On 24 February, 2022, our world shifted. What seemed like an unlikely and audacious move by Russian forces has turned into a year of war — a year of pain, suffering, confusion, and anxiety. Yet, in the midst of this tragedy, the people of Ukraine have risen to face the invasion of their country with spirit, perseverance, and resiliency.
Mobilising the Church
The Ukrainian Baptists were ready for war, even if they were surprised at Russia’s invasion. They, like all Ukrainians, had eight years of experience with aggression from Russian forces after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the protracted conflicts in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Already the All-Ukrainian Union of Associations of Evangelical Christians-Baptists had helped churches transform into aid centres, equipping them with the tools to minister to and serve displaced people. As war loomed in early February of 2022, they stood ready to mobilise the thousands of churches in Ukraine to respond.
Still, our brothers and sisters felt the shock of war. Igor Bandura, the vice president of the All-Ukrainian Union of Associations of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, reflected on the beginning of the invasion, noting that responding to war was their plan D. No one really expected Putin to be so brazen in his attack. And once the missiles started falling all across Ukraine, many across the world did not expect Ukraine to hold on. As millions fled their homes and as the Baptist Union evacuated their offices in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, the Baptist world gathered to pray and mourn the tragedy unfolding.
“It felt like we were gathering for our funeral in those first days,” Bandura reflected. “It took great strength from the Spirit to be strong. But, by the end of the first week, we knew that God would not forsake us.” As Ukrainian forces were able to thwart the worst of the offensive attack, the world rallied behind Ukraine.
Inside Ukraine, even as Baptists themselves were fleeing, churches sprang into action from the moment the war began. Churches in central and western Ukraine became stop-over centres for the millions who were fleeing, providing a safe place to sleep, charge their phones, and receive food before heading onward. Regional pastors coordinated with local pastors to transport children from orphanages, elderly people, and disabled people who found themselves in the line of fire. The Baptist Union distributed aid and food to regional centres that then distributed it to churches, with many pastors driving directly into conflict areas to support those who were trapped. Baptists were among the very first to respond to the unfolding crisis.
A global movement of solidarity
At the borders of Ukraine, in Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, Baptists were also some of the first people that refugees encountered as they crossed the border. In Poland, border guards recommended those without any family support to go to the Baptist church for help. In Romania, Baptists met those in need and drove them to where they needed to go further into the country. Hungarian Baptist Aid was one of the first organisations to cross into Ukraine to deliver aid and Hungarian Baptists at the border in Hungary were there to receive those in need.
For weeks, churches pushed back their pews and chairs to set up beds and sleeping mats across their sanctuaries. People stayed from a few hours to rest, up to weeks as they tried to put back their lives together. In Chelm, Poland, the Baptist church that had been trying to figure out what to do with all of their extra space just a few weeks prior, was suddenly bustling with activity. Refugees and volunteers together cooked food for those staying and prepared packed meals for those moving onward. Children played, families reached out to loved ones, and church members sat with those dazed by shock and grief.
The Baptist Unions in all of Ukraine’s neighbouring countries shifted their activities toward helping refugees. Seminaries and summer camps were fitted with heating units so refugees would have a place to stay for a few weeks. Church members housed refugees in their homes and organised their networks to find places for more people to find shelter. Food was distributed, clothes donated, collections taken up to support people, and churches came together to pray. Even in countries with already limited resources, like Moldova, Baptists gave their time, energy, and resources openly and in faith.
Across the world, Baptists came around our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, standing in solidarity. Thousands of Ukrainians found temporary homes across nearly every European Baptist Federation (EBF) member body country. Support poured in from all over the world as partners, Baptist unions, churches, and individuals gave generously to fund the efforts in Ukraine and in the neighbouring countries.
EBF responded as the lead agency for the Baptist Forum for Aid and Development (BFAD) response. Since the war started, over €10 million has been raised to support Ukraine and those working in the neighbouring countries, with €8.5 million already given and used in responding to the war. Baptists also gathered around in prayer, from the very first week of the war, gathering weekly during the season of Lent. These prayer gatherings continued throughout the year, with hundreds of people joining from around the world to cry out to God on Ukraine’s behalf.
Serving in a new reality
As spring moved into summer and the war stretched past a few weeks, Baptists settled into a new reality. Aiding Ukrainians on the move became normal weekly activities. Churches in and around Ukraine began to grow with the new guests who had arrived and churches began to hold services in Ukrainian or have translation. Children settled into play groups and makeshift learning centres as parents began to wonder how long the war would last. Throughout the summer, camps and retreats took place that focused on giving moments of reprieve to those serving on the front lines and providing moments of normality for those who had fled.
At Baptist gatherings throughout the year, solidarity with Ukraine was the theme. EBF gathered together leaders from Ukraine and its neighbouring countries twice, in May and November, in Vienna to strategise, pray together, and discern where God was leading in the midst of the war. At the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) Annual Gathering in Birmingham, Alabama in July, the global Baptist family was able to literally gather around Ukraine (represented by Bandura) to pray and show its solidarity through a powerful resolution condemning the war in Ukraine. Again in September, at the EBF Council meeting in Riga, Latvia, Baptists showed their commitment to standing with Ukraine as long as the war would last.
As fall began, concerns rose about how churches were going to be able to survive and serve others during the winter months. To make matters worse, Russian attacks spread across the country in October, targeting critical infrastructure within Ukraine and knocked out over 40% of the country's energy system. Even months later, Ukrainians now still deal with blackouts and limited energy supplies.
Also in October, as portions of the east were liberated, the world saw afresh the horrors many faced under occupation. Towns were left in ruin and those who were left behind, which tended to be elderly and those without family or means to leave their homes, were destitute and traumatised. These in the most desperate need are the ones Baptists continue to put their lives on the line in order to serve as they deliver aid and care for those in liberated or occupied territories. Serving in these areas is increasingly difficult as dozens of churches have been destroyed, dozens more forced to shut by occupying forces, and numerous pastors gone missing. We do not know exactly how many pastors, deacons, and other Baptist church members have been killed since the war began, but grief weighs heavily on those who continue to serve.
Yet, as winter progressed, Ukrainian Baptists proved yet again their tenacity and resilience in the face of challenges. Despite power outages limiting communications, Baptists organised churches to become centres of Heat and Hope. Through distributing 221 generators and gifts of fuel, churches were able to open up their doors to those during the winter months and provided spaces of reprieve from the cold and from the war. Further, the union has helped financially support 460 pastors in the winter to enable them to stay in their local communities and serve those in need.
Gratitude and faithfulness through the storm
Dozens upon dozens of testimonies have poured in from across the country expressing deep gratitude for the gift of generators and the ministry that they have enabled to those in need. One church in the east wrote, “Today, for the first time, using the generator we were able to hold a fellowship with the old ladies…(one) old lady came to the meeting because it is cold and dark at home and she is starting to panic. Thank you very much for the generator. Thank God for the opportunity to have warmth and light.” Baptist support has enabled life giving ministry to thousands across Ukraine.
Despite the pain and suffering of the last year, God’s mercy and grace has shown through at every moment. Through the faithful, caring witness of Baptists in Ukraine, over 3,000 people have been baptised and have joined churches. In the last year, an estimated 25,000 people have started attending Baptist churches in Ukraine seeking to know more about the light and hope they’ve experienced through the care of Baptists. For as many church members who have fled, new ones are coming. Most churches are full and many have had to begin holding numerous services to accommodate the number of people.
Outside of Ukraine, Ukrainians are on mission as well. Union leaders led two conferences at the beginning of 2023 in Poland and Germany, with well over 400 participants between the two conferences. Here they encouraged and energised pastors, deacons, and leaders to be on mission even as they are displaced from Ukraine. In some countries outside of Ukraine, Ukrainian speaking churches are now the largest Baptist churches in the country. The mission impact of the war will continue to shape the landscape of churches in the region for years to come.
After a year of suffering, of uncertainty, and of challenges, Ukrainian Baptists are resolute to continue their service and sacrifice no matter how long the war continues. Churches are energised by the new members and the ways God is using them to serve so critically. As leaders think about the long rebuilding process after the war ends, they are prayerfully planning for a new reality, not a return to the old. They have seen how God took what little they had to offer and bless it into an abundance. As they look to the future, they remain hopefully expectant that God will continue to use them for abundantly more.
It is remarkable what has happened in the past year. The global Baptist family has responded with overwhelming generosity to the largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II, making this the largest Baptist aid response perhaps in our history as a Christian group. Conservitavely, at least 612,445 people have received aid, hospitality, and care in and around Ukraine. The EBF staff can only offer our deepest gratitude both to our Baptist family around the world and to the God who was able to do immeasurably more than we could ever imagine.
With millions still displaced, with economic strains taking their continued toll in places like Lebanon and across the world, and with the ongoing fighting in Ukraine we ask for your continued support and prayers. We mirror the faith of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and trust that God will continue to provide in the months and years ahead.