Down Ukrainian roads, cloaked in the golden hues of the vibrant but short-lived autumn, comes help and hope. A caravan of cars following a yellow panel van borrowed from a church carries suitcases and plastic tubs filled with medical supplies. A mission team, including healthcare professionals from both Ukraine and the U.S., prepares each day for the hours of work ahead, sometimes catching a needed nap on the journey to or from the day’s location.
The caravan of hope is part of an ongoing medical ministry of IMB teams in Ukraine to bring care to underserved communities. The need for medical care in eastern regions has been critical since violence began in 2014, part of the Russo-Ukrainian war, now considered a “frozen conflict.” After the height of the crisis, many local businesses, including clinics and hospitals, closed, leaving residents who stayed with little or no access to medical attention.
This particular team is a unique group, a last-minute replacement for a team of volunteers that could not travel due to COVID-19 restrictions. The team is made of IMB missionaries, a Ukrainian doctor, a retired nurse, a volunteer paramedic and Ukrainian believers. When Ukrainian partners aren’t serving as interpreters, they fill in at an eye-glass station or make-shift pharmacy.
In one church that hosted a clinic, chairs from a simple choir loft soon become a triage unit. Pews are unbolted from the floor to make room for tables where Svieta, a Ukrainian doctor, and Harrison Martin*, an IMB Journeyman nurse practitioner, will meet with patients. Women from the church work in a small kitchen adjacent to the sanctuary to prepare food for the mission team. A breakfast of tomatoes, potatoes, beet salad, crepes and bread is waiting when the team arrives. Smells from the multi-course meal that will be served at lunch already waft through the small building.
IMB missionary Jack Gibbs* explains that the mobile clinics are a partnership between churches in the U.S. and in Ukraine. They are funded through Send Relief and through gifts given to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Gibbs organizes the trips with local pastors and Ukrainian ministry partners, following the guidance of local governments.
For the least of these
Medical clinics give access to entire villages, Gibbs says.
“It’s amazing that a one-day clinic can give access to a local evangelist or church planter for years to come.”
After each clinic, Gibbs gives the local host pastor the registration cards completed by visitors to the clinic.
“These are people in your community who need care and the gospel. We will pray for you as you minister here,” Gibbs tells local pastors.
Dennis, his stained hands revealing work in the coal mines, comes with an eye infection, probably caused by coal dust. He leaves with antibiotic eye drops, vitamins and blood pressure medicine, provided through the generosity of Southern Baptists. These things would otherwise be very expensive for Dennis, if available at all in his region.
Nine-year-old Timothy comes with his father. Timothy has an abscess on his throat. Martin is able to lance and clean the wound. An old sofa in the corner of the church replaces a sterile medical table Martin would use in the U.S. But Timothy still receives the care he needs, plus a children’s Bible and stuffed tiger, and even comes to the team’s hotel the next morning for a follow-up visit.
Many senior citizens come with diabetes and high blood pressure. Parents bring children for well-child checkups and allergies. All receive kindness and care and the love of Christ. At the end of the week, the team knows of six people who have chosen to follow Christ. One woman cries as she leaves the pharmacy, saying that she has never been treated with so much kindness by doctors.
Beauty of partnership
Vlad, a Ukrainian ministry partner whom Gibbs calls “one of his very best friends,” says that people in the areas where they serve have little access to doctors or pharmacies. Some must travel more than two hours to find a clinic, if they have money for transportation. The clinics that come to them are welcomed.
Vlad is a former professional soccer player who now coaches soccer and teaches English, in addition to his ministry beside IMB missionaries. On clinic days, he translates, shares the Gospel, entertains children and fills in where needed. His stoic demeanor hides his tender heart for God and others.
He shares the Gospel that transformed his own life – a message he received when he heard a mission team leading a soccer camp in his community. He connected with Christians over his beloved sport and met his beloved Savior.
“This is my family,” Vlad says of the IMB missionaries and Christian friends he’s met in his ministry. “We’ve done so many things together since 2012.”
He recognizes that those who come to the clinics need more than physical care. “God is my Father; God is my direction. He is merciful and He is love. And He can be your best friend,” he shares in his testimony.
Vlad was one of the first workers to meet Ludmila, age 66. As she waited in a line of chairs against the small church sanctuary wall to have her blood pressure checked, Vlad asked her if she knew Jesus. She explained that she was shy, too afraid to pray to receive Jesus, though she understood her need. Vlad asked the pastor of the hosting church to pray with him for Ludmila. As she went through the medical stations – first to the nurse for a temperature and blood pressure check, then to speak with doctor, then to the table in the back corner of the sanctuary serving as a pharmacy – she felt her need for Jesus grow. When Vlad approached her again, she was ready. She followed Vlad and the pastor to the choir loft for space to kneel, pray and accept Christ’s gift of eternal life.
“She was so shy at the beginning, and then she was telling people about following Jesus as she was leaving!” Vlad recounts.
More relief must be sent
As Gibbs prays for more Send Relief teams to come to Ukraine, he also prays for a medical professional to join their team in a permanent missionary role to help facilitate the clinics and further the healthcare strategies in Ukraine. He sees evidence that God can use so many people if they are willing to serve.
“There’s so much need here,” he says. “The medical needs give us an opportunity to come and to help, but at the same time we’re not going in to just meet just medical needs.”
Gibbs, a church planter without medical training, believes that healthcare strategies are one of the greatest ways to engage adults with the Gospel. As he leads the teams, he witnesses God work in and through team members, just as God works in the lives of those in need of care.
“The Lord is gracious,” he says, “and any time His children are walking in what He has laid out for them, you’re going to see amazing things. Things you can’t imagine. And God does those things, and it’s amazing to be a part of it.”