Featured / Missions / Ukraine 2022

A Cord of Three Strands: CBF weaves durable response to Ukrainian crisis

By Marv Knox

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has woven biblical wisdom—“a cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart” (Ecclesiastes 4:12)—into its response to war in Ukraine. When Russia attacked Ukraine, the Fellowship braided together three resources for compassionate ministry: 

  • It quickly deployed Europe-based field personnel to support relief for Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced people.
  • Those Global Missions personnel instinctively collaborated with Baptists and other Christians in Eastern Europe who are caring directly for Ukrainians desperately fleeing harm’s way.
  • Individuals and congregations affiliated with CBF contributed to CBF’s Ukraine Relief Fund, supplementing donations from Baptists around the globe to support the overall ministry effort.

The first strand of the relief cord—CBF field personnel—has engaged the efforts of Global Missions personnel based in both Eastern and Western Europe.

Gennady and Mina Podgaisky, who mark the 20th anniversary of their service as field personnel in Kyiv this year, have felt the war most personally. They returned to the United States last December for an off-field assignment and planned to return to Kyiv in March. Because of the war, they have not been able to do so. But they have maintained a vigorous round-the-clock ministry to their Ukrainian sisters and brothers from their temporary base in North Carolina.

The Podgaiskys immediately began communicating with and supporting people in their zone of influence—members of their home Bible study groups, friends, church members and ministry partners—in Ukraine. They have channeled information about evacuation routes and connected their friends to myriad resources, such as information about transportation, medical advice and the location of food and shelter. 

They also have provided logistical support for Ukrainians seeking to avoid bombings and fighting, and they have funneled thousands of dollars from CBF for food, water, gas, medicines, shelter, telephone and transportation to people in the bomb shelters as well as to families fleeing war zones and to partners providing hands-on ministry in the country.

Most personally, they have spent untold hours on the phone, listening, counseling, encouraging, praying for and weeping with their Ukrainian sisters and brothers—both those in Ukraine and others scattered across Eastern Europe and beyond.

“As never before, we felt deeply and appreciated the ministry of presence as we became the hands and the feet of Jesus and mostly the listening ears for many people in this crisis time,” Gennady said.
From the base where he serves with his wife, Dianne, in Poprad, Slovakia, immediately west of Ukraine, Shane McNary set about facilitating support for relief efforts. Slovakia has received more than 400,000 refugees streaming out of Ukraine, burdening the small, poor country. 

McNary has supported the efforts of Slovak Baptists and Roma Pentecostals, who have reached out to refugees coming into their communities. He has channeled CBF funds to buy a washing machine to launder refugees’ clothes, repair a refugee’s car, purchase school clothes for refugee children, obtain a water heater, pay utilities for a small congregation housing refugees, and has assisted a Roma church in purchasing a building to be used for a warehouse to store supplies and eventually offer housing. He also has supported ministry inside western Ukraine to internally displaced people who have fled bombings and other aggression near their homes.

On a pastoral level, McNary has convened conversations and prayer sessions to restore the spirits of pastors who already were shouldering the burdens of their poor congregations before opening their arms to embrace and serve Ukrainian refugees.

“The collaboration with various churches in order to respond effectively to the needs of Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced people has deepened long-term relationships we have with both Baptists and the Roma network of churches. It also has opened doors to future ministry together,” McNary said. “One Roma pastor shared with the group, ‘I thank God for the relationships we have and hope that we will (continue) working together.’”

Gennady (left) and Mina (right) pictured with a family from a Kyiv suburb. For 15 days, the family was bunkered down under constant bombing in their unfinished basement. The Podgaiskys provided funds from CBF’s Ukraine Relief Fund to assist the family in escaping and driving to the western part of Ukraine and then traveling to northern Italy. They were able to visit with the family in Italy in late April and help further with funds for living necessities.

Fortunately, McNary received support from “the ever-amazing Eddie Aldape.” Shortly after the war started, Aldape left his home in Albacete, Spain, where he serves as CBF field personnel, and moved temporarily to Slovakia to help the McNarys. 

Supported by CBF funds that provided transportation, lodging and food, Aldape woke up each day thinking about how he could serve refugees and help the churches ministering to them. That encompassed a broad and ever-changing list of activities, including transporting refugees from the border to welcoming churches and shelters. It also meant helping them obtain basic resources, such as clothing and medicine, and taking care of routine-but-challenging duties, such as laundry and cleaning. 

For over-worked and under-resourced pastors in border villages, Aldape’s relentless adaptability and indefatigable energy—often demonstrated in 18-hour days covering hundreds of miles—lifted spirits as well as providing invaluable respite.

CBF field personnel also have supported Ukrainian relief efforts from other parts of Europe.
Based in Westervoort, Netherlands, with her husband, Keith Holmes, Mary VanRheenen maintains a ministry as CBF field personnel to Christians in Moldova, which shares a long border with south central Ukraine. More than 450,000 Ukrainian refugees have crossed that border, VanRheenen reported, noting most head toward destinations elsewhere in Europe, always further from the fighting.

VanRheenen has supplied several Moldovan churches with CBF funds to provide food, clothing, medicine and temporary shelter to the refugees passing through their communities. “Buses and carloads of refugees cross the border…on their way to Bucharest (Romania), where they might go further to countries that have offered to host refugees,” she reported. 

“The passengers, mainly mothers and children, are thirsty, hungry and in need of hygiene products like diapers and medicines. Our partners volunteer to provide supplies and minister to the refugees.”
From Barcelona, Spain, Matt and Michelle Norman, also members of CBF’s Europe team, have supported the Ukrainian response on behalf of the other field personnel on the continent. 

“These field personnel are making an incredible effort to respond to the war—on top of their everyday ministries,” Matt said. “It has been a very hard two years in Europe. The COVID restrictions were very harsh with many European countries confining people to their homes for months. That takes its toll mentally and emotionally. But despite being very tired from two years of COVID and trying to maintain ministries, these CBF field personnel have given sacrificially in taking care of the refugees.”

Through their networks, the CBF Europe field personnel supplied the second strand of the relief cord. From the start, they have worked with Baptists and other Christians to serve Ukrainians across the region. 

Pastor Petru Ciochina, a ministry partner of Mary VanRheenen, purchases supplies to feed refugees at the Ukrainian border with support from the CBF Ukraine Relief Fund.

For example, the Podgaiskys communicate multiple times daily with their colleagues in Ukraine. This includes Baptist as well as evangelical congregations, all of whom are doing relief work—providing food and water and lodging, medicine, hygiene items, transportation and other forms of humanitarian aid. 
In Poland, which has received the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, CBF has supported the ministry of Baptist Charity Action, Matt reported, noting, “Baptist churches across Poland have the capacity to help over 1,400 people every day, and Baptist seminary and retreat centers are being converted to house people long-term.”

While Slovakia’s refugee numbers are not as large, local resources still require strategic allocation. That’s where Shane McNary has been operating at the intersection of two worlds. His efforts—supplemented by those of Eddie Aldape—have supported the efforts of Slovak Baptists and Roma Pentecostals. “These worlds do not usually intersect,” McNary said, then describing an overlap, when he helped Roma Baptists from Jelsava deliver aid to a Roma Apostolic church in Pavlovce nad Uhom. 

In Moldova, the flow of refugees has declined from its peak in the early days of the war. But Baptists in VanRheenen’s Romany network have provided supplies, bottled water, medical care, transportation and other services to refugees passing through the eastern cities and villages. Now, they are assessing long-term needs and strategic opportunities for ongoing ministry.

Meanwhile, more than 6,000 miles away, pastors in the Fellowship Southwest’s Immigrant Relief Ministry on the U.S.-Mexico border began to minister to Ukrainian refugees mingled among their more typical constituents from Central America, South America, the Caribbean and Africa.
“The arrival of Ukrainian migrants is stressing the already limited resources and complicating the dynamics of the pastors and volunteers who operate migrant shelters on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Elket Rodríguez, CBF field personnel on the border. “The task of housing, transporting, feeding and protecting Ukrainians from Mexican criminal organizations is a new logistical challenge for the network of pastors with whom we collaborate.” 

The arrival of Ukrainians also represents a new cultural and linguistic challenge for the pastors who comprise Fellowship Southwest’s immigrant relief ministry, he added. But he noted, “These pastors are resilient, and their love for serving others has led them to go the extra mile for Ukrainians.” 

About 15,000 Ukrainians had entered the United States through border crossing points with Mexico by April 21. On that same date, the Biden administration launched the Uniting for Ukraine program that provides a pathway for displaced Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members to come to the U.S. and to stay temporarily. 

As part of its overall wartime relief strategy, CBF has woven contributions to its Ukraine Relief Fund into financial response mechanisms from the Baptist World Alliance’s Baptist Forum for Aid and Development—or BFAD—and the European Baptist Federation. Participating with these global and continental partners helps ensure money is allocated where it’s needed and stretched as far as possible, said Eddy Ruble, CBF’s Malaysia-based international disaster response coordinator.

“BFAD is a network of global Baptists coming together to pool and track our resources,” Ruble, a member of the organization’s advisory group, explained.  The European Baptist Federation takes a similar regional approach, reported Matt Norman, who, with Michelle, acts as CBF Global Missions representatives to the federation. 

As of press time, individuals and churches had contributed over $800,000 to the CBF Ukraine Relief Fund. Part of that amount has been channeled through and contributed to BFAD’s overall allocation to serve Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced people.

The stress of the Ukrainian war inflicts tremendous pressure, Ruble said, noting, “Disaster response, such as the Asian tsunami in 2004, usually is a one-time event. But war is different. You can’t anticipate when it will be over, when you will be able to help people get their feet back on the ground. Now, we’re working to meet urgent, immediate needs. But in principle, I see CBF spending the bulk of our funds helping the Podgaiskys’ partners in Ukraine rebuild and recover. That will have the longest-term impact.”

If you want to help CBF’s Ukraine response, do the things that actually help— not necessarily what makes you feel good, CBF field personnel urged.

“We know there are many who want to come and volunteer and help, but the best way to respond now is to give to the Ukraine Relief Fund,” Matt Norman said. “Volunteers who cannot speak the local languages cannot provide help that is needed. And all temporary housing must be allocated to refugees, not volunteers,” he added.

VanRheenen suggested four ways to “channel that desire to help”:

  • “Volunteer to help refugees and immigrants in your community.” This creates a “refugee ripple effect”—settling newcomers now creates room for the next wave of people in need.
  • “Donate to sell, not send.” Shipping clothes and supplies to missionaries is impractical and expensive. Sell those items locally and send the money to support the relief fund.
  • “Go on a diet.” Because Ukraine and Russia are major wheat-producing countries, the war has driven up food prices, “hitting the poorest of the poor,” she said. “If you and I cut out the extra sweets, the second helping, the fancy cup of coffee, we can give the savings to someone who is having trouble buying necessities.”
  • “Pray for and encourage people who can help hands-on.” Pray for a specific CBF missionary and their partners, and send them notes of encouragement. 

To contribute to CBF’s Ukraine Relief Fund, go to http://www.cbf.net/ukraine or send a check payable to CBF and designated “Ukraine Relief Fund” to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, P.O. Box 102972, Atlanta, GA 30368-2972.

Later, but only after the war is over and travel to Ukraine is safe, “come, serve and help rebuild the country,” Gennady Podgaisky urged.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of fellowship! magazine. Check out the issue and subscribe for free at www.cbf.net/fellowship.

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