Ellen Smith says a key to the massive response has been effective and extensive partnerships
October 7, 2023
Ellen Smith, World Mission’s regional liaison for Central and Eastern Europe, led a packed and thought-provoking mini-course during Synod School on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s mission in Ukraine.
“Ukraine is a complicated country. It is divided linguistically, by faith and by culture, certainly,” Smith told a lecture hall full of Synod School attendees. More than 500 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, PC(USA) partners in neighboring countries — Moldova, Hungary, Lithuania and Poland among them — have set up refugee centers to care for the many people fleeing the fighting, including children and people with special needs. To date, Presbyterians have contributed millions of dollars to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which together with Presbyterian World Mission has many partners in the region.
Among the partners is Sant’Egidio, an organization that works in 70 countries, including Ukraine, and International Orthodox Christian Charities. Another partner, the ACT Alliance, coordinates response for groups including Hungarian Interchurch Aid, Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren. Of the nearly 6 million refugees in Europe, more than 3.7 million refugees from Ukraine have registered for temporary protection, ACT Alliance said in its most recent report.
Smith, who spends much of her time in Moldova just south of Ukraine, said 70 churches with the Transcarpathian Reformed Church in Ukraine “have been responding to refugees with great courage. All their pastors have remained, and all are engaged in housing people, feeding people, getting people to the border and carrying on ministry.”
The Sant’Egidio director says “it doesn’t matter what church they belong to. We do ministry together for marginalized people,” especially the Roma people, Smith said, adding Sant’Egidio also ministers to elderly people and those without homes.
“The elderly are often abandoned by their children or never had children. The [Sant’Egidio] community has befriended them, taken them on excursions and cared for them. They’ve set up four refugee centers,” Smith said, despite the situation getting “worse and worse.”
International Orthodox Christian Charities is rehabbing a former vacation camp to house special-needs adults. It’s also started a women’s empowering project to help women develop micro businesses.
Smith has traveled throughout Eastern Europe for the past 18 months, including Poland, which has taken in millions of displaced Ukrainians.
“After World War II, Ukrainians massacred Poles, and yet [the Poles] have welcomed them with open arms,” Smith said. “They house people in their homes,” even though “it’s a bit of a risk. The churches in Poland have found ways to welcome people and get resources into Ukraine.”
In January, Smith worked with the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren in the Czech Republic. “Prague was full, so [Czech Brethren] went to the smaller places,” she said. She learned that Ukrainian children are attending Czech schools without speaking the language. “You get layers of issues, but I was deeply impressed with the Czech Brethren,” Smith said. “A woman invited refugees to be tour guides, so one day a month they didn’t feel like refugees.”
Two weeks before Synod School, Smith was in Budapest, Hungary, to attend the Ukraine Future Conference initiated by the Reformed Church in Hungary in cooperation with the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia (Ukraine).
The first panel outlined ongoing ecumenical efforts throughout Europe toward just peace and reconciliation, she said. The second panel included voices from the Middle East and South Korea, “highlighting valuable insights into how a Christian vision for just peace should guide us even during war and crisis,” a release stated. “Presenters from the Middle East reminded us that the path to reconciliation demands we respect the dignity of all human beings.”
In the third section, panelists from various churches in Ukraine discussed the obstacles to dialogue and peacebuilding within Ukraine. “Participants emphasized the need to listen to the experiences and expectations of the people of Ukraine, knowing that reconciliation cannot be imposed from the outside,” according to the release.
Participants prayed together with churches in Ukraine for the future of the country, then had the opportunity to visit western Ukraine. They worshiped together with the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia and learned about its ministry in response to the outbreak of the war.
Contribute to international refugee programs supported by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance here.
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Ellen Smith, regional liaison for Central & Eastern Europe, gives update on Ukrainian refugee work
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Creative and Creating God, we thank you for the beautiful rainbow of peoples you birthed in your image and scattered around this glorious world. May we celebrate and enjoy both the beauty of our diversity and the wonder of all being your beloved children, united in one family through our Savior, Jesus the Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.