The shared view of Russia as a lasting potential threat made CEE countries sympathise with Ukraine, especially since 2014. An article by Rafał Piekarski and Barbora Filipová.
Unsurprisingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine caught the countries around it unprepared for what was to come.
Apart from the direct neighbours of Ukraine (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova), we are also including the Czech Republic and Bulgaria in this article, since huge numbers of refugees headed there too.
Although we got used to calling these countries “gateways”, the following weeks and months showed that they were not just unavoidable transit countries for these refugees, but were to become longer-term havens for many of them.
As former Soviet/Russian satellites, these countries have a lot in common. One particular similarity relates to the attitude that these countries express towards immigration.
According to the European Social Survey from 2018, the people in Central and Eastern European (CEE) were less likely to welcome immigrants than their Western counterparts.
This was manifested during the Syrian refugee crisis that hit Europe in 2015 when their governments strongly opposed plans to relocate asylum applicants and vowed to keep their borders closed to refugees, which caused a major rift within the EU.
Nevertheless, since the Soviet Union’s disintegration, Ukrainians have been the largest minority in many CEE countries and the general experience with them has been mostly positive: most of them came in search of jobs to be able to feed their families back home, which made them trouble-free neighbours and reliable co-workers, with no major cultural differences.
Furthermore, the shared view of Russia as a lasting potential threat made CEE countries sympathise with Ukraine, especially since 2014, when the attacks of Russian forces started in Donbas, and Crimea was annexed.
As Russian troops openly invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the biggest refugee crisis in the recent history of Europe started, this time mainly impacting the region that used to show the least solidarity in the past.
In only the first five weeks more than four million Ukrainians were forced to leave their country. Overnight, the gateway countries were flooded by people fleeing the war.
The situation on borders and in key transport cities was dramatic and chaotic, but both the governments and the civil society, including churches, responded quickly and worked out emergency plans to help those fleeing the Russian invasion.
Churches were among the first who responded. Although low in numbers in this region (esp. of evangelical believers) but due to many existing connections and partnerships with Ukrainian churches they were able to help immediately, organically, flexibly, and effectively, long before the big players were able to step in.
Most of the churches immediately offered their venues, finances, workers, volunteers, and other resources to face what they saw to be a challenge of their lifetime.
New systems were set up, new leaders organised evacuation, transport, accommodation, humanitarian aid, language courses, and many other services.
The number and variety of stories is overwhelming. There are hundreds of thousands of churches like Maják, a small evangelical church in the small town of Vsetín, Czech Republic, that originally wanted to help 10-15 Ukrainian families close to some of their church members, but ended up helping a thousand of refugees in just the first week of the crisis-
Or like PROEM Christian Center in Zakościele, Poland, that swiftly adjusted all its programmes and connected with partners to be able to offer care in various ways for thousands of people fleeing the war, or like the network of Ukrainian Bucharest Churches (UBC22), that connected 800 volunteers who assisted over 5,000 refugees and delivered more than 100 tons of food to Ukraine.
As approx. 50% of the refugees were children and 80% of the adult refugees were women, former concerns and fears about immigration were forgotten and empathy and solidarity prevailed throughout society.
Many unchurched people were drawn to cooperate with churches during this time, trusting and appreciating their selfless and efficient ministry.
Through serving the refugees, Christ was made visible in the Church This intense first phase lasted for approximately two months. Then, fatigue came. The volunteers slowly started to withdraw.
The leaders burned out and realised they need support themselves. The future was uncertain, but it was clear that most of the refugees would stay, not willing to move further from their homeland and the family members that they left behind.
Churches realised that cooperating and creating long-term sustainable ministry patterns of refugee ministry is inevitable.
“Turning evil into good” is a biblical pattern of God working in the midst of the most difficult circumstances, changing what was intended for destruction into accomplishing His purposes.
From that perspective we can identify four main areas of new challenges and opportunities for the Church in the neighbouring countries.
Sustainability – despite the difficulties, keep developing what you have already started: In the last months the Church has grown in the areas of spiritual care and social involvement in ways unseen before.
New ministries have been established, new people have stepped up, new leaders have risen. But the war in Ukraine has impacted the economy in countries like Poland, Czech Republic or Moldova, and people in churches may grow weary in helping the Ukrainian refugees while experiencing inflation, growing costs of electricity and heating as the winter approaches.
Thus, it is of high importance to keep bringing the war in Ukraine to the front of our attention. Unlike the media, we cannot take it down from our church headlines as people grow weary of hearing about it. Instead, the Church needs to look for ways to make ministering to the Ukrainians sustainable and long-term.
Intentionality – despite serving many, keep looking out for the still unseen and unanswered needs of the few: With the governments scaling down their involvement in helping the refugees, the Church needs to take an active role in identifying and responding to new needs as well as identifying refugees who fall through the existing systems.
Children are struggling to balance school education on-site and online. Handicapped people are unable to get registered in any support programs. Single mothers with infants are not able to work or send their kids to preschool.
Men are struggling with addictions. Elderly people cannot count on the support of either the government or their adult children. These are specific needs that can be answered only through intentional involvement.
Equipping & outreach - despite natural gravitation towards those who are already in the church, keep reaching out to the lost: There is a common tendency in the Church to focus on those who are already followers of Jesus and neglect those who still don’t know Him.
Yet the Great Commission does not lose its relevance in the circumstances of war. As followers of Jesus, we are still called to “go and make disciples of all nations”.
Therefore, we need to find ways of ministering to people whom God has brought to our doorsteps, though displaced and afflicted by the horrors of the war.
Equipping the Ukrainian believers as well as seeking, developing, and supporting diaspora leaders who can mobilise others to reach out to their Ukrainian neighbours should become another focus of our attention.
As Yaroslav Pizsh, the President of Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary has put it, helping the refugees turn “from victims to ambassadors” for Jesus is critical in this process.
Ministering to the Ukrainians from outside of the Church whose marriages have been strained, identity has been shaken and a sense of belonging has been undermined provides yet another opportunity to reach out to them with the Gospel of Christ.
Mobilising female leaders, given that over 80 percent of all the refugees are women, is of the utmost importance despite the cultural challenges that this involves.
Unexpected partnerships – despite the challenges, keep developing new partnerships within and outside of the Church:The last six months of the war resulted in forming new partnerships, both within and outside of the Church.
Many communities of believers have become more visible in their local context, cooperating with other non-profits and local authorities. At the same time, new partnerships (both national and international) have been established, providing opportunities for further outreach in the future.
Developing these partnerships will hopefully result in the further recognition and growth of the Church in countries like Poland or the Czech Republic where evangelicals are considered an insignificant minority.
Let us use this time wisely, not for our own glory, but for the glory of God and the ultimate expansion of His Kingdom.
Rafał Piekarski is a Polish pastor and leader with Proem Ministries.
Barbora Filipová is Czech and works with the International Team of Josiah Venture.
This article was first published in the Vista Journal number 42 (November 2022) and re-published with permission.