FRANKLIN — Wes Jones, disaster relief specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, said that he and the others in his travel party were determined to make the most of every minute of their recent trip to war-torn Ukraine.
It certainly sounds like they succeeded.
“We didn’t have any down time,” Jones said with a little laugh. “But we never expected to. That wasn’t part of the bargain for this trip.”
Rather, Jones and the other members of the four-man team from Tennessee maintained a hectic schedule during the 11-day excursion.
They visited refugee camps, formed new relationships with members of the Ukraine Baptist Convention, met with members of Christian Medical Associations, toured the Ukraine Baptist Seminary and much more.
The trip was part of on-going efforts of Tennessee Baptists to supply aid and relief to Ukrainian refugees. Logistics for the trip were coordinated by Mission Eurasia, a Franklin-based ministry that has worked in Ukraine for close to 30 years with a focus on evangelism, discipleship and church planting. The organization’s president, Sergey Rakhuba, is a member of The Church at Station Hill, Spring Hill, a TBC church. Rakhuba is Ukrainian and was able to introduce the team to key Baptist leaders, ministries and Mission Eurasia partners across the country.
Through an initiative that started last spring, Tennessee Baptists have given $200,000 to the Ukraine efforts over the past 15 months, with the money being used to aid the Ukrainian Seminary, the Romanian Seminary and Send Relief partners in that area. Multiple shipments of supplies, which were donated by Tennessee Baptist churches, have also been sent.
“We thank Tennessee Baptists for their faithful giving and support of this project,” Jones said. “It was exciting to see the money being used for the spread of the gospel during our visit to Ukraine.”
The members of the Tennessee traveling group — William Maxwell, chief administrative officer for the TBMB; Brett Freemon, minister of missions at Brentwood Baptist Church; Terry Smith, layman at Brentwood; and Jones — made the trek as a means of “touching base” with some of the ministries that are taking place.
The group members said the trip was encouraging, invigorating and heartbreaking, all at once.
Jones said the group was excited to see that the love and hope of Jesus is being shared and experienced even while many refugees are facing seemingly desperate circumstances .
“The refugees are seeking something to hold onto,” said Jones, “and right now, the Ukrainian church is gracefully using these opportunities to reach people, even though it’s in a difficult time.”
Maxwell said one of his biggest takeaways from the trip was seeing “the resiliency of the Ukrainian people” in the midst of such traumatic times.
“It was amazing to see the faith of the believers who are convinced that God will bring revival through this conflict,” Maxwell said, “and to see the way the refugees from the occupied areas are working to help each other wherever we found them.”
Jones agreed, saying that what impressed him most “was how hard the Ukrainian church, and especially the young church — and I’m talking under thirties — are really going after and ministering to the people in their time of need.
“The Ukrainian church itself has, in large part, transformed itself into a church that meets people’s needs,” Jones said.
“The young people are really just going after it, serving and going into some dangerous areas to serve their people and not run away,” said Jones, who noted that there have been 200 new church plants/starts since the war began.
Maxwell said the believers in Ukraine have embraced a sense of urgency when it comes to sharing the gospel — and living it out on a daily basis.
“The passion and discipline of the pastors and church leaders that we met was amazing,” he said. “They are well educated and lead their churches to be Christ-centered and ministry-focused.”
Maxwell said the trip was extremely impactful for him, and said it served as a great reminder of the work that remains to be done. Some of the work can be done in Tennessee, he said.
“It was truly an inspiring experience to see how the Ukrainian believers, especially the youth and young adults, were engaged in gospel-centered relief work,” said Maxwell.
“It still boils down to the fact that Tennessee Baptists need to pray for the Ukrainians and their ministry to each other and for the end of the war, give to the physical needs of those displaced by the conflict, and prepare to go. There are some opportunities now, but there will be many more when the war is over.”
THE TRIP BEGINS
The group from Tennessee initially flew to Warsaw, Poland, where they visited the sprawling refugee center located there and saw additional refugee projects that are going on through the church.
The following day, they went to Lviv, Ukraine, and spent three nights. While there, they connected with several different groups that are ministering in that area.
They also met with the associate executive director for the Ukraine Baptist Convention and with staff from the Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary.
They finished that segment of the trip by meeting with the Christian Medical Association of Ukraine and other groups who are supplying food and other items to the refugees. Each stop included more stories of the Lord at work through His people.
From there, it was off to Chernivtsi for the next three days there, where they attended a conference for Mission Eurasia.
“We’ve helped them with finances, but they have people working all over Ukraine to get what the people need into their hands, basically, whether it be food or whatever else,” said Jones. “These people were from all over the country, even into the war areas, and they had come out that day for the one-day conference.
“These are all Ukrainian people — it’s all Ukrainian volunteers and the like.”
Jones noted that the group met a refugee family that had fled Ukraine, went to France, then returned to Ukraine because it was so different living in France that they wanted to come back.
“They were living in old Soviet housing there in that town,” he said, adding that it was those types of stories that touched the hearts of the traveling party.
ON TO MOLDOVA
The next stop for the group was a three-day stay in Moldova, where they visited with members and staff of the Moldovan Church — the Baptist church that is ministering to refugees in their region.
The church is initiating a ministry called Bread of Life that bakes bread in the basement of their church.
“They dug out their basement and have made a kitchen area down there where they can do commercial type baking,” Jones said. “Not on a big scale, but they’re going to use that to minister to the refugees, by providing bread for them, and also for the elderly that are in that area that probably can’t afford bread for themselves.”
The Tennessee party also met with a group called “School Without Borders” which provides theological training without an actual building.
“They came in for a time of fellowship, training and encouragement for each other,” Jones said. “We got to meet with them for a little while and spend a little time with them.”
The group visited with the Baptist Union president in Moldova and also visited a Christian camp.
Jones said that he and the other members of the group were forever changed by what they saw and experienced during the trip.
“To hear about the things that God has done in the midst of all this stuff is incredible — but to actually see it, with our own eyes, was even more amazing,” Jones said.
He said he was especially excited to see how the believers are bonding together and sharing the hope of Jesus with those who are facing seemingly hopeless situations.
“There’s an old saying: the blood of saints feeds the church,” Jones, said. “And what that means, to me at least, is that the work of believers is the lifeblood of the church. Really, that’s what has happened, and is happening, with the church in Ukraine.”
PROGRESS MADE, BUT MORE TO DO
Tennessee Baptists have showed their commitment to Ukraine throughout the course of the project, Jones said.
It started last spring, when Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief allocated $70,000 for Ukrainian relief efforts — including $50,000 in relief funds for Ukrainian Response and $10,000 each for the Baptist seminaries in Ukraine and Romania — for funds that were sent through Send Relief International (SRI).
Tennessee Baptists continued giving in the months that followed, sending $30,000 more to each Ukrainian seminary and $15,000 to Send Relief (Ukrainian Relief) last June, followed by another $32,000 in October to Send Relief, and later, $25,000 to assist with Ukrainian refugees in the Memphis area.
But, as Jones noted, there is still more to be done.
“These have been hard days for so many and unfortunately for them, it’s not over yet,” he said. “We ask that, if God lays it on your hearts to continue to give, please do so. The needs in that country continue.” B&R Interested in giving to Ukrainian relief? Go to www.tndisasterrelief.org and click on the “Give Now” button and scroll down to “Ukrainian Relief.” Gifts can also be sent to the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board and designated for Ukrainian Relief.