WARSAW, Poland (BP) – When veteran Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief chaplain and assessor Linda Mitter of Rockwall was asked to join a Send Relief fact-finding team headed to Poland, she didn’t think she would go.
“I thought there were others who could serve better. I prayed about it. I felt God saying yes,” Mitter said, adding that after the decision was made, she experienced “complete peace.”
Mitter was a member of the Send Relief Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), led by Tom Beam, North Carolina Baptist DR director. The team also included Ohio Baptist DR director John Heading and three other North Carolinians, one a medical doctor. The team met in Chicago on March 4 and flew to Warsaw, arriving the following day.
Their task? Assess the needs of Polish Baptist churches and entities ministering to Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. To date, more than 3 million Ukrainians – half of whom are children – have sought refuge throughout Europe, with Poland generally their first stop.
The DART crew determined how the national network of 42 U.S. state Baptist DR teams and eventually, U.S. churches, could help. They encouraged Polish Baptist leaders and pastors and returned stateside March 14 with recommendations for organizing and quickly deploying SBDR teams and resources.
Mitter said Polish authorities at the Ukrainian border had well-organized reception centers where the refugees received help with housing and immediate needs. Many Ukrainians were just passing through to other destinations in the EU and abroad. Others were welcomed into private homes by citizens in Poland and surrounding countries.
Churches and Baptist organizations were also providing temporary and long-term shelter for refugees. Undergirding them would be a primary goal of Send Relief and SBDR.
“We learned there are 115 Baptist churches in Poland, less than 10,000 members. Many are tiny churches with 50 or fewer in the congregation. Right now, 40 churches are helping and 20 of those already have refugees,” Mitter said.
During their nine full days in the country, the team traveled across Poland from Warsaw to Krakow to destinations such as the border city of Chelm, tiny Zelow, and Gdansk.
The schedule was packed, the travel exhausting, the meetings plentiful and productive, Mitter said. Her stories were plentiful, too, and included poignant moments of fellowship and obvious indicators of God’s presence and provision.
Warsaw: Needs met
Warsaw was their first base, where the team met at the Warsaw Baptist Seminary with IMB missionaries and Polish Baptist representatives, including Mateusz Wichary, former Baptist Union of Poland president and current vice president of the European Baptist Federation. Wichary told them 75-80 percent of the refugees would stay in Poland, necessitating long-term assistance. He expressed concern about the 100,000 refugees pouring across the border every day.
Conversations centered on financial and facility issues, then Wichary mentioned the depressed emotional state of many refugees. To immediately assist those working with refugees, Heading offered to conduct a condensed training class in grief counseling and crisis management, which took place Sunday afternoon, March 6.
The team also explored area churches and facilities that are currently housing refugees or that have potential to do so.
Zelow: Prepared beforehand
At Zelow, some 2.5 hours from Warsaw, they met Pastor Greg Skobal, whose 25-member congregation was working hard installing showers and an additional bathroom to prepare the church for refugees due March 14.
The church had been updating its 126-year-old facilities for over a year and had made some changes that seemed unnecessary at the time. Alterations such as the addition of an extra water line would serve refugees they hadn’t expected to host when the renovations started.
Skobal has plans for a future orphanage and a mission in Belchatw. “Pastor Greg is very passionate and excited about helping the refugees,” Mitter said.
Chelm: Nearest the border
The Baptist church at Chelm (pronounced Helm), a city of around 64,000 only 16 miles from the Ukrainian border, contains the evangelical church closest to the border, Mitter said.
Even before the Russian invasion, Chelm Baptist pastor Henryk Skrzypkowski and his church began purchasing beds, blankets, and other supplies for the impending influx of refugees, the pastor told Paul Chitwood during the IMB president’s visit there in early March.
“Pastor Henrik said he is learning exactly what it means to trust God as with the loaves and fish,” Mitter said. “They have bought four washers and five dryers. So many needs and God keeps providing.”
Refugee children in the busy church shelter played while their mothers chatted. Skrzypkowski has many connections with his Ukrainian neighbors, Mitter said, and many have sent their relatives to him and the church for assistance. The pastor has 16 children himself, seven biological ones and nine foster children, three of whom have special needs.
Mitter said that from the first day of the war, the church has received about 200 refugees per day to spend the night. Another hundred may pass through daily, stopping for meals, showers and clothes. Church volunteers, with help from a local restaurant, serve about 350 meals twice a day. A local nurse stops in to attend to medical needs. The pastor is exhausted, Mitter said, adding that the team’s physician, Dr. Dan Phillips, treated several refugees at Chelm.
The environment is safe and welcoming. One 7-year-old boy even cried when it was time to move on. He didn’t want to leave the place.
The church’s large warehouse is being used to store goods for refugees at Chelm and throughout Poland.
Skrzypkowski said that tens of thousands of refugees are being cared for in Polish homes, calling it a “miracle,” as animosities dating from World War II that had spawned hatred have vanished.
“Now the Ukrainians see that no one is helping like Poland,” Skrzypkowski said.
Gdansk: American president paves the way
At Gdansk, the team met at First Baptist to discuss needs and tour the facility, which had been converted to accommodate 40 but was housing 60 refugees per night.
“They were in every room,” Mitter said, adding that a large house in the back of the property was also housing 20 more long-term refugees.
The facility is larger than the congregation needs. When it was built in the 1980s, it was customary to submit building plans for approval that were twice as large as needed, expecting authorities to approve only half the size of any structure. U.S. President Jimmy Carter happened to be visiting Gdansk when the church filed its building proposal and authorities, in a goodwill gesture inspired by Carter (a Baptist), approved the entire construction project decades before it would be needed to house refugees.
Elder Ruston, from Second Baptist of Gdansk, told the group he had been sad to move to that city five years ago after ministering for years in Ukraine. Now, as he helps search for permanent housing for refugees, he knows why he was sent to Gdansk, Mitter said.
The Gospel prevails
The team developed recommendations for Send Relief and presented them to Polish Baptist leaders before flying home on March 14. Under the coordination of Send Relief, regarding Poland, it was recommended that North Carolina DR teams serve in the Warsaw area, Texas Baptist Men staff the warehouse at Chelm, and SBDR teams from Ohio, Louisiana, and Tennessee work in the Gdansk area.
SBTC DR Director Scottie Stice confirmed on March 16 that SBTC DR will be joined by SBDR teams from California, Missouri, and Arkansas to minister in nearby Romania and Moldova, countries also receiving massive numbers of refugees. Two multi-state DR contingents including SBTC DR personnel will depart for Romania on March 21 and 26, he said.
What initially began as a one-month deployment of four teams spread out over 30 days in Eastern Europe is now expected to become a six-month mission, Stice said. Once systems are in place, churches also will have opportunities to send teams to assist, he said.
“We’re there to be a blessing to the Romanian and Moldovan churches as they minister to the Ukrainians. At the same time, we pray for the Gospel to go forth,” Stice said.
The Gospel has already gone forth, Mitter said, sharing a Polish pastor’s account of Ukrainian soldiers who told him they can feel both the prayers of the people and sense God’s protection.
Donations toward the ongoing crisis response can be given here.