A week after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, evangelical church planter Ben Layer got a call at his home in Siedlce, Poland. A Polish pastor close to the border was organizing care for the Ukrainian refugees on his church’s doorstep, and scrambling to find help: Could someone come preach for him on Sunday?
An elder from Layer’s church made the trip, preaching at two worship services near the border, where church members arranged mattresses and supplies in a building packed with refugees. As the elder preached in Polish, others translated his sermon into Ukrainian, Belarusian, and English for a handful of Americans on site. “It’s overwhelming,” Layer says of ministry during the worsening crisis. “Everyone is stretched thin.”
‘It’s overwhelming. Everyone is stretched thin.’
In Poland, churches know about limits. Evangelicals compose a tiny fraction of the population in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. Layer thinks it’s around 0.2 percent (slightly lower than some estimates). He often has to explain to other evangelicals: “That’s not 2 percent—it’s 0.2 percent.”
That’s a low figure even in Europe, where evangelicals are a small minority in most nations. (Ukrainian evangelicals make up less than 4 percent of their nation’s population.) Figures from Operation World offer a stark comparison with a nation in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia has a similar number of evangelicals as Poland.
“Here in Eastern Poland, you can drive 50 or 60 miles between evangelical churches,” Layer says. “And those are often made up of 20 or 30 members.” Layer, an American who has served in the country for 21 years, says having few hands for the work is “the reality of evangelicalism in Eastern Poland.”
That reality makes ministry a challenge in peaceful times: There’s always a desperate need for more pastors and missionaries in the country. But during wartime, Layer says new challenges have mounted up. Churches in Poland are serving refugees fleeing Ukraine, but like many others on the continent, they’re trying to discern how best to stretch limited resources and help those in distress.
Ministry on the Run
In the chaos of the last two weeks, more than 2 million Ukrainians and others have fled Ukraine in the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The exodus accounts for nearly 5 percent of Ukraine’s population. More than 1 million of those refugees have crossed into Poland.
Another million are internally displaced in Ukraine. Many of those have ended up in the western city of Lviv, where citizens are preparing for potential attacks from Russia. Meanwhile, Christian churches, schools, and mission groups are providing refuge to those fleeing their hometowns.
Yaroslav Pyzh, president of Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary in Lviv, said the seminary went from conducting classes to hosting evacuees overnight. “In five days, we became a lot older,” he said. By the end of the first week, the seminary had processed more than 700 refugees. “We are praying for a big miracle,” he said in a video describing the crisis. “For the war to stop.”
Two weeks into the war, there was no end in sight as bombings grew more harrowing. On Wednesday, Ukrainian officials reported the brutal bombing of a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol.
Attacks on civilian targets and the fear of more devastation have driven many refugees to leave shelters in cities like Lviv and join the miles-long border line into neighboring Poland.
When a family of seven Ukrainians arrived at Layer’s church about 60 miles west of the border, they had been traveling for 36 hours, including 20 hours spent at the border crossing: A woman named Anya was fleeing with her four young children and two parents. Her husband, a deacon in a Ukrainian church, stayed behind—along with millions of other men ages 18 to 60 legally barred from leaving Ukraine. (They’re required to stay to defend the country if necessary.)
Anya’s father made it out—he’s 61 years old. But the swelling number of refugees filling Eastern Europe in the last two weeks are overwhelmingly women, children, and the elderly. Since the crisis began, Layer said he hasn’t encountered one Ukrainian man younger than 60: “I’ve only had contact with women, children, and older men.”
With many refugees moving through Poland to other destinations, some churches find families staying for short periods and moving on. Others are settling in and waiting to see what happens in Ukraine.
In Piotrków Trybunalski, evangelical pastor Daniel Kryston said his church faced a dilemma when they began preparing to receive refugees. With natural gas prices surging, his small congregation was already behind on their massive heating bill during the frigid winter months.
“Should we accept the Ukrainian refugees, heat the building, and then have no way to pay the bill?” he wondered. The Polish pastor, who has served at the Church of Evangelical Christians since 1993, says that so far, their approach has been “let us help them and worry about the expenses later on.”
Let us help them and worry about the expenses later on.
One of the families the church has helped is a single mother who fled Ukraine with her 12-year-old son. The church has committed to taking care of the small family in one of their five guest rooms for at least a month. Most of the refugees they’re sheltering come through contacts of Ukrainian church members already living in Poland. A handful are staying with church members in their homes. Most hope to return to Ukraine soon, but Kryston says, “We have no idea what is next.”
For now, they continue to serve—and worship—alongside Ukrainians. “Yesterday we had as many Ukrainians as Polish in the service,” he says. “The church was packed.”
Pastor Layer from Siedlce thinks the presence of Ukrainian Christians will encourage small churches in Eastern Poland, where meeting other evangelical Christians is rare. He’s moved by Ukrainian responses to the evil that’s unfolded: “I heard one Ukrainian lady say, ‘God has sent this for a reason, and maybe it’s to send us out into other countries.’”
The pastor is also hopeful the crisis will drive more Polish people to seek Christ. Fighter jets from a nearby military base are flying over the town constantly, and people are worried about the war spilling into their own country. He says his church was full on Sunday, “and that’s not normal for us.”
Layer knows things may not be normal again for a long time. He realized early in the war: “I think our ministry right now is changing forever.”