Mennonite Brethren in Fresno, Calif., are responding to conflict and suffering in Ukraine by partnering with Ukrainian MB congregations for ministry in the country’s war zone.
Conversations between Mountain View Community Church Pastor Fred Leonard and MB Mission Europe director Johann Matthies led to the Warm Churches project. It assists the eight congregations of the Ukrainian International Community of Mennonite Brethren to serve people in need.
As pro-Russian separatists have fought for independence from a new Ukrainian government, hardship has become acute in the eastern part of the country.
The able-bodied who have stayed in areas like Donetsk have no place to work, and the bulk of those who remain are the sick, elderly, women and children. Many areas near the fighting have no running water, electricity or grocery stores.
In December, MB Mission and Mountain View Community Church leaders mobilized German, American and Canadian churches to help.
As a result, all eight Ukrainian churches were open as Warm Churches, welcoming people and providing food, clothing, activities and the opportunity to worship Jesus. Before the project began, 305 people attended the eight churches. To date, 570 new people attended the Warm Church activities, and 133 of those have continued their church involvement.
Journey to the front
While the Warm Church project is a success, the MB churches are also caring for those in the war zone. Church leaders are taking food and clothing there. Three Fresno churches — Mountain View, New Harvest Church and NorthPointe Community Church — purchased two large vans to deliver food and clothing around Donetsk and Mariupol.
In March, Mountain View pastors Fred Leonard and Lawrence Smith traveled to Ukraine with Mathies and Tony and Roxanna Petersen. The Petersons are MB Mission workers with the Missionsgemeinde Ecclesia church in Peine, Germany. They picked up the vehicles to deliver food, clothing, supplies and Bibles.
“We entered Ukraine on a mission from God, with the prayers of the Christians in Fresno and Germany going before us,” wrote the group in a report.
With a team of Ukrainian pastors who have made this trip dozens of times, the Californians set out for the Donetsk area, a mere three or four miles from the front.
“We saw the elderly, the injured and single parents with small children,” they said. “We entered their living spaces, where many had no running water, no electricity and no food, with their only source of heat coming from bricks laid atop a propane-powered stove top.”
Ukrainian church leaders drive on a weekly basis to the war zone. While Donetsk was shelled the night before and the night after the team was in Donetsk, the pastors were thrilled that for the first time they did not have to contend with gunfire.
Food, socks, Bibles
The Western visitors met Ukrainian soldiers, both from the Ukrainian army and volunteers. “We gave them food, socks, Christian literature, Bibles, prayer and the love of Jesus, the best we knew how,” they said.
“We went into bomb shelters where people live for weeks on end. We saw destroyed houses and apartments. We went to the hospital and prayed for wounded soldiers, that God might heal their bodies and souls. We saw children thankful for candy yet unable to smile, deep creases of concern on the faces of parents and the elderly and the terror that happens in the absence of peace and hope.”
And they witnessed the power of prayer: “We saw the love of God in action. . . . We gathered with pastors and church leaders, and we listened, shared, laughed and cried with them. We ate borsch and verenika with them, and, most important, we prayed with them.”
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