Our Ukrainian invasion

How were we going to help the hundreds of refugees coming to our city?

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In April 2022, when Pastor Boris Borisov, from Pacific Keep Church in Spokane, Washington, visited the border at Tijuana where thousands of Ukrainian refugees are arriving to request entrance into the United States, they told of fleeing bombardment and shelling. Their stories were gut-wrenching and frightening, Borisov says. The refugee camp included pregnant women, the elderly, and parents with infants.

In April 2022, I was attending USMB Leadership Board meetings in San Diego, and I was having difficulty focusing. My mind was drifting 17 miles to the south, across the border to Tijuana, Mexico.

About a month and half before, Russia invaded Ukraine and millions of refugees were on the move. As pastor of a church plant that came out of a first-generation Slavic church in Spokane, most of my congregation, including myself, were directly impacted as many of our loved ones were experiencing a volley of missiles and artillery. In late March, the United States announced it would welcome Ukrainian refugees. By April, as the USMB meetings were concluding, a buildup of hundreds of refugees was growing in Tijuana.

I crossed the border into Mexico to assess what churches in Spokane could do to help. We had formed the Ukraine Relief Coalition and were already sending humanitarian relief to Ukraine. There was also an army of volunteers in Mexico helping people as they stood in line waiting to receive humanitarian parole.

Hearing stories from refugees of the horror they experienced when bombs dropped on their neighborhoods left a deep sense grief in my soul. I saw many young mothers with children waiting their turn. I couldn’t help but think that this could be my wife and daughters, their whole lives upended and destroyed.

A changing landscape

I realized that many of these refugees had acquittances in Spokane as 10 percent of our city’s population is made up of Russian and Ukrainian refugees who came in the 1990s. I knew many would end up in my city very soon. I phoned a friend who had recently started a new nonprofit called Thrive International and asked for guidance.

How were we going to help hundreds of refugees who were on their way to Spokane? Furthermore, as a pastor who left a Russian speaking congregation to plant a church to reach the 2nd generation in the American context, how do I stay faithful to my calling? The answer to this question would slowly emerge over the course of the next few months. What I realize now is, faithfulness means actually believing that Jesus is Lord and serving him regardless of how drastically the landscape changes.

If Jesus is Lord, then my role isn’t primarily to pastor, but to listen to his voice and do what he tells me. That included pastoring, but during this season it also meant to pivot for the purpose of living an obedient faith. Our plans must be flexible to be available to the Spirit of God.

In the last eight months we’ve reached more people than in the last five years. Faithfulness means saying “yes” to God even when things don’t make sense.

When we choose obedience, God goes before us and starts orchestrating next steps. After arriving back in Spokane, our coalition was busy pairing Ukrainian refugees with hosts for housing and connecting them to services. Then we got word that the State of Washington was going to grant $3 million to groups helping Ukrainians. Our coalition partnered with Thrive International and submitted a proposal. Within seven days, we received $1 million.

The only catch was we had to spend every dollar by the end of June. This gave us approximately 40 days to “use it or lose it.” We created an application process for financial assistance and started to distribute funds to help Ukrainian refugees get on their feet.

New challenges, odd turns

Housing was a challenge, however. Hosts were growing weary and Spokane’s vacancy rate was at an historic low of 1 percent. At every turn, we were met with new challenges only to see God’s faithfulness show up. An investor who heard about our work contacted Thrive International and offered to lease us an empty 120 room hotel in downtown.

I’ll never forget the day when I walked into that old Quality Inn. With keys in hand I realized, “Okay, now we just need to figure out how to run a hotel, no big deal.” I went from pastor, to refugee resettlement coordinator, to hotel manager in the span of two months. The path of faithfulness had some odd turns.

Within a few weeks, the hotel (Thrive Center) was filled with hundreds of people. The place was buzzing as various community partners offered English classes, job training and youth programs. The team even got the pool open in time for the hot season. By the end of June, we handed the day-to-day operations to Thrive International, and I went back to full-time pastoral ministry.

Our church was going through its own challenges coming out of the pandemic. We needed a new building and while we secured a location, we were homeless for two months while the remodel was underway. Knowing our problem, Thrive Center offered us a conference room at the hotel we had just helped set up. It’s interesting how faithfulness in one area leads to solutions in another.

At our first service a drove of refugees showed up. When I came up to preach, I realized more than half did not speak English. So, I translated myself, oscillating between English and Russian. The next Sunday even more showed up and we quickly ran out of room at the hotel. We eventually purchased translation devices, but it’s ironic that we planted out of a Slavic church to be more American, only to find ourselves re-learning Russian. Faithfulness requires a willingness to adjust.

Through several news stories, word of our church’s efforts spread in the community, and we started to see an influx of young adults from both the Slavic and American cultures. When this whole thing started, we were worried that focusing on refugee resettlement might detract from reaching the American culture, yet it was precisely because of this work that our profile was elevated. In the last eight months we’ve reached more people than in the last five years. Faithfulness means saying “yes” to God even when things don’t make sense.

Doing what Jesus did

On February 19, 2023, we held a baptism service where we saw both second generation Slavic and Ukrainian refugees commit their lives to the Lord. The testimony of one of the refugees was particularly powerful. God had miraculously saved his family as bombs were dropping. This experience created a deep spiritual hunger for truth, and he found a faith community at Pacific Keep Church.

During baptism classes he started reading the Gospels for the very first time. He asked me if we would be baptizing him in the Spokane River. After telling him that we do baptisms in a tank he was distraught. How could we baptize in a tank when Jesus was baptized in the river? This may seem like a silly question, but it makes sense for someone new to the faith.

I had a theological explanation but also a humorous one: “it’s a bit too cold to get baptized outdoors in February.” To which he responded, “If we are serious about following Jesus, then we should do what Jesus did.”  That may be as good of a definition of faithfulness that I have ever heard.

Our church today feels rejuvenated. Yet there are still financial and spiritual challenges. Holding together vastly different cultures around Jesus is not easy. Yet, our job today is the same as it was for the first church: “Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Sometimes this work is accomplished through church planting, other times through setting up a hotel. Faithfulness means preserving the function of discipleship even if our role changes.

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