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California churches assist with Ukrainian relief efforts

NA churches can support sister Ukrainian churches with prayer, funds

By Fred Leonard, Tony Petersen and Lawrence Smith


How do churches in Fresno, Calif., respond to suffering in Ukraine?

Conversations between Mountain View Community Church pastor Fred Leonard and MB Mission Europe leader Johann Matthies led to Warm Churches, a project to help the eight Ukrainian International Community of Mennonite Brethren churches who are in desperate need, and a partnership that involves ministry in the country's war zone.


Revolution sparks conflicts  

The current situation in Ukraine can be traced to the end of 2013 when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych opted out of a proposed economic deal with the European Union in order to form closer ties with Russia. Thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev to protest. In 2014, these protests became violent as Yanukovych and his regime sought to crack down on the demonstrators. Lacking broad support in the country, Yanakuvych fled and was impeached. Ukraine instituted a new government and the restoration of its previous constitution, which Yanukovych had overturned.

This revolution sparked protests and conflict in Donbass, the region in Ukraine including Donetsk, as pro-Russian and anti-government separatists fought for independence from the new Ukrainian government. Reports vary as to how involved Russia has been, but the separatists have been supported by Russian weapons, technology and, in many cases, Russian soldiers. Russia’s involvement has lengthened and stagnated a conflict that could have ended early on in a rout.

As it stands now, one ceasefire agreed upon in September has fallen apart, and another negotiated in February by the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia teeters on the brink of a breakdown. For the moment, Minsk II, as the agreement is known, holds. But it is fragile, and conflict continues, though at a much smaller scale. Thus far there have been over 30,000 casualties, and nearly 90 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the ceasefire was put into place, according to the Kiev Post.

Needless to say, people in Ukraine are struggling. The war is affecting the entire country. The economy shrank by 7.5 percent in 2014, the currency cratered and credit was frozen. Problems are even more acute in the eastern part of the country where its reported that more than one million people are displaced. Many of the displaced are leaving the war-torn regions for bigger cities, which can scarcely handle the flood of new arrivals. The able-bodied who have stayed in areas like Donetsk have no place to work, and the bulk of those who remain are the sick, elderly, women and children.


Responding to a dire situation

In many communities throughout eastern Ukraine, a sizable number of schools, businesses and churches are unable to heat their buildings. Many of the areas near the war have no running water or electricity, shops or grocery stores. The situation is dire. Our sister churches are in desperate need.

What do we do when we encounter such suffering, such evil? What should be the Christian response? How should churches in North America respond? How should you?

In December 2014, conversations between MB Mission’s Matthies and Mountain View Community Church leaders led to the “Warm Church” project. Matthies then mobilized German, American and Canadian churches to help.

As a result, all eight of our Ukrainian churches were open as Warm Churches— welcoming people and providing food, clothing, activity and the opportunity to worship Jesus. Before the project began, a total of 305 people attended the eight churches. To date, 570 new people attended these Warm Church activities, and 133 of those have continued their church involvement.


Caring for those in the war zone

While the Warm Church project is a success, the MB churches are also caring for those in the war zone. Church leaders, led by Sergei, Roma and Alexey, are taking food and clothing to the war zone. Three Fresno churches—Mountain View Community Church, New Harvest Church and NorthPointe Community Church— purchased two large vans to deliver food and clothing to the war zone surrounding Donetsk and Mariupol.

Earlier this month, Fred Leonard and Lawrence Smith, pastors at Mountain View, and Tony Petersen, who with his wife, Roxanna, have been MB Mission missionaries with Missionsgemeinde Ecclesia church in Peine, Germany since 2014, travelled with Matthies to Ukraine. They picked up the vehicles and used them to deliver food, clothing, supplies, Bibles and the gospel to the people in this suffering region.

“We entered Ukraine on a mission from God, with the prayers of the Christians in Fresno and Germany going before us,” write Leonard, Smith and Peterson in a report of their trip. “We felt the peace and power of God. What we encountered was almost beyond description.”  

With the team of Ukrainian pastors who have made this trip dozens of times before, the Californians set out for the Donetsk area, a nearly seven-hour drive and a mere three or four miles from the front.


Needs beyond description

“We saw the elderly, the injured and single parents with small children,” says the three. “We entered their living spaces where many had no running water, no electricity and no food, with their only source of heat coming from bricks laid atop a propane-powered stove top. They are dependent on outside aid.”

Weekly, Ukrainian church leaders drive to this war zone. While Donetsk was shelled the night before and the night after the team was in Donetsk, the pastors were thrilled that for the first time they did not have to contend with gunfire.

The Western visitors met Ukrainian soldiers, both from the Ukrainian army and volunteers. “We gave them food, socks, Christian literature, Bibles, prayer, and the love of Jesus, the best we knew how,” say Leonard, Peterson and Smith.

“We went into bomb shelters where people live for weeks on end. We saw destroyed houses and apartments,” they say. “We went to the hospital and prayed for wounded soldiers, that God might heal their bodies and souls. We saw children thankful for candy yet unable to smile, deep creases of concern on the faces of parents and the elderly and the terror that happens in the absence of peace and hope.”

And they witnessed the “remarkable power of prayer.” They write, “We also saw the hope that the church brings when she comes in the power, love and name of Jesus. We saw the love of God in action by the church being the church to the church in Ukraine. We gathered with pastors and church leaders and we listened, shared, laughed and cried with them. We ate borsch (soup) and verenika (dumplings) with them, and most importantly we prayed with them. It was a life-altering experience.”

How we can help

Leonard, Peterson and Smith asked Ukrainians: How can we help? What can we tell churches in North America?

Go. It is imperative to have a “theology of presence.” God sent his only Son to live among us—Immanuel, God with us. Something divine happens when we are together. But what if you are unable to go physically? There are other ways to advance God’s kingdom and spread his gospel.

Give. Support Ukrainian Mennonite Brethren churches by supporting MB Mission. The Ukrainian churches are praying for the ability to visit the war zone multiple times each week. The cost is $7,500 per month for fuel for vehicles, food, clothing, Bibles, medicine and assorted aid. Why not support a month of this ministry as a church, a small group or a family? Our church has covered the cost through April. What about from May on?

Pray. When we pray for the situation in Ukraine, we are there in unity with the global body of believers and through the hand of God that moves in response to our intercession. We go right to the situation when we pray. Here are five things we can pray for: peace in Ukraine; the withdrawal of Russian troops; the salvation of Vladimir Putin; food and clothing for those in need; and the powerful witness of our Ukrainian MB churches to see the salvation of many.

"We are honored to have been to Ukraine and to join with our Christian brothers and sisters there,” say Leonard, Peterson and Smith. “Join them now too by going, giving and praying.”

Individuls and churches interested in supporting MB Mission’s work in Ukraine can donate to project #C0701. Thanks to the many ministry opportunities Ukrainian church leaders have had in eastern Ukraine, they are considering planing a new church in one of the regions close to the front. To view MB Mission videos about Ukraine, visit the MB Mission website:

Photos from MB Mission

Photo 1: Johann Matthies and Ukrainian church leaders deliver relief supplies in eastern Ukraine.

Photo 2: A building in eastern Ukraine destroyed in the war.

Photo 3: Fred Leonard gives a Bible to a Ukrainian man.

Photo 4: Tony Peterson, Fred Leonard and Lawrence Smith on the way to the front.

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