The Baptist Church in Chelm housed hundreds of evacuees in their worship space during the early months of the war.
When news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine reached the West on the morning of February 24, few if any Arkansas Baptists could foresee the direct opportunities for service and ministry and the difference that one central Arkansas church could make. Since then, members of First Baptist Church (FBC) in Malvern have made two trips to this part of Eastern Europe, delivering needed medical supplies and working alongside other relief ministries.
In April, the first team brought general everyday medications (blood pressure, diabetes, heart, etc.) to several ministry centers along the Polish border. Ernest DeSoto, associational missionary for Central Baptist Association, coordinated both trips. “We worked alongside Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (DR) teams from many states already there providing food and shelter to evacuees,” he explained. “We were able to pray with many of the evacuees and hear their stories of devastation.”
Millions of Ukrainians fled their homes to the neighboring countries of Poland, Moldova, Hungary, and Romania. Churches along the Polish-Ukrainian border became shelters and ministry centers. The first Arkansas team visited the International Mission Board (IMB) Send Relief site at Chelm Baptist Church. As they arrived, a Texas Baptist DR feeding team was returning home. Three members of the Texas team tested positive for Covid and had to remain behind. The Malvern team had the necessary medications for the Texans’ recovery and return home.
FBC Malvern felt impressed to return, this time with a plan to go into Ukraine. On October 2, six Arkansas Baptists flew into Poland and drove across the border with two tons of medicine and supplies. The team worked with a Baptist church in L’viv visiting hospitals and shelters.
“Our goal was to get as much medicine toward the eastern front, where field hospitals are,” said David Van Gilst, an RN in Malvern. “One remote hospital I visited was just days away from running out of the medicines we brought.”
Another hospital was filled with soldiers, most bearing noticeable wounds from land mines or shrapnel. “We were able to pray with men and offer hope in Jesus,” described Billy Bartlett, pastor at FBC Malvern. The local L’viv Baptist church installed a water filtration system in the basement (something previously unavailable in the Soviet-era building) and is now doing weekly ministry there.
One of the realities of war was made visible when the team stopped at an empty lot filled with hundreds of new graves of local young men who died in the war. The team met with parents, wives, and children at the makeshift cemetery. “I talked and prayed with one mom who was overcome with grief,” said Bartlett.
The group spent an afternoon at the Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary (UBTS) in L’viv meeting with theology students and hearing stories of basement worship services during air raids. “We met with Dr. [Yaroslav] Pyzh, seminary president, and prayed with him as UBTS courageously trains students for ministry even in wartime,” Bartlett said. In 2021, UBTS had 1,200 students enrolled.
Arkansas Baptists have made personal connections to Ukraine. Many across the state have gone on Master’Singer tours there, led by Larry Grayson. Others have done ministry through Michael Gott International (MGI), led by the Texas Baptist evangelist since the days of the USSR. “My connections with Poland and Ukraine began after the fall of the Berlin wall, working alongside Michael and Jan Gott during the 90s,” explained DeSoto. “Many of the local leaders who opened doors for our ministry in 2022 were new believers during those crusade meetings, ESL schools, and concerts.”
The Arkansas Baptist group visited leaders of Hebron Academy, a ministry to older teenagers whose parents are either missing or presumably killed in the war. A Christ-centered ministry, the academy provides housing for teens with a training center to teach Information Technology job skills.
On the last night in Ukraine, the Malvern team met with a group of new believers saved during a recent MGI conversational English school. The church in L’viv meets with them weekly for follow-up discipleship. Leaders from Central Arkansas hope to conduct another English school there during 2023.
Article and photos courtesy of Ernest DeSoto, Central Baptist Association.