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Romania’s Project Ruth pivots to serve war refugees with CBF support

By Marv Knox

Thousands of Ukrainians displaced by war are feeling the tangible expression of Christ’s love this winter, thanks to a resilient Romanian ministry. It is supported by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship friends in the United States who felt God “push” them to serve some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

When Russia attacked Ukraine last February, Project Ruth — a Baptist ministry and the original CBF Legacy Partner — pivoted to provide relief to hundreds of Ukrainian war refugees.

The 4:7 boxes provided food to last a family four for seven days. CBFNC delivered boxes to the Ukrainian church groups working to help displaced community members.

Romania shares two borders with Ukraine, with tiny Moldova sandwiched in-between. As the war surged, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fled west, seeking refuge from Russian missiles that decimated their homeland. Romania received the second-largest number of Ukrainian refugees, trailing only Poland.

Project Ruth, launched by Providenta Baptist Church in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, stepped up to help its suffering neighbors. That move reflected its history and heritage.

“Providenta founded Project Ruth in 1992, when Pastor Oti Bunaciu and others noticed there always were Romani kids playing in the street, even during school hours,” reported Ralph Stocks, who with his wife, Tammy, served as CBF field personnel in Bucharest from 2010 to 2016, after working more than 15 years in Hungary. Stocks spent six weeks in Romania this spring, helping Project Ruth serve the refugees.

The Romani are a despised Eastern European people group, often known by the derogatory term “Gypsies.” They face pervasive discrimination in housing, work, education and health care.

“The church invited the neighborhood Romani children in to give them a snack, tell a Bible story and sing songs,” Stocks said. “They noticed kids even 10 and 11 years old couldn’t read, and the kids always were famished.”

So, the church launched the Ruth School for Romani children, “named after the biblical Ruth, who was welcomed into a country that was not her own,” Stocks said. The school began with grades 1-4 and expanded to kindergarten through eighth grade.

“That’s the reason I have loved Project Ruth for 30 years now,” added Ellen Sechrest, CBF’s director of Global Missions church engagement, who has made 28 trips to Bucharest, beginning when she was a minister at Boulevard Baptist Church in Anderson, S.C. “Education is the way out of poverty.”

Project Ruth became the umbrella name for not only the school, but also for the Obed Day School for children ages 3-5; the Naomi Center for Women, teaching sewing skills and offering counseling; and the Gypsy Smith School, named for a famous Romani evangelist, providing pastoral education for church leaders.

Project Ruth’s facilities include a kitchen, cafeteria, classrooms, offices, a secure playground and even bunk rooms, which housed hundreds of CBF volunteers who trekked to Bucharest across the years. Because the Covid pandemic curbed the flow of volunteers and transitioned many students to hybrid classes, those facilities were under-used when the war started.

That’s when Project Ruth Director Mihai Ciopasiu and Pastor Bunaciu recognized an opportunity for vital ministry. They renovated facilities to house up to 70 Ukrainian refugees. They offered shelter, meals, lodging, laundry services and even transportation to medical and legal aid. Project Ruth became a transitional hub — a safe haven as refugees fled Ukraine, preparing to relocate across Europe and even to North America.

“They quickly pivoted to figure out what to do,” Sechrest noted.

The CBF North Carolina team packed 1,605 Care Boxes in Romania to be displaced to Ukrainian refugees. “It was an emotional experience to see the faces of these people whose country had been invaded, to listen to them, to see the impact we were making,” Mary Kaylor, associate coordinator of CBFNC said.

As needs mounted with winter inevitably coming on, Project Ruth pivoted yet again. Bunaciu and Ciopasiu realized thousands of internally displaced Ukrainians could face starvation, not to mention winter misery from brutal cold. But they also realized their network of relationships with Ukrainian pastors could deliver food and supplies effectively and efficiently — and without corruption.

They set up two emergency endeavors:

  • 4:7 Care Boxes provide enough calories and protein to feed a family of four for seven days. Each box weighs 35 pounds and contains nonperishable staples, such as rice, grains and beans; canned meat, tomatoes and oil; pasta, flavoring, cocoa and coffee; and even modest treats, such as croissants and a handful of candy.
  • Winter Kits supply such essentials as coats and gloves, blankets, flashlights and other items to ward off the cold and dark.

Through its International Disaster Response program, CBF sent an initial gift of $25,000 to help fund renovation of the facilities and provide immediate assistance, which transitioned into getting the 4:7 Care Boxes started. Churches and individuals across CBF stepped up to supplement that contribution and to expand the ministry beyond initial dreams. Then, when Project Ruth sent a grant proposal for the Winter Kits, CBF funded the entire $46,000 endeavor.

Beyond that, two CBF groups provided the hands, feet and hearts to pack and help deliver the food boxes and winter supplies. An eight-member team from CBF North Carolina served in Bucharest in late October and early November, followed shortly by a five-member team from Trinity Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C.

“This trip came about because people in our Fellowship came to us when Project Ruth announced they were planning to deliver the food boxes,” explained Mary Kaylor, associate coordinator of CBFNC and a member of First Baptist Church on Fifth in Winston-Salem.

“We started with what we called the 360 Partnership,” Kaylor added. “Our commitment was to raise $44 per box and cover 360 boxes. I talked to the team, and they said, ‘We’re going to raise this money.’ They found it was so easy to go way above and beyond what we needed. They could say, ‘I know where this money is going — to help a Ukrainian family in need.’ Our entire Fellowship was excited about the work and the impact they could make. It truly was a grassroots endeavor.”

The CBFNC team stayed in Romania for 10 days and packed not just 360, but 1,605 boxes, she said.

By the time the North Carolinians arrived, Project Ruth had relocated 4:7 Care Boxes production out of its cramped facilities into a spacious warehouse, a move that multiplied the effectiveness of both the North Carolina and South Carolina teams, Kaylor noted.

“Previously, the Project Ruth staff was packing boxes in small rooms — about the size of a typical living room — at the school. They barely had space to place supplies, and then they had to move everything around to store the boxes,” she explained. “Having our group in the warehouse, we were able to do so much more. We so enjoyed going to the warehouse and packing boxes. It was like a dance; we all had items we were responsible for packing.”

One day, they traveled about 600 kilometers round-trip — almost 375 miles — to deliver food boxes and Winter Kits to Ukrainian pastors on the border. “It was an emotional experience to see the faces of these people whose country had been invaded, to listen to them, to see the impact we were making,” Kaylor recalled.

“I was so impressed by the Project Ruth staff,” she added. “The moment Russia invaded, they pivoted. Each person changed what they were doing to respond to the immediate need. And … the school continues to run while they turned their church into a refugee center, no questions asked. ‘Impressed’ is not enough. They are awe-inspiring.”

The team from Trinity Baptist in Seneca shared a similar experience, Associate Minister Tony Vincent said.

Trinity sent more than 50 volunteers to Project Ruth on five short-term mission trips during a six-year partnership between the church and ministry, Vincent said. And even after the “official” partnership ended, the church continued to provide financial support.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, when travel and face-to-face work was put on hold, we grieved over the loss of opportunity to ‘go and do’ missions,” Vincent remembered. “As the pandemic lightened, there was an eagerness to jump back into missional engagement …. and when Russia invaded Ukraine and set off a humanitarian crisis …, our attention quickly returned to Project Ruth.”

After CBF North Carolina delivered the Winter Kits and Care Boxes Ukrainian church members worked at a distribution site at the border town to deliver supplies to refugees.

Trinity on Mission, the church’s missions committee, initially sent $2,000 to help Project Ruth convert facilities into a refugee center and receive Ukrainians. Church members more than responded in kind, donating an additional $29,000.

Later, in mid-September, Vincent called to check on Ciopasiu. “I heard in his tired voice about the work they were doing and the toll it was taking on their staff,” Vincent said, noting the CBFNC trip was already being planned. “I asked him if they could use another team to help pack boxes, and he quickly said, ‘Yes, please!’”

The next Sunday morning, Vincent told the church about a missions opportunity with Project Ruth. “Four guys said, ‘I’ll go!’ And by that night, I was online, finding cheap flights, and it fell right into place.”

Like Kaylor, Vincent expressed awe at the faith, ingenuity and resilience of Project Ruth’s leaders. “They run a nonprofit, but they had to learn packaging science and logistics on the fly to do this work.”

Most of the time, the Trinity team kept to the grindstone — “We were an assembly line for a few days, packing boxes,” Vincent said — but their highlight came when they delivered Winter Kits to a small church in Danes, Romania, that had rented a home to provide a preschool for refugee children.

“When I asked Pastor Florin how his church decided to start this ministry, he smiled and said: ‘We saw a need, and we realized we could do this, and we just did it. God pushed us to do this,’” Vincent reported. “I smiled through tears and said, ‘That’s why we’re here, because God pushed us here, too!”

“In disaster response, CBF seeks to come alongside churches, partners and communities on the ground to meet critical needs, alleviate suffering and ultimately work to rebuild wholeness among devastated communities,” noted Eddy Ruble, CBF’s International Disaster Response coordinator.

“I see the Spirit of God woven throughout this remarkable movement of Christ’s body responding from two continents, coming together to address urgent needs of displaced Ukrainians suffering the horrors of war,” he said. “Our commitment and work will continue through the months and years ahead as we support and aid this beloved community of Ukrainians in rebuilding their lives and livelihoods.”

Ciopasiu could not be reached for this article. But in a video recorded by CBFNC, he expressed thanks for CBF support for funding and packing the 4:7 Care Boxes and providing funds for the Winter Kits.

Mina and Gennady Podgaisky, CBF field personnel who have served in Ukraine two decades, were in the United States when war broke out. With their connections and counseling backgrounds, they worked tirelessly to arrange logistical support for fleeing Ukrainians and the churches serving them, as well as to ship medicine and to strengthen and encourage exhausted pastors and their spouses.

Looking toward the winter and beyond, the Podgaiskys urge CBF friends to remember Ukraine and to remain responsive and vigilant.

“The situation is hard because of the constant bombardment during the harsh winter, which is exacerbated by the lack of heat, water, electricity and no sign of the war ending soon.” he said.

“Encourage people to pray,” she added. “The reason Ukraine has not fallen is because of prayer. Ukraine could not have withstood Russia up to now without prayer. … Pray also for rest. The people are exhausted. The pastors are serving without a day off … because they feel guilty if they stop.”

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