It was easy for Rostik to see the resemblance to his own family as he visited a mother raising her children alone. Her husband was in prison, and they needed some extra support to get by. Rostik’s mother also raised him and his five siblings alone without a source of income.
(All names are shortened or withheld for security reasons.)
As a volunteer with the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Ukraine, or AMBCU, he was visiting this family to bring them much-needed supplies, including a relief kit from Mennonite Central Committee as well as a wood stove funded by another organization.
The mother of four was living in a village near Uzhhorod in western Ukraine, without running water or electricity during the cold winter. They received some support from the Ukrainian government, but it wasn’t enough.
Rostik remembered that in his own childhood, his mother also received support from the state, but it wasn’t enough for his family. Then the church stepped in.
“When I started to attend church, the church supported me, and it drastically changed my life,” he said. “Remembering how church influenced me then, and now I see the families who are in need. And if I have a chance to share or to give something to people in need, like I am a volunteer now, I want to do that.”
AMBCU is one of MCC’s local partners in Ukraine, a collective of Mennonite Brethren churches across the country providing relief to people whose lives have been upended by the war with Russia. AMBCU’s director, Roman, sees a clear role for the church.
There’s the military front line that everyone hears about in the news, but churches see their own front line as providing relief and care for people who have been displaced or harmed by the war.
“Our area is injured soldiers, injured people, people who fled,” Roman said. “And this front, or area of work, will last even longer after the war is finished. It’s long-term.”
Each month AMBCU provides food packages to more than 200 families. Volunteers have distributed relief and hygiene supplies like MCC relief kits, comforters and canned meat. They have also started responding to psychological needs, providing equine therapy, massage and other supports to displaced children.
Food packages from AMBCU have made a big difference for displaced families, including Ihor, Natalia and their children, who used to live in a village near Mykolaiv. At first, they thought they’d be safe, but when the bombing got too intense, they fled to the western part of the country.
Natalia’s mother Galina said the food helps sustain them, and they are glad to know they haven’t been forgotten.
“We are grateful to all volunteers, people of faith from all countries who are not indifferent to our suffering in Ukraine and who help us with what they can: medicine, food, clothes or just a word, just a prayer,” she said. “Pray for our Ukraine and let the war end.”
Helping, then receiving
AMBCU started providing emergency assistance after the 2014 Russian military invasion of Crimea. Roman had spent years providing help to others who had been displaced. But when the invasion escalated last year, Roman was suddenly on the receiving end.
As he and his family fled from their homes in Zaporizhzhia, they were supported by people from churches along the way.
“I experienced this moment when I was not a giver but a receiver,” Roman said. “And [through that experience] comes the understanding that the church is not just some local building that you go to every Sunday. It is something more.”
Now settled in the western part of Ukraine, Roman is back to coordinating the work of AMBCU, helping organize distributions through 20 churches and nine shelters. Because the war’s front line is always changing, they regularly have to adapt where they’re able to work and what they can provide, always taking precautions to keep volunteers safe.
Though the work can be hard, for people like Andriy, humanitarian coordinator for AMBCU, it also is a way to keep hope during a time of war.
“I believe it is really crucial not to lose hope in the dark time that we live in right now,” he said. “Knowing that you are really doing something can be of great help to people. Knowing this really lifts you up, encourages you to wake up every day and to know that you can be of help to others.”
For Roman and the churches of AMBCU, this is the calling of Christians. It’s what they’re meant to do.
“I believe that this is our task, to be light for the world,” he said. “This is the only way not to break. This is the only way our faith gets strengthened. If I personally and we as a church respond to pain, only then does our life get meaning.”