The first team of Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers wish they could have stayed longer when they traveled to Poland to help refugees.
Brad Willis, the community ministries and missions pastor at Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, served as the team leader for the six-member group that recently ministered to Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Poland.
Just getting started
“We were busy, and it seems like it did fly by,” he said of the April trip. “The team even said they wish we had some more days here because we were starting to build relationships with them. Their desire was that they wished the trip was two weeks.”
Willis, Mike Embry, Katherine Rexroat, Karen Hayes-Ritchie, Debra Kramer and Coy Merry made up the members of the first team of KYDR volunteers to take the international trip.
Even though the team members only recently met, Willis said they bonded almost immediately.
“The team pulled together real great on being able to serve together,” he said. “We had only met each other the week before. We saw a lot of need there. It was all women and children because the men were having to stay and fight.”
Send Relief, a compassion ministry involving both the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board, asked state Baptist conventions in Kentucky, Ohio, Louisiana and Mississippi to make a six-month commitment to the work in Poland.
Much to be done
The Kentucky team did a little bit of everything and anything that was asked of them as they served in the First Baptist Church in Gdansk, where around 60 women and children refugees were staying. And another 50 refugees were expected in the days ahead.
“The church was already busting at the seams as it was,” he said. “They’re looking for housing and seeing about getting cheaper apartments to remodel for the future to house people.”
Embry spent a lot of his week helping to remodel a bathroom in a nearby apartment, Willis said.
He said the team spent a lot of time with the children, many of whom were suffering from PTSD after seeing a war unfold in their streets. “There was a lot they had seen and interacted with,” he said. “Some of the pre-teens and teen boys especially could lash out.”
However, love won out as the week wore on. The children became comfortable with the team members as they played games together and competed against each other. They competed not only in games but in coloring competitions, he said.
“They started opening up more,” Willis said. “Coloring was one of the biggest things they loved the most. We had some VBS coloring sheets with lambs, Jesus pictures and things with the cross. They had coloring contests. We’d color with them and they’d want us to judge.”
Sharing the gospel
Interpreters were available to break down the language barriers, allowing the U.S. volunteers to share the gospel with the refugees on multiple occasions. They also found Google Translate to be a valuable tool in communicating.
“The gospel opportunities were way better than I thought going in,” Willis said. “We were able to share multiple times. The team before us went through the Easter story, looking at the crucifixion on the cross. We followed up with how He rose again, and shared opportunities with them about putting their faith and trust in Christ and repenting.”
He said the Ukrainian Baptist Church had their Easter service on the Sunday the KYDR volunteers were there and more than 250 attended, including most of the refugees.
“The church was very active in sharing the gospel,” he said. “It was an amazing service. The refugees heard the gospel preached to them multiple times.”
Willis said his advice to future teams would be to understand they have to be flexible with whatever happens.
“The situation is changing daily there,” he said. “What you start doing at the first of the week might not be what you end up doing. The church is having to react daily with what is going on in the country. They don’t know how many they’re going to have day to day. They’re trying to do the best they can to react and meet the need.”
Willis said the way the Polish churches are stepping up and working together is a message of its own.
“Even though they are all housed at First Baptist, all the other churches are pooling together,” he said. “It’s a beautiful picture of the church working together.”