastructure of the country will need to be restored. This will provide some opportunities for Chosen People Ministries as we might be able to help in some places, though most of what will be needed is beyond the scope of our abilities. We will find ways to be involved with helping to restore the Ukrainian Messianic community in one way or another.
Obviously, we cannot even begin to think about phase #3 at this time as the war rages on and we do not even know what stage of the invasion we are in or, once the war is over, what will be left to rebuild, or the resulting political environment within Ukraine, especially in the east.
During Phase #3, whenever it begins, we will continue to serve the thousands of Ukrainian Jewish people whom we helped make Aliyah and all those Jewish Ukrainians who move to Israel and are more open to Yeshua as a result of their suffering. In this phase, Chosen People Ministries will continue to focus on funneling Jewish Ukrainians who want to move to Israel, and nurturing and shepherding them through the process of Aliyah. We are already discovering Jewish people who are in this situation each and every day as we minister to the Ukrainian refugees. We will be able to help them both in Ukraine, Poland, and in other cities and countries.
For those who stay in Poland and Germany, we will also do whatever we can to help them spiritually and practically as we are able. Beit Sar Shalom in Germany is already actively serving the growing number of Ukrainian refugees as many Ukrainian Jewish people have moved to Berlin, and the local congregation is helping these immigrants and will continue to do so if they are able to stay in Germany for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, as of today, we realize we will continue to hear reports of the cruelty of war and do not know how far and for how long Putin will aggress Ukraine. Chosen People Ministries will do everything we can to help these dear precious people survive and, of course, we will do everything we can to point them to Jesus who is ultimately the one who will save them both in this life and in the age to come.
Possibilities for Volunteers
We have been contacted by many who want to volunteer in Poland, Germany, and in Ukraine as well. This is deeply appreciated. We have brought up this topic quite often as to whether or not the help of non-Ukrainian or Russian speakers would be valued by those on the ground.
I am told that one of the major challenges we have is language. If a volunteer does not speak the language of the refugees or the country where the refugees have fled, then those who do speak the language will be busy helping those who have come to help rather than those who need the assistance. One of the needs of the refugees is to simply speak to someone who cares who will also pray with them. This is especially true of the children who need a lot of attention.
Serving in Ukraine is almost impossible right now as there are very few places for people to live. It is also very unsafe at this moment except for the far western part of Ukraine in the city of L’viv. A number of Christian workers have established various types of ministries from warehousing necessary goods to medical clinics at this time. If Russia does not bomb the west of Ukraine, then there might be some opportunities for those who want to volunteer and help with logistics.
There are also some volunteer opportunities in Poland and Germany for those willing to do cooking, cleaning, teaching English as a second language, and more. However, we need independent people who are willing to get themselves there, find and pay for their own hotels, and get their own transportation to where they need to go. Most of our staff and frankly most of the ministries doing the work are already over their heads and if people come, they really need to be able to take care of themselves and fit into whatever kind of ministry is available. I hope this does not sound discouraging, but I’m trying to be realistic.
The above is written from the perspective of Phase #1 of the emergency plan and it is very possible that volunteers from a variety of countries could be useful in a variety of ways. We will continue to pray and speak to those “on the ground” to find out what their needs might be at any given moment.
Your support, gifts, prayers, and encouragement mean so much to suffering Ukrainians and to those serving the Lord in Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and Israel.
On the day of departure in Warsaw, I met Olga from Israel; she came to pick up her grandson Rodion, eight years old, on the border with Ukraine. On the way to Warsaw, the grandson lost his passport, and now they cannot fly. They spent the night at the central station. We helped them find housing and are now trying to solve this problem and help them move to Israel. Please pray for them! In twelve days, the Lord helped us take more than fifteen Jewish families from Ukraine and send them to Israel.
We also had the opportunity to support our friends in Ukraine; we were able to buy and give them 60 kg washing powder, 15 kg baby food, several hundred bars of soap, and medicines. They were volunteers with us in Israel. Tamara is now in Poland in Ostruda, while her husband Oleg stayed in Rivne and organized a help center at the church. They deliver humanitarian aid to shelled towns and cities and remove civilians from the encirclement. We are helping them, and now we are trying to get and give them a car for ministry from Poland. Last week, they took about forty people out of Chernikov and brought them to western Ukraine. Attached, you will find a video about this ministry.
I thank God for every day spent with people who fled from the war. I thank Him that He always gave me the right words for preaching, consolation, and support. Thank you for your prayers and donations that allow us to serve.
After our return, we constantly think about what we did not have time to do and think about going again. Please pray for God’s will! There is just as much work in Israel right now due to many Olim Hadashim [new immigrants] from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. But thanks to God, we have a great team in Israel that can help with all this!
Maxim and Slavna