By Grayson Hester
Mary likes to ride her bike. A lot. It’s part of living in the Netherlands, where she and her husband, Keith Holmes, have served as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel for decades. Americans tend to drive; Dutch find it easier to walk, or bike, or take the bus.
And while biking, Mary passes two landmarks that, for years, have evoked little else but curiosity. One, she said, is a feature virtually every major city in the Netherlands boasts: a street named Kennedy, as in, former U.S. President John Fitzgerald. The other is a “gizmo,” long defunct, the sole purpose of which was to flood land near the Dutch border to keep out invaders.
Upon Russia President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in late February, however, these landmarks, once novelties, have become oracles of living memory, ominous symbols of a not-too-distant past catapulted abruptly into present concern.
The veneration of Kennedy arose when he stood up to the Soviets during the Cold War, a posture most famously embodied by his declaration, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
And the gizmo? “The top secret plan was to flood the fields here, to make it more difficult for the Soviet army to travel,” VanRheenen said.
Of course, Netherlands was never invaded by the Soviet Union. But they very well could have been. Then, as now, virtually all of Europe stands, in VanRheenen’s estimation, like a stack of dominoes. “If one falls,” she said, “everyone down the line is affected.”
The people of continental Europe are looking after themselves as well as their neighbors when they practice the kind of relational, interconnected living that CBF and its field personnel espouse.
Where the United States shares boundaries with only two neighbors, and is separated from the war in Ukraine by thousands of miles of ocean, a Jenga tower of borders, and a pervading sense of exceptionalism, the Netherlands—and VanRheenen—understand deeply, on one hand, the imminence of the Russian threat and, on the other, their connection to the people of Ukraine.
This has fueled a massive philanthropic response to the equally massive refugee crisis, Europe’s fastest-growing since World War II.
“The people in the Netherlands are eager to help. The other day, there was a huge fundraiser on the television for Ukraine,” VanRheenen said. “The day before, our neighbor was taking things to this collection place for a big truckload of stuff going to Ukraine—diapers, medicines, blankets, whatever.”
She was also quick to note that the eagerness of the Dutch to help refugees cannot be matched by the availability of housing to shelter them. The Netherlands is a small, coastal country already dealing with skyrocketing real estate prices and a shortage of affordable housing.
For VanRheenen, coordinating this response and directing resources to the displaced people who need them most is nothing new. She and husband Keith have spent the better part of the last three decades serving alongside the Romany people, who have consistently been denied any place to call their own.
Their work with Romany has put the couple in contact with people all over Europe, including in a country bordering Ukraine—Moldova.
It is with those partners that VanRheenen communicates most frequently, making sure that refugees— for whom border countries often represent first, not final, stops—get what they need on their longer journeys toward larger, more removed (and therefore safer) countries.
“Our partners in Moldova, Romania, Hungary tell us the churches have done their best to be organized,” VanRheenen said. “Our partner church in Moldova on the list of churches that’ll take in refugees. At one point, they housed 44 Roma refugees who eventually went on to Germany. The people coming through Moldova are in transit; they’ll go somewhere else.”
From various communiques, VanRheenen ascertained rather quickly what refugees need. And it is not those commodities that most often immediately to come to mind.
Money, like that provided by the Offering for Global Missions, is always helpful, of course, especially in a country like Moldova where, according to VanRheenen, “its greatest export is people.
“There are some folks in Moldova who are rich; but lots of people are just making ends meet.”
But beyond monetary assistance, VanRheenen stressed that, by and large, refugees in transitional countries like Moldova, do not necessarily need more things to carry. Typically, they need more than anything else a place to stay and recuperate.
“A Romanian friend told me that someone from her church had hosted people overnight for two nights, and they didn’t want anything,” VanRheenen said. “They asked, ‘Please just give us pajamas,’ so they could wash the clothes they had been wearing for four days.”
A refugee crisis of this scale necessitates a humanitarian infrastructure rivaling that of a small country. And no matter where Europeans like VanRheenen find themselves in this system, they contribute in whatever ways they can. Some folks house refugees; others purchase spoons and plates and bowls. Some offer to teach the children who have lost everything, learning included; others purchase school supplies for those teachers, like pencils and crayons. Still others advocate for the non-white refugees who face not just political instability, but racial hostility. And nearly all advocate in the form of prayer. Christians do this because, as VanRheenen put it, “It’s the right thing to do. But it’s also a strong witness.”
It’s a witness to Jesus Christ, who was himself a refugee fleeing imperialistic political terror in his homeland. It’s a witness to the work CBF and other institutions of faith are duty-bound to do. And it is a witness to the living memory of relatively recent wars, made alive again in anxiety and altruism alike, crisis and compassion in concert.
With this memory in mind, VanRheenen offered two pieces of advice, one practical, the other spiritual.
“We’re able to help because we’re here and we have these connections. Thank the CBF people for supporting long-term presence in the field,” VanRheenen said. “Right now, we’re dealing in crisis aid. But if you look at Ukraine, [Russia has] bombed those cities flat. There’s gonna’ have to be the next step, for the people who are fleeing. We’ll have to walk beside people in the long term. The next step is not aid; it is development. We want to act right now out of immediate compassion; but this is a long-haul thing to do. Helping people is a marathon, not a sprint.”
And while bike-riding and gizmo-gazing might do their part in soothing the worries of Europeans like VanRheenen – those who still, in some way, can smell the acidity of Cold War-era tensions – it is only faith and hope that can sustain, that can flood the anxious fields and enable endurance.
The echoes of these feelings stretch back farther than the Soviet Union, farther even than Nazi Germany; they go all the way to the time of Babylon when similarly anxious and war-weary peoples wrote the Psalms. And it is, now, in songs that VanRheenen finds solace.
“Last week, when the worry level was really high, I said to Keith, ‘Let’s sing a song,’” she said. “This is My Father’s World’ really spoke to us. ‘God is the ruler yet.”’
She went on, “Psalm 2 begins with ‘Why do the nations conspire and the people plot in vain?’ We trust in God; God cares for those who put their trust in Him. The Psalm ends with ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in Him.’”
Through her partnerships with Christians in Moldova, Mary VanRheenen is helping to provide emergency assistance to Ukrainian refugees thanks to contributions to the CBF Ukraine Relief Fund. Learn more and please give generously at www.cbf.net/ukraine.