The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces has captivated the world. For many residents of Lancaster County, the war feels personal for a variety of reasons. At Bethany Slavic Church in Ephrata, which has about 340 members and 450 to 500 weekly attendees, there is a close connection to the reality of the war, since the majority of those who attend are of Russian and Ukrainian descent and many are immigrants. To help during this crisis, the church has launched a campaign to raise funds for the Ukrainians who have to flee their homes.
Konstantin Reznik, the missions pastor of Bethany Slavic Church, grew up in eastern Ukraine and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a teenager. He has friends and extended family still living in Ukraine, and he has been back to the country many times on missions trips with the church. “This was not some distant, foreign land,” he told The Lancaster Patriot. “Now that the place that I know really well — I realize how painful wars are, because this one — this hit home.” His initial reaction to the news of war breaking out was utter shock and not being able to sleep, and he learned from family and friends that he was not alone in such feelings.
Only two days after hearing about the war, Reznik received a phone call from his friend and business associate, Rafal Kolawa. Kolawa, who is originally from Poland but now resides in Lititz, asked Reznik if he knew anyone in Ukraine who could use some help. Kolawa’s parents still live in Poland, and his Polish family and friends were ready to offer assistance. Some campgrounds and a hotel chain owned by his friends could be used to house refugees, Kolawa suggested, since those places are mostly empty now during the off-season.
“As soon as he said that,” Reznik explained, “something inside of me really spoke up. I’m like, ‘OK, the time for being shocked is over. It’s time to act.’ I said, ‘Listen, maybe God has something for you and I here. Maybe there’s something we can do to help at least a few families.'”
Reznik contacted other leaders of Bethany Slavic Church and proposed that they raise money within their congregation to help. For years already, Bethany Slavic Church has partnered with many churches within Ukraine and has helped to build and support orphanages as well as supporting drug rehabilitation centers and various other programs all over the country. The church reached out to all these contacts to see what help they needed, and this opened the door to a vast network of people in need of aid.
Although the church had originally set a goal of raising $50,000 to support families who could evacuate to Poland, the scope of the project grew much faster than anticipated. In a little over a week, the church had raised over $161,000 from generous donors, and the goal expanded from focusing on the refugees in Poland to also accommodating the great need of people still in Ukraine, especially by providing food to those who have been forced to flee their homes.
In the city of Lutsk, located in the northwestern corner of Ukraine near Poland and Belarus, there are numerous churches that have partnered with Bethany Slavic Church through the years. Lutsk is not yet faced with invading troops, but the churches are assisting refugees and distributing aid and food. One volunteer from a Lutsk church has a fleet of vehicles for his business and is currently using them to evacuate citizens from Russian-targeted cities all around the country. Bethany Slavic Church is supporting this work by covering the expense of gasoline for so many trips back and forth.
Bethany Slavic Church has also sent two train cars full of food — most of which has been obtained from the county’s southwestern neighbor Romania — into the city of Kharkiv, which is currently being shelled by Russian forces. The eastern city, with a population of over 2 million people, lies only 20 miles from the Russian border.
In Kharkiv is a pastor whose wife and daughters were able to flee to Poland because of Bethany Slavic Church’s campaign, and Reznik has been in daily contact with him since the church’s efforts began. So far, this pastor has not lost his phone service, internet or electricity, but it is impossible to say how long those services will remain. At first the rocket fire was aimed at military bases and the noise only startled those living nearby, but more recently the attacks have been directed at residential areas, and massive bombs shake the entire city. At 2:30 a.m. in Ukraine on Tuesday, March 8, the pastor left a voicemail saying he was unable to sleep because of the active bombardment. The pastor shared that he had just learned that a bomb had landed next to a nursing home that had taken people in to shelter there, and he did not know how they could evacuate those people, since many of them are unable to walk and need assistance for even the most basic needs.
Evacuations over the border are difficult for everyone in the country, and now that the Ukrainian government has declared martial law and forbidden men 18 to 60 years old from leaving, families are being torn apart. Reznik’s second cousin, her husband and their two teenage children left the capital city of Kyiv for the Polish border, but after they waited in line for over 24 hours to leave the country, Ukraine’s custom control officials had to turn away the husband. While the wife and children continued over the border on foot, the husband drove back into Ukraine and called Reznik, telling him in tears how he had been forced to say goodbye to his family.
Many more of these sorts of farewells are taking place at Ukrainian borders now, and Reznik noted that these family separations have far more weight than what we usually experience here. “It’s not just, ‘I’ll see you next week, honey,'” he said. “This is that sort of farewell and goodbye in case we never see each other again.”
“When I speak to people there in Ukraine right now,” he said, “I tell them, ‘Listen, I can’t say I understand your pain. I never lived through a war. But I am here with you, we’re crying with you, we’re praying with you.'” For those interested in contributing to Bethany Slavic Church’s literal boots-on-the-ground campaign to help refugees fleeing their devastated homeland, the fund can be found through the church’s website, bethanyslavic.org.
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