Long before this invasion in Ukraine, small groups of Christians across Ukraine and Eastern Europe had formed connections over their desire to share the gospel through sport.
For 14 years these groups have collaborated, shared resources and communicated within a tight network that has grown to 218 locations.
And so, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, this network sprang into action.
While government and humanitarian organisations focused on national priorities, the sports ministry network focused on taking care of “every neighbourhood, every house and every family that has been in crisis.”
But while it’s grassroots, this is no small effort. The network includes 20 church denominations, almost 60 Christian organisations and ministries, and more than 500 churches, lending it “a large footprint on the ground” and a comprehensive understanding of “the real pain, the real need and the most effective and low-cost solution to people who are in desperate need today.”
Around 274,000 Ukrainians have been evacuated from hot spots or helped by the network, according to a video update recorded in April, only a month after its war relief efforts began. Now, this number will have increased drastically.
Here’s how this highly regimented operation has made this possible.
In March the network established a “Command Help Centre” – a team of 16 leaders based across Ukraine, Romania, Poland, Moldova and the US. The team is in contact 24/7, enabling them to make quick decisions.
The command centre reaches out to people located in dangerous areas to provide safe ways to evacuate those who have their own transportation. For those without transport, a fleet of 400 volunteer-driven cars are on standby to evacuate “specific targets”. The network has also purchased four 50-passenger buses, two ambulance vehicles and 15 20-passenger vans to help evacuate those without transport – primarily from war-zone cities such as Kyiv, Nikolaev, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia – to safer areas in western Ukraine.
Another 119 “Help Centres” have been set up across three states of Ukraine – in Khmelnitsky, Ternopil, and Zakarpattia. These are operated by different organisations and individuals associated with the sports ministry network, and run out of churches, gyms, offices, homes and schools. Over 12,000 people pass through these centres every day. Here they collect food and basic needs, and sometimes stay for a couple of nights in temporary accommodation.
Some help centres provide regular support, while others provide one-off assistance, including the provision of 2,000 sleeping bags and mats, 180 twin mattresses, 20 electric generators, 40 portable gas stoves and 20 water purification systems.
Getting supplies to people on the ground requires a well-organised assembly line. Items are purchased in Europe, delivered and sorted in Romania, and then moved into storage in Ukraine and Moldova. The command help centre coordinates where and when the aid is needed, and volunteer drivers from different organisations and churches deliver it to the final destination, including help centres. From there, volunteers in cars and on foot go to apartments, basements and shelters to provide people with supplies. By early April, almost 600 tonnes of aid had been distributed. 81,000 people received 7kg food packages – enough to feed a family of four for a week – through help centres, 15 hospitals and other distribution locations.
The sports ministry network’s process for evacuations is equally meticulous. As women, children, the elderly and those who are physically challenged arrive at the border, members of local churches are there to meet them and serve tea and food as people wait in long queues. On the other side, partnering organisations welcome refugees and provide warm blankets, SIM cards, hot meals and instructions to find temporary shelter before they continue their journey. Around 7,500 people are helped daily on the border.
Another 31 help centres based in Romania, Poland and Moldova provide temporary accommodation to evacuees for up to 30 days. Ministry teams supply food and essentials, and also engage children with daily activities, including sports, school and Bible discovery classes. There are trauma and stress healing groups for women and men, and worship services in Ukrainian and Russian.
Ukrainian refugees are also supplied with Bible resources through partner organisations. MissionEurasia and Bible Mission have printed over one million Action Bibles for children, New Testament for adults, and 2000 Faith Comes By Hearing audio and video Bible devices are in production for refugees.
Following their short stay at the help centres, the refugees are provided with up to a further six months of accommodation through a network of trusted housing across Western Europe – including in Italy, Germany, Latvia, Portugal and the Netherlands.
Millions of dollars in donations from people across the globe – including Australia – have funded the aid efforts of organisations on the ground in Ukraine that are part of the sports ministry network. US-based disciple-making organisation Our Legacy, which runs the sports movement Ready Set Go, is just one of the many channels through which this funding is being coordinated. Our Legacy has missionaries on the ground in the Ukraine and partners with a church in the city of Kamyanka in Central Ukraine. And this church is just one of the many cogs in the network that has been evacuating and transporting internally displaced people throughout Ukraine, and delivering food and supplies to the needy.
While outsiders may wonder at the scale, coordination and outcomes achieved by this sports ministry network working together, it comes as no surprise to those within.
As an update from the network states: “From day one, the leadership team has had the physical, mental and spiritual capacity to serve Ukrainians in an immediate and organised way.”