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Missions commitment links Ukrainian refugees with Illinois church

The FBC O’Fallon mission team had a busier schedule than usual, teaching English to Ukrainian refugees, utilizing Lifeway’s mission trip Vacation Bible School with children, and offering another English class for Polish workers in the evening.

O’FALLON, Ill. (BP) — Donn and Joni Schaefer have organized 10 mission trips to Russia 1since 2008. They taught English in Siberia as a way to open discussions about the Gospel. But when the invasion of Ukraine shut down trips into Russia for Americans, the Schaefers looked for other avenues to use their unique skills.

The Illinois couple turned their focus a little west, to Ukrainian refugees flooding into Poland.

After ten trips to Russia before the war, Donn and Joni Schaefer (left) organized their first mission to Poland. With them were (continuing l-r) Marilyn Dawson, Patrick Austin, Karen Dunn, David Chumley, Sterling Dare, Zach England, and Melissa Witt-Smith.

“English is always a draw wherever you go,” Joni said, “because it’s the language of commerce and of travel.” And for a mission team of nine from First Baptist Church of O’Fallon, it was the language of love — three classes per day.

“Things never turn out on a mission trip the way you think they’re going to,” Joni said. In this case, the schedule was busier than ever, with classes for Ukrainian refugees in the morning, Polish adults in the evening after work, and a Bible club much like Vacation Bible School for children in the afternoon. “We used to take six months to prepare the team; this time we had eight weeks.”

The Schaefers scouted out the trip a month before their July 15-26 expedition. “Leading mission trips to Siberia gave us an edge,” Donn said, “because we knew how to teach English to people who speak Russian.” The Belleville residents had a proven curriculum that Donn thought would adapt well to other Slavic languages, but the effect of the war was another matter.

“In our little world in Illinois, the war had affected us because it shut off ever seeing the Russian people again,” Joni said. “We had to go through a grieving process.”

This experience helped prepare the couple to embrace refugees. Donn contacted Mark McCormick, a counselor from Illinois’ Baptist Children’s Home and Family Services, to ask for guidance for their new field. “I wanted to make sure we knew how to deal with women and children who were experiencing trauma,” Donn said.

“He said the men should hug the boys, which may sound a little strange,” Joni said, “because their fathers are still back in Ukraine—”

“Or, dead,” Donn interjected.

“So the kids just hang onto you.” 

International connections 

Back home in Illinois, members of FBC O’Fallon prayed for the team day by day. Using a creative method they’d used once before, the team created and distributed paper chains with prayer requests, one per day, featuring the team members and their photographs. Each day, one prayer link was removed and that person prayed over.

“We mixed up the links, so everyone was prayed for every day,” Joni said.

The last link included instructions to text the team as they returned home. “We knew the church was praying for us,” Joni said. “We’ve asked people to pray for us before, and they say, ‘OK, we will, but we don’t know what to pray for.’ This way the church has specific prayer requests.”

Commitment to missions, and to mission trips, is characteristic of this congregation. And so is a commitment to Poland. “My first international mission trip was to Poland just before I came to FBC O’Fallon,” Pastor Doug Munton said. “In fact, it was there that God confirmed for me that I was to come to FBCO. That trip was life changing for me as I saw God’s work in the world in a larger way than ever before.”

Munton has served the church 27 years and engaged in multiple mission trips. “It also caused me to desire to see FBCO become deeply involved in missions around the world,” he said. “We have had long term partnerships in Uganda, Cuba and another country.”

The connection to Poland extends beyond Munton and this recent mission team.

“The IMB missionaries that we worked with in this recent trip to Poland, Chuck and Vikki Franks, have family in our church. They have been to FBCO many times over the years. When it became impossible for us to go back to a particular country, we got connected with the Franks and God opened doors for us to go,” Munton said. “Willingness met need and opportunity.”

The missionaries in Ilawa had wanted to employ English classes as witnessing opportunities for 13 years, Donn said. They reported after the team returned home that they will start a family English class in January.

Of their work over a week in central Poland, Donn said, “It looks very chaotic, but it’s amazing to see what happens.”

The three-a-day classes culminated in “Party Day” that included both Poles and refugees from Ukraine in their sessions. That produced an unusual Gospel presentation. Donn shared his testimony in English, which an IMB missionary translated into Polish, and a bi-lingual person from Ukraine translated into their language.

In addition to the mission team’s work, Joni credited Send Relief for life-sustaining work among refugees. “Send Relief has been doing amazing things for Ukraine,” she said. The joint venture of the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board has become a rapid response agent in times of crisis, even abroad.

“One missionary we worked with received an email asking what they needed” soon after the flight of refugees into Poland began, Joni said. He thought it might take months and “a bunch of red tape.” But a 72-word request produced funds in six hours to help refugees immediately with food and housing and support ongoing work to convert an office complex into living quarters.

“Southern Baptists need to know this,” she said. “The missionaries just can’t say enough good things about Send Relief.”   

And for Pastor Munton, “I would love for every IBSA pastor and church to consider a personal connection to international missions. Maybe churches could consider sending their pastor or a team on a trip as well as supporting our career missionaries through prayer and finances.”

That includes Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. “It can change how they see evangelism and discipleship both globally and locally,” Munton said.

It has for the Schaefers and their mission teams who are characteristically humble about their work. As Donn said, “We’re just normal people who go on mission trips.”

“There is something powerful and life changing about a mission trip,” Munton said. That applies to the people hearing the Gospel, the team members, and the church at home.”