by Alin Neamtu
Why did the Spirit of the Lord send you to Ukraine?
Before leaving for Eastern Europe, my wife, Michelle, and I expected to hear this question from people. Most had heard about the war, the flood of refugees, and the destruction of whole cities, and many questioned our decision to travel there. We felt the Lord calling us with the words of Isaiah 35, to strengthen those who have tired hands and to encourage those with weak knees. We had heard from our friends there and had seen the images of the suffering, not from the evening news, but from those same friends in the middle of it. We knew that after two months of serving nonstop they would need some encouragement.
But it took us aback when a Ukrainian pastor turned to us, as we were sitting together, and asked, “Why did the Spirit of the Lord send you to Ukraine?” Surely, he understood why we were there, right? While we tried to figure out how to answer, he kept firing off more questions: “Do you know the brother from England who was here last week?” “Do you know the brother from the Netherlands who was here?” Confused, we shook our heads, having no connection to these other people.
“They came here to tell me that God loves me,” the pastor continued. “Now, God sent more people to Ukraine—a Romanian brother and an American sister—because HE LOVES ME!”
As he looked at us with conviction and tears in his eyes, Michelle had to contradict him.
“The Spirit of the Lord sent me to Ukraine because He loves ME!” she responded.
They were both right.
Michelle and I really thought we were going to encourage our brothers and sisters who were suffering and worn out. We thought they would be the recipients of God’s grace and blessings. And they were encouraged, and they did receive fresh grace and blessings from God, but we became convinced that we were the recipients of the greater portion of blessing.
We sat with those who had fled war and destruction, leaving behind everything they owned, and we saw them find hope and refuge in Jesus. We sat with believers who are giving all of their waking hours to minister with the love of Jesus to those hurting. Through those beautifully broken moments, we experienced firsthand the answer to one of the most difficult questions of our time: Where is God when there is all this suffering? We experienced God with us, Immanuel. Not a God who watches from a distance, but a God who is most present in the midst of the suffering. As David said in his dark times, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.”
We saw God present in the small closet where a mom and her two kids lived because their home had been bombed. We saw God present around the table where mothers sat with the pictures of their sons, husbands, and brothers who were in the army, cell phones in hand, waiting for some news that they were still alive. We saw God in the warehouse where a surgeon and his wife sorted through donated medical supplies, making packages to send to refugees who needed medicines refilled but had no pharmacy. We saw God in the pastors who woke up at 5:00 a.m. to drive across the border into Romania to pick up supplies, and then deliver them to people waiting for their literal daily bread, returning home just before midnight—to do it again day after day.
If you knew the history of this place, the irony would seem monumental. This area was the Soviet atheism heartland. Those who had lived through the Communist days remembered very well the promise of Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev: “Soon I will show you the last Christian and the last Bible!” The Communist regime did everything imaginable—and unimaginable—to exterminate Christianity. More than 50 years later, the Communist Empire is no more, but the Church is thriving, being the largest source of support to the refugee crisis.
On Good Friday, we were invited to church in the town center. We entered a beautiful, spacious hall where more than 300 refugees were crowded, hungry for hope. The pastor quoted to us the promise of Khrushchev as he pointed to the full sanctuary.
“This hall was used for atheist conferences. It was the pride of the Communist Party,” the pastor said. “Now, people come here for food, clothes, and medicine, but, more importantly, they come here to hear about hope in Jesus.”
As worship began, the air raid sirens went off. Less than 100 miles from an airport that was recently bombed, we looked around, realizing we had no clue what we were supposed to do in case of an attack. Everyone heard the sirens, but instead of rushing to crowd into a basement, we heard and felt the prayers growing louder, until the sirens were drowned out by the voices calling on the Name above all Names.
We saw God present that evening in the middle of a crowd full of pain and despair. Jesus, the High Priest who understands our sufferings, was setting people free from the burden of sin and filling their hearts with hope and joy. The light shining in the darkness…
That same evening, we drove to another church in a nearby village. Here, 130 refugees were living, filling every available room outside of the sanctuary. The pastor took us from “room” to “room,” introducing us to the families there. Larger rooms had been divided with makeshift walls crafted from cardboard boxes, and bunk beds had been fashioned to hold as many people as possible. Families of believers were literally doing life with families of unbelievers, and the most contagious thing in that place was hope.
We heard the stories of families running for their lives, desperate to find a place to lay their heads. The church took them in and showed them love. They join in morning and evening prayers where their strength is renewed, and their hearts encouraged. They came to the church brokenhearted and hopeless, and they told us how as soon as they entered the building, they felt something different. Within those overcrowded walls was a comfort for their weary souls that they had never encountered before. They couldn’t explain where that peace came from, until they heard the message of Jesus from those feeding, clothing, and housing them.
We sat with the pastor, listening to his story of how God prepared them for this difficult season. Several years ago, when the congregation was looking for a new location, they found this property. It had a lot of downsides—the location was less than ideal, it was outside the city, and it already had a foundation for a building much bigger than what they needed—but the price was very favorable. God led them to build on that oversized foundation, and they created spaces that would be used for a Bible school, a place for youth groups, and for retreats. They leveraged that location and that big building to the fullest, ministering to Christians from the surrounding areas.
He and other pastors were sensing a lethargy in their churches and started praying and fasting, asking God for a revival. Soon, both groups of men and women would come to this church, spending three days in prayer and fasting. There was a hunger and a desire for God’s presence to permeate their lives. As they prayed and fasted, walking out saturated with the presence of God, more people would come to that building with that same hunger for God’s presence.
That’s when we realized the connection between the comfort the refugees felt within those walls and the hunger of the believers for the presence of God. The believers came in seeking God’s presence and left after praying and fasting, having soaked up the presence of God into their lives and souls. They did not realize then that they had also soaked up the presence of God into the very bricks, beams, and walls of that building. That ground was now holy ground, and when you stepped into that place, you felt like you stepped into a different kingdom. Indeed, regardless of what terrible news dominated the world outside, within those walls, the Prince of Peace ruled supreme. The light shining in the darkness…
Corrie ten Boom once said, “In darkness God’s truth shines most clear.” Everywhere we went, we were confronted with immense suffering. Yet, wherever we saw suffering, we saw God at work through the Body of Christ. Believers of all ages were testifying to the words of Jesus: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14 ESV). The Bride of Jesus was shining gloriously in the midst of the deepest darkness.
Alin and Michelle Neamtu live in Louisville but have a heart for all of God’s people throughout the world.
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