Local church aids Ukrainian refugees

Published 10:46 pm Tuesday, September 4, 2018


Suffolk parishioners traveled to Europe this summer to follow in the footsteps of a young woman from Courtland.

Roughly nine members of Bethlehem Christian Church and their pastor, the Rev. Matt Winters, traveled to Kiev, Ukraine, on July 6 to support Youth With a Mission Kyiv, which is part of YWAM’s non-profit missionary organization that encompasses more than 1,100 ministry locations in more than 180 countries, according to ywam.org.


Email newsletter signup

The group spent roughly week at their Kiev base located by the Dnieper River that runs through the capital city. Winters said their week was filled with beautiful and cool summer days. They share that space with refugees from the battles brought to the Ukraine by Russian combatants.

They were just children, ranging from as young as 3 to 17 years old, whose parents took them to safety in the city. Winters said that there’s little support for these struggling families outside of organizations like YWAM. For the most part, they’re on their own.

“Our church’s goal was to remind them that they are valuable, that there are people that love them, and that God is with them,” Winters said.

He and his parishioners were inspired by Courtland’s Morgan Ognibene, a missionary in her 20s who has been attending church since about age 5, according to bccsuffolk.org. Winters said Bethlehem Christian has been supporting her efforts from home for years. They ultimately decided it was time to be on the ground as “workers in the ministry.”

“We took this as an opportunity to encourage and support her and see the work that she’s doing,” he said.

According to Ognibene’s website, she began her journey with YWAM in January 2016. Her time in the Ukraine that year was spent helping youth groups, church services, English clubs, Bible studies and coffee ministries. She also performed worship dances.

Her time in the Ukraine has shaped her understanding of what ministry means.

“I thought I came to Ukraine just to teach people about Jesus, but I then realized I was there not just to tell people about ‘His’ love but to show it,” she wrote on her website.

YWAM’s Kiev base includes schools for discipleship training, biblical studies and leadership courses. The group’s ministries serve orphans and refugee children, families and wounded soldiers.

The Bethlehem Christian group helped a group of more than a dozen children find some light in their dark situation by whatever means they could.

“We can’t make any lifechanging alterations in just one week, but we can be part of the puzzle,” Winters said.

Staff at the base gave the children hot meals, and the church volunteers brightened their spirit during the day. They picked from apricot trees and swam in the Dnieper River, Winter said. There were volleyball matches and plenty of paint and other arts and crafts materials.

There was always a translator present, Winters said, but positive impacts could also be seen through body language. They realized they were lifting their spirits through smiles, dancing and the way they sang “This Little Light of Mine.”

There were also moments when they fell completely silent, like when one of the older Bethlehem Christian parishioners described to them how her house burned down when she was just 10 years old. Winters said it was clear that the children understood every part of that loss.

More importantly, they began to realize that they can move on with their lives like she did.

“They’re seeing this American lady, and they’re thinking, ‘There’s still hope for me,’” Winters said. “God can take some horrific circumstances and help you walk through them and turn out OK.

“The seeds of hope were planted in that conversation that day.”

The Suffolk pastor was quick to praise his team members for their outstanding work overseas.

“I’m very proud of the group that went. They really did a good job. Selfless, sacrificial and willing to burn the candle at both ends. Whatever was needed, they did it,” Winters said.

Ognibene is expected to visit the Bethlehem Christian congregation in Suffolk later this September. Winters said it’s also possible he and others will fly back to the Dnieper River someday soon.

“It really did allow us to dig dep and to really touch hearts,” he said. “It was above and beyond what we expected to have happened.”