From 28-30 November, Baptist leaders from Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Belarus, and from EBF and Baptist Forum for Aid and Development (BFAD) met in Vienna to pray, strategise, reflect, and look forward to how God is calling the Church to respond in times of crisis.
Vienna is known around the world for its cosy Christmas markets and dazzling Advent light decorations that adorn the city. Even during the short winter days, the city glows with the warmth of lights and holiday cheer. The eyes of Ukrainian Baptist leaders shone as they gazed up at the lights of the city, a feast of light in stark contrast to the darkness that they left behind briefly in Ukraine.
From Ukrainian Baptist accounts, close to half of Ukraine’s power grid has sustained damage. Since the meeting took place in late November, Russian military forces have further targeted power grids leaving millions with little to no access to power as temperatures stay consistently below freezing. Replacement parts are becoming scarce, limiting the ability to repair damaged infrastructure. As Igor Bandura, Vice President of the All-Ukrainian Union of Associations of Evangelical Christians-Baptists pointed out, the upcoming winter can be used as a weapon of war.
But Bandura did not conclude there. He continued on to comment that Ukrainian Baptists serve the One who really is in control of winter, and trust that He will use this as an opportunity for ministry. Bandura shared a bold vision that the Ukrainian Baptist team has crafted, looking to equip every Baptist church in the country to be a place of heat and hope to their communities. Through the use of generators, food donations, and fuel given through partner support, Baptists will play a critical role in helping their communities survive the difficult winter months. In the midst of darkness and despair, Baptists are shining the light and hope of Christ brightly and warmly.
Across the entire region — in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, and Belarus — Baptists reflect this same light in their work among displaced Ukrainians. From continuing to transport refugees to places of safety, to housing those who have no other place to go, from distributing food and clothes to those in need, to welcoming in whole new congregations of Ukrainian speakers into the lives of their churches, the war has changed the landscape of Baptist ministry in the region. Leaders reflected on the joys and challenges of these changes.
Every story and update each leader shared proved that the Church is vibrantly alive in Central and Eastern Europe. Story after story was shared of the ways God is powerfully at work within the region. An awakening is occurring across Ukraine and in its neighbouring countries as the realities of war have moved people to search for hope, meaning, comfort, and grounding. Because of their bold witness of Christ in responding to the war, both local communities and those fleeing are turning to Baptist churches to find this hope and comfort. Leaders expressed how none of this would have been possible without God’s sustaining provision and continued movement of the Holy Spirit. Though they could boast of their own works, they consistently spoke of how God was humbling their own hearts and those of their churches to continue to serve and share Christ with those in need.
Leaders also spoke of the deep challenges their leaders and their own families were facing. Many churches and individuals that were eager to take in refugees in the first days of the war are weary of continuing to host and serve those in need. As the war drags on, Ukrainians themselves are struggling to decide whether or not to permanently settle down in their new places or continue to hope that return might still be possible soon. Churches try to balance the needs of local communities and the new, sometimes bigger Ukrainian groups who are meeting alongside them for worship. Leaders are asking questions about integration and how to best live together given the new circumstances. Community solidarity with Ukrainians remains high, but leaders are preparing for the long-term effects of the war on their communities.
The meetings were punctuated with personal stories from each leader, many proudly sharing pictures of their children and grandchildren with sadness in their voices at how limited their time with family has been over the past year. One leader told of a rare Saturday morning in October where his family was together. After months of the kids being juggled around by various family members and church members for care as both parents served, they cherished the opportunity to be snuggled up in bed together and reflect on the past months. Hundreds of pastors and leaders in the region could tell the same story.
Though all of the discussions the group had together were important, the joy of simply being together in fellowship was palpable in the room. Someone outside the door of the meeting room would probably never have guessed that inside a group was planning a war response because of the laughter that could be overheard so frequently. When Bandura first arrived, he went around the room showing a picture of shoppers in a dark store in Ukraine, joking that Ukraine also had a big Black Friday event the week prior. Joy finds a way in spite of dark times. Valeriy Antoniuk, the President of the Ukrainian Baptist, shared a devotion one morning on James 1:1-5 discussing the paradoxes of joy. Leaders in the region are living testaments to the joy that exudes from people of faith who have persevered through great trials.
The familial ties of the Baptist family have been tangible at every step of the response to the war, including this meeting. Many shared the importance of solidarity and connection in these difficult days. Refugees have expressed their gratitude to Baptists who have walked alongside them, emphasising the importance of community to survive such tragedy. Baptist leaders expressed gratitude to each other, to the wider EBF family, and to the global Baptist family who has all sustained and encouraged them to continue to serve as the incarnational presence of Christ to those they serve.
Indeed, John’s words ring true in the story of the Baptist family responding to the war: Christ’s light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.