Olena Levchenko and her Christian family barely escaped Russian forces in Ukraine and bounced from nation to nation in Europe before learning a Baptist congregation in Atlanta, was willing to sponsor them as temporary refugees in the United States.
Levchenko said she found it difficult to believe that the Church at Wieuca, or any church for that matter, cared that much about her, her husband and two young children — a daughter, 10, and son, 15 — given that millions of Ukrainians are internally displaced and scattered around the world.
“This is discipleship, and this is the body of Christ and that it doesn’t matter what language we speak.”
“When I first heard it, to be honest, I didn’t take it seriously. I thought, why would they do this? They don’t even know anything about us, they don’t know anything about Ukrainians or the war,” she said. “But then my husband, Yurii, reminded me that this is discipleship, and this is the body of Christ and that it doesn’t matter what language we speak or what church or country we are from. This is what Christians do.”
What Wieuca did was work feverishly in July to complete the necessary federal applications to bring the Levchenkos and a single Ukrainian woman to the U.S. in the fall as part of the Biden administration’s new Uniting for Ukraine program. Once the Levchenkos and Olesia Zavorotylo, a schoolteacher, arrived in Atlanta, the push was on to secure them housing, get the children vaccinated and enrolled in schools, and to apply for Social Security, health care coverage, work visas and other benefits available to Ukrainians enrolled in the two-year program.
Levchenko, who has an older son in college in the United Kingdom, said those efforts and the love they have been shown at Wieuca have more than convinced her that her husband was right about the body of Christ. “My testimony is about the kindness of these people, about their heart, about their prayers for my family, and about the miracles that have happened because they helped us experience God’s love.”
But the Church at Wieuca, which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, also has experienced numerous blessings from the presence of Zavorotylo, the Levchenkos and even Yurii’s brother Sergei, who already was in Atlanta when the war began, Lead Pastor Barry Howard said.
“Any and every church is always at its best when it is engaged in hands-on mission,” he explained. “During the pandemic, people were not able to travel on mission trips, so it has been good for the church to have a mission project come to us.”
Howard said he initially became aware of the Levchenkos and Zavorotylo through Mina and Gennady Podgaisky, Ukraine-based CBF field personnel who were in the U.S. when the Russian invasion occurred in February. When he then presented the idea of sponsoring the refugees to the church council, several members jumped at the opportunity and immediately formed an ad hoc committee to begin the process.
What followed was an all-out effort by church members volunteering to meet the many needs of the Ukrainians, Howard said. An attorney with immigration expertise handled the federal applications, and a Realtor led the successful search for housing. Others divvied up tasks such as furnishing linens, pots and pans and groceries, providing transportation to ESL classes, offering piano lessons and tutoring for the children and taking the family on hikes and to lunches and other social events.
“It was handled so members of all ages could participate in the sponsorship. We are really treating them like they are family,” Howard said.
He provides a pastoral presence knowing the Levchenkos and Zavorotylo experienced extreme trauma in the war and during their escape from Ukraine, where the family was members of the Podgaiskys’ church and ministry. “I usually make contact with them twice a week by email or text, just letting them know I am available and that we are praying for them. I always remind them they are not alone.”
And because the recent arrivals are attending church at Wieuca, the main points of Howard’s sermons are translated into Ukrainian so they can follow along. “Having these opportunities to help has been a true blessing to this congregation, and it’s been a blessing for me to see so many people step up,” the pastor said.
One of those was church member and former teacher Jane Henley, who has been tutoring the Levchenkos’ 15-year-old son, Nikita, in math. But she was quick to insist that it is she who has been learning from the congregation’s sponsorship experience.
“I’ve grown so much from knowing them and from seeing the positive attitude they have had. You could understand if they were very bitter, but they’re not. And they are such strong Christians.”
Henley added she felt God’s presence when Olena Levchenko made a presentation to the congregation about how they converted the cellar of their home near Kyiv into a bomb shelter to protect neighbors as the community came under direct Russian attack early in the war.
“It is also moving to see how strong they have been, particularly for their children, and how they have continued to be active in their faith as they have settled in here,” Henley added. “It’s very uplifting to watch this go on.”
Seeing the Church at Wieuca fully embrace the Ukrainians also has been inspiring, Henley said. “I think all of us realize we are capable of doing so much more than we thought we could, and that comes from a source other than just us. We keep seeing more God winks as we go along.”
Support for the visitors also has come from many in the wider community, said Wieuca church council member and Realtor Talitha Pettepher.
“Every single person we have introduced them to has consistently said something like ‘Welcome to America, we are so glad you are here,’” she said. “When we stopped by Chick-fil-A to have lunch some employees learned they were Ukrainian and gave them a stack of free-meal cards. And as we were leaving, two police officers coming in for lunch heard them speaking in their language and said, ‘Welcome to the United States.’ That made such a huge impression on this family. It was palpable.”
Pettepher said she also has been deeply affected by the entire experience.
“There’s a litany of things that have fallen into place with no explanation, and that for me is so affirming of what we’re doing and what we’ve done. For the family and the young lady to lose everything they have, and then to have things just work out here, has been just amazing.”
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