I was so very blessed to meet Pastor Charlie Elmore (pictured above with a friend) years ago at the Father’s Day car show in Edgewood, New Mexico. Pastor Charlie was part of a praise band that was performing at the show. I have watched him from afar growing to be such an awesome man of God. I was thrilled to see him go to Ukraine and minister. I asked Pastor Charlie to share his experiences in Ukraine with us all, in hopes that it will encourage us all to leave the walls of our churches and homes and share JESUS with the world. Imagine going into a war zone. I pray Pastor Charlie’s message touches your heart, mind and soul, and motivates you into action to share the LOVE OF JESUS.
TO UKRAINE WITH LOVE
In early May while attending a theater production that featured two of my daughters, I ran into a friend who I knew from years past at a church we both attended. We greeted each other, then she matter-of-factly asked, “Do you want to go to Ukraine?”
“Sure,” I replied without hesitation.
“Are you serious?” She asked.
“Are you serious?” I responded.
It turns out we were both serious. This friend was born and raised in Ukraine and still has family living there. After the initial Russian invasion, she flew to Ukraine and, with the help of her ministry partners there, navigated the chaos on the ground to get her mother out of the country.
After talking it over with my wife and family, and feeling peace and favor from the Lord and the blessing of my church (and benevolence funding to give away while over there), I prepared for an 8-day trip to Ukraine with the mission of delivering medical supplies to a maternity ward at a hospital in Mukachevo, located in western Ukraine. We were also to transport first aid kits for soldiers serving at the front lines, and two protective helmets for military dogs tasked with sniffing out mines and searching for survivors in the rubble.
Our team of four left Albuquerque on May 24th, flew west to LA, then back east to Amsterdam en route to Budapest. Upon landing in Amsterdam, we received word that the prime minister of Hungary, a noted pro-Putin politician, had declared a “State of Danger” for Hungary based on the war in Ukraine. This move would restrict Hungary’s governmental support of Ukraine to avoid draining their own resources or threatening their national security. Details of the prime minister’s declaration were nebulous, but we feared it would jeopardize our ability to pass through Hungarian customs with 16 pieces of luggage stuffed to capacity with humanitarian aid for Ukrainians. Would they confiscate the luggage? Would they detain us? Would they turn us around and put us on a plane back to America?
Our team leader had recently been through customs at the Budapest airport when she flew over to evacuate her mother, and she briefed us after we gathered our bags. She told us we would walk around a corner into the customs corridor where they would likely stop us and search the luggage. It brought to mind the books I’d read as a child about people smuggling Bibles past the Iron Curtain in the the Soviet era. We took a deep breath and pushed our heavy luggage carts around said corner.
The corridor was completely empty—not a soul in sight! Our team leader looked dumbfounded, but she shrugged and said with urgency, “Let’s go.” We came through the corridor into the busy airport entrance and calmly walked out the front doors to be greeted by the wife of our ministry contact. She led us to the van and we loaded the luggage. As we drove away, she told us that the airport security and customs agents were investigating a suspicious bag left on the sidewalk outside the airport. We praised God for allowing us to pass through without incident!
With one hurdle cleared, we knew we had to change our driving route into Ukraine to avoid a Hungarian border crossing. When we came to the first border crossing on our revised route, the guard had our contact open the back of the van to see the jigsaw puzzle of luggage crammed into it. She explained to the guard what the bags contained and what our mission was. Hoping to avoid a bureaucratic logjam, the guard shook his head and said, “No, it looks like a bunch of personal items to me,” and waved us through. At the second border crossing, the guard said we were supposed to fill out declaration forms itemizing every object in every suitcase. We’d been traveling close to 36 hours at this point and were fatigued and daunted by the prospect. But after a moment, the guard said, “Well, do you want to go with filling out all the forms, or do you want to go with God?”
“We want to go with God,” our contact said.
“Go with God,” the guard replied and waved us through. We were home free!
We stayed at the home of Pastor Joel Brown, an American who has lived in Ukraine for over 15 years. He pastors Living Water church in Mukachevo, and the mission of his church has adapted to address the crises wrought by the Russian invasion. Pastor Joel told me that before the invasion, Mukachevo was a city of around 60,000 people, but since many have fled Russia’s violence and destruction in the east, southeast, and central regions of Ukraine, Mukachevo’s population has quadrupled. This has put a strain on hospitals and other infrastructure (hence the need for supplies), but the city has rallied to be a safe haven since they have stayed relatively untouched by Russia’s military campaign.
Pastor Joel and Living Water jumped into action to aid displaced Ukrainian refugees. They established temporary housing facilities where people could sleep, eat, and have access to clothing and other services. They currently can accommodate 500 people across the different facilities they operate. Since the start of the war, Pastor Joel estimates they’ve assisted well over 10,000 refugees at a cost of about $12,000 a month.
In addition to this, Pastor Joel and Living Water have funded some rebuilding projects of homes damaged by Russian artillery. We spent two days traveling to Kyiv and some of the surrounding villages to survey damage and check up on a rebuilding project. I stood in the yard of an elderly man whose home was being repaired. He had been sitting in his living room reading when he went into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. A Russian shell pierced one side of his house and blew out the back wall of his living room where he’d been sitting moments before. His life was spared, but he did not have the resources or finances to repair the wall. He’d likely have just hung a tarp and made the best of the cold winters for his remaining days, but Living Water heard of his plight and hired a local work crew to repair the wall. The village leader took us to another home that had been damaged beyond the point of repair. It would be easier to raze the property and start over, and still the woman who had lived there implored us through tears to help her and her family. The situation was heartbreaking.
We drove through the village and saw the spiteful and reckless residue of war; a row of homes with massive artillery damage, one home with only a chimney left standing, a car parked by the roadside that had been crushed by a tank for amusement or intimidation. None of these were strategic military targets. Throughout Kyiv we saw roadblocks manned by vigilant Ukrainian soldiers, we saw large buildings with their sides sheared off by bombs, and we saw a burned-out and abandoned Russian tank left on the highway shoulder. We also drove through the devastation of Bucha, the site of Russia’s horrific and well-documented war crimes against civilians.
Just outside of Kyiv, we sat down in the home of an older Ukrainian couple who warmly welcomed us and fed us a delicious home-cooked meal. They looked on as we ate and the woman told us of how they lived in their basement for the first month of the invasion, air raid signals perpetually ringing out, with the sounds of relentless bombs following. As she told us the stories, her husband stood quietly looking out the window at the Kyiv skyline, watchful in a world where capricious leaders commit crimes with impunity and tell lies to deny or justify them. As we left, the woman would not accept my handshake but pulled me in for a hug and a kiss on my cheek. Crossing the Atlantic was worth it all for that embrace.
We delivered some supplies to a church that, like most churches in Ukraine, had to retrofit their functions to tend to the wounds of war. As we unloaded the van, I heard a drummer practicing in the sanctuary, undeterred by the tension in the air, or perhaps inspired by it to praise God in the midst of the madness. What else can we do? When our time comes to die, may the praises of the Lord be on our lips.
Back in Mukachevo, we were greeted by a group of smiling doctors and nurses as we delivered the shipment of medical supplies to St. Martin’s Hospital. St. Martin, born in Eastern Europe, is lauded for cutting his cloak in half to share with a shivering, poorly-clad beggar he happened upon. As the story goes, that night he dreamt of Jesus wearing that cloak and telling the angels that Martin had given it to him. When Martin awoke, the cloak was whole again. The hospital staff tries to live up to the legacy of their patron saint by giving of themselves and having their own needs met by Jesus. What a joy it was to unload supplies and see the nurses excitedly open the boxes and show each other the treasures inside.
One of the doctors took us on a tour of the maternity ward and showed us how they’d cobbled together makeshift solutions to deal with the surging refugee population in their care. We saw premature newborn babies, many whose mothers had escaped the Russian advance with the stress leading to strained pregnancies. Our team leader told the doctor we were purchasing an infant warming table to be delivered to the hospital.
I also had the privilege of preaching to the congregation of Living Water. I have preached many sermons, but none in a setting as humbling as this. Here was a mixed congregation of Mukachevo locals along with displaced Ukrainians, all of them affected in varying degrees by the cruelty and suffering of unprovoked violence. I haven’t known suffering like theirs, yet I wanted to encourage and exhort them. I read Paul’s words from Romans 5:1-8…
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God Through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we boast in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
I encouraged the congregation to hold to that glorious peace with God, unwavering despite our circumstances. I assured them that Jesus sees and knows their sufferings, as he once saw up close a brutal occupying empire in his own homeland and experienced Rome’s violent enforcement of their supremacy. And I exhorted them to continue walking in the way of Jesus, the way of self-sacrifice, of radical forgiveness of those who persecute us, and of co-suffering love that bears the burdens of their fellow humans. This way, and only this way is how the cycle of hate and vengeance gets defeated, and how the Kingdom of God shows up on earth as it is in heaven.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to travel to Ukraine, for the beautiful, gracious, and resilient souls I met there, and for what I witnessed there. I was honored to deliver needed items on behalf of concerned people who wished to help and show their love in some way. Time and again in my travels to places in great need (whether overseas, over the border, or around the corner), I’m astounded by this counterintuitive principle: People in crisis are rarely hoarders. They are quick to share what they receive. They are happy to give out of their lack. They will cut in half the cloak on their backs to cover those in need around them. They have learned the secret of being content in all circumstances. They are the poor in spirit, and to them belongs the Kingdom of God.
If you wish to assist Pastor Joel Brown and Living Water in their efforts to aid refugees, visit bit.ly/livingwaterua to donate to their cause, or visit livingwaterua.com to learn more about their efforts.
Charlie Elmore is the pastor of Emmanuel Chapel in Albuquerque, NM.