Editor’s note: This article was first published by the International Mission Board. Linda Gray moved to Benton in 1985. She joined Baring Cross Baptist Church in Sherwood as single adult minister in the early 1990’s. She still considers Arkansas home and Baring Cross her home church after 25 years overseas.
Tensions escalated. With an imminent invasion on the horizon, the evacuation of IMB missionaries in Ukraine became imperative. They left behind their ministries, friends that had become like family, pets and even most of their possessions. Long-term missionary presence in a country now riddled with machine-gun fire wasn’t possible even though the work was far from done.
So, what does gospel access in a country entrenched in a conflict with Russia look like?
For IMB missionaries who formerly served in Ukraine, maintaining their witness means continuing their ministry to Ukrainians in what they call “the beyond” — the countries surrounding the war-torn nation.
Linda Gray served in Kharkiv before evacuating in the days leading to the war. Leaving her friends and Ukraine — where your financial gifts allowed her to invest more than 20 years of her life and ministry — was difficult. But, as we’ve seen throughout Scripture and history, the Lord provides ways to serve in times of exodus and exile.
Gray discovered gospel access knows no geographic or social boundaries. She’s now sharing the good news of Jesus with Ukrainian refugees in Bucharest, Romania.
Gray and other Christians have access to share the gospel at a local Romanian school now home to roughly 125 Ukrainian refugees. In addition to IMB missionaries like Gray, Southern Baptist volunteers have invested time here to show Christ’s love.
Volunteers from Indiana teamed up with Ukrainian youth at the school to play a soccer match. Other volunteers tossed frisbees. The volunteer team also distributed jump ropes, building blocks and therapeutic toys.
The goal was to just do some normal life activities and release some energy. Adults mingled along the sidelines watching and talking. Feeling “back to normal” is a lot harder for them but talking helps.
Sitting on a park bench on the school compound, Gray listened to the harrowing escape story of Ludmila, a Christian from Kyiv. Her stories corroborate news reports, others are new information for the missionary. Gray walked the playground, stopping to talk with Veronika about Bible stories she’d read in a children’s Bible story book. The Ukrainian woman asked Gray to pray she would quit smoking. She prayed to the virgin Mary, but it hasn’t helped, yet. Gray easily slid into a gospel conservation with the young woman.
The veteran missionary knows the places and challenges Ludmila and Veronika speak of well and shares the Ukrainians’ heavy hearts. This is the steadfast presence and investment in peoples and places that IMB prioritizes. It’s the foundation that allows Gray to share so openly.
The visit by Gray, Romanian Baptists and the volunteers from Indiana was well-received by the administrators of the school and refugee center. Administrators extended the invitation to visit weekly. They were also interested in a camp for the children. The weekly visits and camp will grant the refugees access to the gospel and the opportunity to hear that there is hope on the horizon and safety in the Holy Spirit.
Although Gray isn’t physically in Ukraine, she is still steadfastly present among the people she was commissioned to serve. For now, gospel access looks like sitting on park benches and praying for women like Veronika and Ludmila.
Exile doesn’t halt missionary presence. It may shift the location, but not the message or mission. Together, we seek to be steadfastly present among those who have never heard the gospel as they are dispersed and displaced around the world. Together, we strive for gospel access that knows no geographic or social boundary.