After her husband died two years ago, Susan Kirkland struggled with depression and finding God’s purpose for her life. But her focus shifted to others when the war between Russia and Ukraine erupted earlier this year.
Seeing the images and hearing the stories of millions of Ukrainian refugees pouring into neighboring countries searching for help and hope ignited a passion in Kirkland of Huntsville, Alabama, to find a way to help those in need.
“People are willing to write a check if asked,” Kirkland noted, “they’re willing to help, but I just felt a calling to go over, to actually do something in person.
“When this war broke out, there was just something about it that just captured my heart and broke it, just absolutely broke my heart.”
Within a couple of weeks after the war began, Kirkland learned Madison Baptist Association was taking a team to Romania to help refugees fleeing Ukraine. Kirkland contacted Barbara Glenn, a member of Whitesburg Baptist Church in Huntsville who was going on the trip with her husband, Tommy. For the past two decades, the Glenns have been leading teams and traveling back and forth to Romania to work with various ministry partners.
Kirkland, a member of Mayfair Church of Christ, joined the team of six people who traveled to Romania. Other team members from the Huntsville area who went on the trip were Will Faulkenberry, pastor of Mosaic City Church; Ron Lynch, church ministries director of Madison Association; and Dwight Sisk, a member of First Baptist Church Meridianville.
On the trip the team helped local churches and ministries with a variety of tasks including distributing food, quilts and 2,000 gospel tracts. They also worked with a school to encourage orphans, refugee families, weary pastors and ministry partners struggling to find their way forward in the crisis.
Among these opportunities the Huntsville team found ways to serve, whether that involved sweeping floors, making crafts, sharing Bible stories in creative ways, stocking an apartment with furniture and food, crying and laughing together during meals and even setting up Hot Wheels racetracks to bring joy to traumatized children.
“I think I’m always amazed at how God will bring a team together and what can be accomplished and how things do come together for good,” said Barbara Glenn, who also has volunteered as a missions mobilizer with the North American Mission Board and helped a pro-life ministry in Romania alongside her husband.
“I’ve always said if you really ever want to see God do His thing, you need to be involved in missions. That’s really the way to go.”
Bringing joy to grieving orphans
Sisk, who teamed up with Kirkland and Barbara Glenn during the trip to minister to orphans in Sighisoara, Romania, found his own unique ministry through Hot Wheels cars.
In the late 90s, Sisk began helping with pinewood derby racing events with Royal Ambassadors in Alabama and Georgia. Then a few years later, he became involved with National Fellowship of Raceway Ministries and worked with pinewood derby and Hot Wheels racing at speedways and campgrounds around the nation and later with missions trips to Moldova and Honduras. And now in Ukraine, Sisk channeled his love for cars, racing and NASCAR to help bring hope to orphaned children, handing out hundreds of Hot Wheels cars and setting up races for the children.
But he quickly learned hopelessness for so many Ukrainian orphans runs deep.
“I offered everyone a car, but some [of the orphans from Ukraine] wouldn’t take them,” said Sisk, noting that some children would just look down at the floor and shake their heads.
“They weren’t in their home country anymore, and to see the sadness in their eyes, that was the part that touched me the most.”
For these refugees and orphans, their homes and families are gone. While some refugees are trying to rebuild their lives outside of Ukraine, many others are cautiously returning with little more than the clothes on their backs and whatever can be stuffed in a few pieces of luggage.
Crossing the border
For two days during the trip, Tommy Glenn, Faulkenberry and Lynch traveled for hours across the border into Ukraine to work alongside local pastors and ministry partners to help take food to displaced families and others.
Glenn recalled how different things were once the team crossed over the border into Ukraine. Just getting through border control could take hours.
“It struck me how when you cross the border, it’s like everything changed — even in the western part where they haven’t had any combat to my knowledge,” Glenn recalled. “Every gas station we passed pretty much didn’t have any fuel. Store shelves were empty.”
Faulkenberry, who helped plant Mosaic City Church, said he was struck by the number of refugees now returning to Ukraine because they have run out of money and resources.
Many, he added, are fearful of what returning to a war-torn country will look like for their families. Some were told that Russian soldiers have left deadly traps in houses, gardens and even in children’s toys.
Signs of hope, joy amid weary pastors
Many pastors and ministry leaders in Romania and Ukraine have grown weary from serving refugees and are struggling to keep up with the daily grind, Faulkenberry noted.
“They have been doing this for so long, serving three hot meals a day, working tirelessly,” he said.
He added, “Resources are limited. The supply chains have been broken, so trying to get resources where they need to be is hard.”
But there also are signs of “hope and joy,” Lynch said.
Lynch came away inspired by the resilience of the pastors and families he met.
Many leaders are taking care of their families and going about their daily ministry responsibilities while also hosting refugee families in their homes.
But in the midst of the crisis, Lynch noted, young Ukrainian teenagers who had been helping serve their communities have been turning their lives over to Christ.
“We were talking to pastors, and they have seen a number of Ukrainian teenagers saved during the weeks they [were] there,” he said.
“When [I] go on a missions trip, I’m blessed more than I bless them. … That was a blessing to me to see how [churches of different denominations and ministries] are working together to share the gospel and not only feeding and housing these folks.”
Tommy Glenn recalled eating with a family who had two kids of their own serving in the military. Meanwhile, the parents are taking care of refugees in their homes.
“It was very humbling to see that,” said Glenn, who acknowledged the difficulty of parents serving others while also worrying about the safety of their own children.
Understanding God’s plan for the war can be a struggle, Barbara Glenn added.
“I believe a lot of people are having a really tough time understanding or thinking they need to understand why this invasion is taking place,” she said. “I think all of us have probably whispered a ‘why’ to God.
“We have to remember that God is always sovereign, that God is on the throne,” she said. “It’s not Russia, it’s not the devil. God is on the throne, and He has a plan.”
A new beginning
Kirkland, who was once battling depression, is now looking forward to how she can serve the people of Romania and Ukraine in the months and years ahead. The trip, she said, has changed her life.
“My friends when I came back … they [saw] a new me,” she said. “This has brought me out of a depression that I’ve had for a couple years since I’ve lost Jim, and it’s just woken me back up. God has woken me back up. … These people need us desperately.”