Christians are key lifelines in getting aid out to people in Ukraine and refugees across the borders of Moldova and Poland, says Wayne Zschech, field director of OM International in Ukraine.
The mission agency is working with church leaders and business people to get food aid to pastors of different denominations, who will distribute aid to those in need, particularly in central and eastern Ukraine, where hunger is expected to be most severely felt.
Zschech speaks to Eternity from a safe location about 200km outside Kyiv, after moving his family from near the capital. He says his war is being waged in front of a computer screen, as he coordinates OM’s crisis team and bridges established networks with new relationships to distribute aid.
“We’re working with different church denominations. We’re also working with a crew that has just materialised and become a logistics hub that can streamline aid coming through,” he says.
“Now, basically, the goal is to get the aid through in Christian hands to places that can be distributed then to the pastors so that the pastors can be the hands and feet of Jesus in the places that God has them.”
Zschech explained that the fighting was in an arc from the capital Kyiv around the east to Crimea, and almost to Odesa in the south, “but you’ve got this area in the middle there that is still free and unoccupied. And that is the channel through which all of the refugees are fleeing. So they’re fleeing in one direction and we are taking aid in the other direction.”
With an estimated five to six million Ukrainians needing aid over the border in Europe, and up to 12 million people in Ukraine likely to go hungry, Zschech says a country that was the breadbasket of Europe now faced having to feed almost half of its population.
“Right now, the Christians have a special opportunity. We don’t have to feed everyone forever. We just need to feed people in three weeks’ time, and doing that through the churches is the most transparent, accountable way to do things,” he explained.
Kyiv had been the logistics centre for the rest of the country, but it was now under siege and logistically destroyed.
“Now, when there’s no shipping, there’s no flights in, the only way to get food in is from the West,” he says.
“But even agencies like the World Food Programme can’t do food drops at the moment because it’s contested airspace. Russians have a history of shooting down airplanes, if you may remember. So basically, when those guys get up and running, that’s going to be really good, but it takes time.”
Zschech says many Ukrainians could stockpile food beforehand, but it would only last so long.
“In general, the people in the villages grow their own food. But they grow their own food and have income on top. Right now, no income means you eat your food. There’s a big question about how much they’re going to be able to grow. With spring coming, it’s time to plant. But there’s no diesel for the farmers. It’s all in the military. So what’s that going look like? There are huge areas of land that have had combat operations, which mean there are mines in the fields.”
Zschech is an Australian who has lived in Ukraine for 28 years. He explains that there are many people like him in OM International – which he describes as a mission agency of people in 100 countries with a trailblazing mentality who stay long-term in a country.
“So, we’re embedded. We know the landscape. And, with that knowledge, we can play this role of connecting wisely and empowering so that the Ukrainians who will be the church planters and are the church planters,” he says.
“And we want to mobilise them for mission. Well, at the moment, there’s only one mission, of course, that’s all been changed.”
Zschech says well-organised OM teams in the neighbouring countries of Moldova and Poland are also proving essential to the relief efforts.
“If the Christians were not there, it would be just pandemonium on the border.”
OM Moldova has a large team of about 100 missionaries, foreigners and locals, who have been working with a network of Pentecostal and the Baptist churches for the past 20 years, he says.
“The Moldovan President came to see the tents at the border, as Ukrainians are fleeing, and I think at least a couple of hundred thousand have crossed through to Moldova. That’s a tense situation there, too, because Moldova is a post-Soviet country, and they’ve got Transnistria with the Russian presence there … But the fact that the President came and said thank you to those doing it was great.
“I think 90 per cent of all those people going through the borders there go through OM and that network of Baptist and Pentecostal churches. If the Christians were not there, it would be just pandemonium on the border. But the Christians again are proactive in thinking outside of the box. You get in there early, and then you are flexible, and you can readapt.
“If they moved out, it would be a total loss, but it’s through the Christians that there’s now a network all around Eastern Europe that Christians can take in Ukrainian families. Will that not be the gospel in action, even if you don’t speak the language? And then the overflow effect into Europe, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians will be in a place of security, sanctuary, and the gospel. So that just makes me thrilled.”
In Poland, too, although the church is not as large as in Moldova, he says Christians have been very active in assisting Ukrainian refugees.
“One of the big things is getting together at a collection point just over the border and then having aid come through because logistics companies are not willing to send their trucks through into a war zone – no insurance company will cater for that.
“But it’s been a beautiful, beautiful picture. And you do things that are out of the box. So you set up in no-man’s land between two borders. OM was allowed to set up a mothers’ tent to feed kids in a warm place. And just those little tiny things that mean so much to people, especially when they look back, and God can speak through that.”
“OM was allowed to set up a mothers’ tent to feed kids in a warm place.”
While Christians in Australia might feel helpless, Zschech reminds us that God is Lord over history, so it’s important to pray for the war to end and for righteousness to prevail.
“What is on your heart right now that really sticks out? I believe that God’s put that on your heart. You pray for that,” he says.
“The whole thing is that God is Lord over history. This is not a surprise for him. He raises kings up. He hardens their hearts according to their character. And then you’ve got all of the consequences that go along, but the Lord is the Lord over history. And it’s heading towards the logical conclusion of Jesus being the king, as he said he would.
“So you can pray with your heart burdened and breaking, but know that the Lord is answering the prayers. He is sovereignly involved in meeting people and connecting them with ones that would never happen.”
Zschech says he has seen God’s hand at work at a personal and political level, even during the past few weeks of the war.
For example, two of his four sons who live in Australia visited the family in Ukraine for Christmas, but we were able to leave just days before the invasion.
“And the other two boys, we miraculously got their passports the day before the war started. That was God really speaking. We were going to go in the next day, and somehow it was like, ‘No, let’s go today.’ And we went and then we woke up to two explosions and then it was like, no one’s going to be doing paperwork this morning.”
Zschech says he’s also heard of a pastor who’s also been taking refugees in overnight as they go west, having spiritual discussions with them as they cry out to God in their confusion and distress.
He also cites miraculous interventions such as the withdrawal by Russian troops from Odesa, the major port city south.
“The Russians were supposed to do an amphibious assault on Odesa, and there was a mutiny on the ships, and they turned around. They actually called the Ukrainians and said, ‘Don’t fire at us, please. We’re getting out of here. We’re not going to be doing this’.
“And so you see many instances like that, where something inexplicable happens. God not only controls nature, but he’s also over the minds of people. You’ve got a strong person and suddenly he has a thought, and he’s now a weak person because of where he’s at in his mind. So we’re seeing a real lot happening in the spiritual areas.”
With the world of missions changing to a more Asian mindset, OM International wants to use its 60-plus years of “go-getter mission” and its networks to empower and establish vibrant communities of Jesus followers among the least reached in the world, he says.
Zschech sees mission possibilities too in the movement of Christians west, just as in Acts Chapter 8 when some early Christians fled Jerusalem because of the persecution of Saul/Paul.
“It says others fled with their families, fearing for their lives. And there was nothing said against them, but it says they took the gospel with them. So the whole point is, ‘where is your gospel? What is it in your hand for you to do?’. You do that.
“But please pray for the miraculous to happen. We have been praying for many years for the church to be stirred up and for the people to be open to the gospel again. And we’ve been praying for Russia, and we’ve been praying for Europe.
“Okay, what happened after they fled? A whole missions movement started; it went from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, to the outermost parts of the world.
“And it went in front of the apostles. They were told to go, but the Holy Spirit is not bound by these events, he’s not confined in any way. Actually, plan A was ‘Go’. And then plan A.1 was, ‘If you don’t go, I’m going to make you go.’ God is not looking just to give you comfort, that you would have a good life. No, he wants his glory to be throughout the world. And that means he sends his chosen ones to do that. And sometimes he uses events to do that.”