I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in Wroclaw, Poland. The original intention for my trip was to teach a spiritual renewal retreat for church leaders over a three-day weekend.
The retreat was a planned partnership between The Future Leadership Foundation (centered in Missouri) and the Golden Apple Institute (centered in Wroclaw), and was geared around the theme of “the renovation of the heart.” When we started planning this retreat back in 2021, there was no awareness of the coming war in Ukraine and its impact on church and community leaders in neighboring nations, such as Poland.
In facilitating the retreat around Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, I quickly identified that these church leaders were physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted. In addition to serving in voluntary or bivocational leadership roles in their local churches and caring for their own lives and families, they were organizing and caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees.
I also was privileged to serve a few days in the New Hope Distribution Center in Wroclaw. The ministry is an outgrowth of Light Café, a small church led by Wojtek and Agnieszka Kowalewska. New Hope distributes food, clothing and supplies to hundreds of Ukrainian refugees each day. Most of these refugees are elderly, women or children. Some of the refugees, in turn, volunteer to assist in the center, helping to translate, distribute needed items and minister to their own people.
A conservative estimate of the number of Ukrainian refugees that have crossed the border into Poland is 3 million. This only includes the ones who are documented. They left their homeland and many of their family members behind. Many husbands and fathers remain in Ukraine fighting for their freedom and separated from their loved ones.
In the distribution center, I saw babies born since the war began who never have seen their fathers. I witnessed Ukrainian women sitting down to check their phones to see if their husbands had sent word that they are still alive. I learned of a 15-year-old boy who came with his grandparents because his mother recently died of illness and his father remained in Ukraine. I witnessed a Polish woman offering three new, beautiful pairs of high heels in exchange for three bags of groceries to distribute to refugees. I heard stories of bombs exploding in communities all across the war-ravaged country, such as the one that broke apart on either side of the train as a mother and her two daughters tried to flee. I viewed an enactment in the city square as Ukrainians dramatized the massacres in their hometowns by Russian soldiers.
In the midst of such horror, I tried to offer a message of hope to them.
However, in turn, these precious people offered me great hope. Amidst their weariness and uncertainty, they continued to demonstrate compassion, kindness and grace. They valued people above borders. They exemplified the love of Jesus to others regardless of their nationality, race, gender, age or other. We spent very little time talking about orthodoxy because most of our time was spent in orthopraxy, which is what ultimately should be the visible presence of followers of Jesus. We sang songs of praise together and prayed together, at times in three different languages. This is the kingdom of God!
As I returned to the states, I realized there are many significant doctrinal conversations happening in local churches and denominations. These are important and should be treated with contemplative prayer and open dialogue. Yet, I am deeply troubled when I see people who claim the name of Christ and yet use totalitarianism as their means of indoctrination and exclusion. As Americans we have become so comfortable that we have let secondary things trump what really matters.
“As Americans we have become so comfortable that we have let secondary things trump what really matters.”
As the war in Ukraine is moving from the headlines to the back page of the newspaper, we can easily overlook the ongoing ramifications of the continued hostility and devastation. Having recently broken bread with Ukrainians displaced from the war, let me offer these suggestions:
- Continue to pray fervently with and for the people of Ukraine, for a resolution to the war and for the needs of those who are continuing to experience the horrors of the conflict.
- Continue to give to organizations that are providing hands-on humanitarian aid. The need for humanitarian aid is great in Ukraine and surrounding nations. (If you wish to give through the Future Leadership Foundation to the Ukrainian Emergency Relief Fund, 100% of your donation will go directly to the humanitarian efforts of the Ukrainian people, such as the New Hope Distribution Center.)
- Reevaluate your personal and ecclesiastical conflicts in light of their significance to the Ukrainian people. Followers of Jesus should have the discernment to validate that from century to century, from culture to culture, and from church to church, there will be diversity of opinion on various theological, philosophical and sociological issues. What should be without question is the acceptance, kindness, love, compassion and calling to serve all people as God ministers to us.
- Where there is hostility, conflict and violence, prioritize reconciliation, forgiveness and grace. As much as it depends on you and to the extent that you can, exemplify peace in yourself and toward those around you.
- Stand with the victims of oppression, prejudice and marginalization even though it may bring to your doorstep the same aggression that is brought upon them. In our efforts to live in peace, we are to avoid the complacency and complicity of turning a blind eye to injustice. The children of God are called to be peace “makers,” and that oftentimes necessitates standing with the persecuted.
Micah is well known for this admonition to demonstrate the goodness of God through a humble spirit that acts in the tension of seeking justice and loving mercifully. Perhaps such reality is best demonstrated in times of war, violence and oppression. During times of great struggle, the lives of the people of Jesus are spotlighted. What will the world see of us?
We can learn much from others in the world. We may have to look beyond the headlines, but when we do we see people. When we listen to their stories, we are drawn to empathy about their struggles. Then, we are invited to help and to be the hands and feet of Jesus in their situations and hardships. Simultaneously, they become the presence of Jesus that ministers to us and reminds us that “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he currently is starting a new community of faith, CrossRoads. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.