Hundreds of people, many of them Ukrainian Americans with relatives still living in the war-torn country, packed the street outside Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church on Feb. 27. Photos by Andrzek Mucka, Polish Church in Chicago member.
For the first couple of weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Hope Church member Roman Ryabyy, member of Hope Church, a Russian speaking Adventist church in Chicago, said it was hard to believe what was happening.
“I thought I was sleeping, and that eventually I’d wake up and it wouldn’t be true. That day hasn’t come.” His reaction is not abnormal; Ryabyy, who is originally from the Ukraine, says many in his church felt similarly, and during the first few days of the war especially, there were many tears shed in church.
“We may be 5,000 miles from the bombing, but this war is personal to us,” says Russ Drumi, pastor of Hope Church. “Three days into the conflict was a Sabbath, and instead of the service we had planned, we spent the entire day in prayer.”
Around 80 percent of Hope Church is Ukrainian; the rest are Moldovan–including Drumi–and a couple of members are Russian. Though one Sabbath School class and some music is in Ukrainian, nearly all services are conducted in Russian, as it is a common language all of them can speak and understand.
“Some of the members have lived here for a decade or more, but their hearts are still in Ukraine,” Drumi says, “and right now those hearts are breaking.”
Hope Church began in 2009 as Hope Advent Center, and the church has continued to thrive over the years as Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Russian immigrants settled in Chicago.
Today, they have upwards of 70 members, and Drumi, who started as a volunteer pastor while studying in the Seminary at Andrews University, has been their pastor for ten years. He is now shepherding them through a crisis.
“Mostly they just want to talk through what’s happening,” he explains. “Simply asking them how they are feeling, or whether they’ve heard from their relatives recently demonstrates that we care and that they’re not going through this alone. It may not be our personal tragedy, but it is not just Ukrainians who are affected. We are all troubled.”
“It’s happening again.”
According to the United Nations, since the start of the war there have been approximately 100,000 people leaving Ukraine every day, mostly women and children as men are not allowed to leave the country. As Poland is receiving the vast majority of this number, there are now nearly 2.3 million refugees within their borders.
“What is interesting to note,” says Arkadiusz Bojko, Illinois Conference pastor and native of Poland, “is that the Polish government has not built a single refugee camp. Instead, they have accepted every woman and child from Ukraine across their borders–whether or not they have passports–and have given all who apply the Polish equivalent of a U.S. social security number and a work permit.”
The compassion and love being shown to the refugees entering Poland is even more meaningful when you know a bit about the history between the two countries. Though it hasn’t always been so genial, the fact remains that, deep in their collective national memory, the Poles know exactly how the Ukrainians feel.
“This is exactly the same situation as in 1939, but this time it’s Ukraine,” says Tytus Gudzowski, pastor of the Polish Church in Chicago. He’s referring to the attack on the Republic of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union which marked the beginning of World War II. “We were in the same situation 80 years ago, and it’s something every Polish person knows and feels deeply. We’re seeing it all happen again, and we can’t stand idly by.”
Regardless of the difficulty of some of their shared past, Gudzowski says the two countries cannot and do not see each other solely through historical lenses.
“We have some issues between us, but we can’t let that affect what is happening right now,” he says. “It would be crazy to look at these refugees from the perspective of what happened during WWII–they are good people, and we are all more than our countries’ pasts. We have to help them.”
Refugees have immediate needs once they reach the border–in particular, food, water, clothing, phone chargers, accommodations, and transportation. These needs are primarily being met by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like churches, relief agencies (such as ADRA Poland), and grassroots movements by individual citizens, including members of the Adventist Church in Poland.
The weather in Poland right now is similar to that in Chicago, and finding a warm place to sleep is crucial, as is the actual rest.
“Many who reach the border have been traveling virtually nonstop for two to four days,” explains Bojko. “They are exhausted, dehydrated, and hungry. They often arrive carrying nothing but a small suitcase or a couple of plastic bags.”
Because there are no refugee camps, Ukrainians are being placed in private homes, churches, and community centers.
“Any available space with a roof has become a refugee shelter,” Bojko says. “Church sanctuaries have become dormitories; the pews are beds.”
This hospitality comes with a very literal cost, however, as operating expenses for churches have skyrocketed as a result.
“It is cold in Poland right now, and while these churches are used to heating their buildings one or maybe two days per week, they are now running the heat 24/7,” Bojko points out.
Many churches have invested in laundry machines for refugees to use, which drives up electricity and water bills, and are purchasing supplies including clothing, blankets, toiletries, and sanitary items, in addition to providing meals.
“We are trying to support the work in Poland as much as we can,” Gudzowski says. “Our churches there cannot face all the needs alone.”
In early March, the Polish Church took a special collection specifically to assist the efforts of the churches in Poland. Gudzowski’s second church, Southwest, contributed an additional $5,000.
“We are not wealthy, but we are doing our best,” he adds. “It is all any of us can do.”
The influx of people into Poland has made transportation imperative so refugees can be relocated across the country, rather than crowding the border towns.
“One of our [Polish Union] members works for a transport company,” Bojko says. “The company offered him two buses for the church to use for relief efforts, and they were put to use immediately, transporting supplies into Ukraine, and bringing refugees back.”
This was a great start, but it was not enough; the church members in Poland, in partnership with ADRA Poland, have now started a fundraiser to purchase as many minivans as possible for this purpose. It is a huge undertaking, as each van costs zł 12,000-15,000 (US $3-4K), but they have already managed to procure three more.
While providing transportation for refugees is now a common occurrence by both individual citizens and organizations, it is only the next step in a series of necessary ones for those escaping the war.
“A group in one of our Polish [Union] churches has taken it upon themselves to locate free six-month accommodations where Ukrainian women and children can live while they find work and figure out their next steps,” Bojko explains. The group has also taken this one step further; they are finding jobs for the women so they can become self-sufficient again.
“It’s a safety cushion,” Bojko says, “so these mothers don’t have to worry about themselves and their children being put out on the streets while they figure out what life looks like for them now.”
Back in Chicago, Ryabyy, who owns a trucking company with a friend, is doing what he can to help. At the beginning of the conflict, his company gave $50,000 toward relief efforts, but they didn’t stop there.
“When any of our drivers are willing to take a load of supplies headed for Ukraine to the port in New Jersey, we cover the cost of their fuel,” Ryabyy says. “Then we help coordinate logistics of how to get the loads from New Jersey to Poland and Ukraine.”
Supply chains have, unsurprisingly, been disrupted to the more war-torn areas of Ukraine, and for some, finding food can be a big enough challenge. For those who have more specialized needs, such as prescription medications, getting what they need can be impossible.
“I know a pastor in Moldova who has collected a list of medications some of the refugees need,” Ryabyy says. “He has been fundraising to purchase them, and we sent an additional $2,000 for his cause.”
Fuel is also an issue; in some places there is none available at the gas stations, and if there is, it is over US $6 per gallon. Ukrainians are being forced to go directly to suppliers and pay cash for gasoline. In places where the military is active, there is no electricity and no internet, making electronic banking impossible.
“A lot of people are in a very bad situation there,” Ryabyy says. “It is very uncomfortable to be here in the U.S. and sleep in a warm bed every night, eat big meals three times a day, and realize your friends and fellow church members across the world are struggling to survive. It’s impossible to do nothing, and as Christians–as good global citizens–we have to help. That’s why we’re all doing anything we can, even from so far away.”
This is a perspective shared by Andrew Mikołajczyk, Poland native who now lives in the U.S. and is a freelance journalist for the Polish-American media in Chicago. His primary focus has always been humanitarian issues, and these days he is very busy.
“The situation in Ukraine is very dramatic,” Mikołajczyk says. “As a community activist and member of the media, I attend rallies to support Ukraine and their refugees, and am invited to meetings with government officials. Many community organizations in Chicago are very involved, working hand-in-hand with Ukrainian-American organizations to offer aid.”
Mikołajczyk says there have already been special fundraising events coordinated by Chicago-based organizations to support Ukrainian refugees, which he is given the privilege of attending and reporting on. He is also often part of the coordinating groups, as he has been assisting with programs for immigrants and war refugees coming to the U.S. for many years, helping them with housing, medical insurance, social programs, and language.
“In the New Testament, we read about Christ’s mission,” Mikołajczyk says. “He helped people who were hungry, sick, and experiencing different tragedies. God has given us all different skills and abilities, and it is our responsibility to use them to spread his love and serve others. So this is how I follow my calling to help people who are in great need.”
“Great need” is without doubt the order of the day. Many individuals have sent money directly to those they know in Ukraine, Poland, or other bordering countries to support refugees, which Drumi says can, in some instances, be easier and better than trying to organize a specific campaign.
“The need is so enormous on so many fronts, there is really no benefit to creating a big joint effort, which requires ironing out logistics and agreeing on exactly what it’s supporting,” he says. “There isn’t one single target–there are countless. Anything anyone does is helping.”
For those who feel more comfortable giving through an Adventist organization, the Illinois Conference is providing the opportunity to church members across the North American Division to donate a tax-deductible gift through the Adventist Giving online platform. One hundred percent of donations marked “Poland - Ukrainian Refugees” will be transferred to the Polish Union for support of their work with Ukrainian refugees.* A video with more information on the crisis and how members can respond was produced by the Illinois Conference.
“I am really proud of the response of not only our churches in Poland, but also our churches here in the U.S.,” shares Bojko. “Almost every day, church members take the initiative to find new ways to save as many lives as possible.”
The Adventist Church in Poland is small; out of a population of 38 million, less than 6,000 Polish people are Adventist. However, their size has not kept them from ministering and serving in significant ways.
“This is probably the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since WWII,” Bojko says. “It is a great crisis, but it is also a great opportunity to minister to people. It is a unique opportunity to work with people where their needs are, and that’s the true gospel.”
* On the bottom of the Conference/Union section, go to the green line marked “More Offering Categories” to select “Poland - Ukrainian Refugees.”
Becky St. Clair is a freelance writer. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.