December - January 2023
Lighting the Darkness
A Fast Response to the Refugee Crisis
By Danny Gasperson
In the Old Testament days of Isaiah, the people of the Kingdom of Judah were confused, frustrated, even a little angry with the Lord. They understood they were God’s chosen people. In their eyes, they faithfully followed the prescribed patterns of worship and dutifully performed the religious rituals of their faith. They offered sacrifices, fasted, and prayed. Nevertheless, they were not experiencing the favor and blessing of God they thought they deserved. In Isaiah 58 we read their complaint: “Why have we fasted and humbled ourselves to no avail? God isn’t paying attention.”
The Lord sent Isaiah to explain what they were missing. The Israelites were saying the right words and performing the right rituals of worship. But true worship is more than rote recitation, superficial ritual, and pious practices. The Lord looks for heart engagement leading to life transformation. Their words and worship did not alter their walk and work. God-honoring, acceptable worship engages the heart; it also leads to an obedient life, holy humility, and compassionate concern for others.
The Lord used the spiritual discipline of fasting to make His point: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen?” (Isaiah 58:6a) To the Israelite, fasting only meant depriving oneself of food, wearing sackcloth, and spreading ashes. But when the prescribed fast was over, normal life resumed—seeking one’s own pleasure and disregarding the plight of others.
In contrast, the Lord describes the kind of fast He desires. Our God has a heart for the down-trodden, displaced, oppressed, poor, and afflicted. He expects His people to share His compassion and respond in practical ways. That is the kind of “fast” the Lord desires.
Two recent events had a significant negative impact on millions of people around the world. In 2021, the U.S. withdrew all military forces deployed to Afghanistan to support the Afghan National Security Forces in their stand against the Taliban. Without the help of the U.S., the ANSF collapsed and the Taliban immediately took control. Taliban soldiers brutally persecuted or killed Afghans not aligned with their radical Islamic beliefs. People were forced to leave their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs to seek safety.
Neighboring Pakistan has received over 4 million refugees from Afghanistan. Most live in makeshift, refugee tent villages along the border. Residing in a refugee village is more existence than life. Adequate food, water, shelter, and safety are scarce. It is especially dangerous for those who have embraced Christianity to live in this predominantly Muslim context without the protection of government or law enforcement.
The second significant event is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine early in 2022. This aggression has resulted in Europe’s largest refugee crisis since WWII. More than 6.4 million Ukrainians fled the country, and one-third of the population is displaced. People have been forced to flee their homes, families, possessions, and livelihoods with little advance notice. Families are forced to seek refuge in countries where the language, culture, and customs are radically different. The majority of these people desperately cling to the hope of returning to their homes. Sadly, for many, their homes are no longer there. Bombing has obliterated cities, communities, and many important and historical structures.
It is heartbreaking to watch or read reports on these situations and impossible for us to imagine the desperate plight of those directly affected. Millions of people need help and hope. Their need is immediate, urgent, and immense. Refugees need help quickly. They need a “fast” response.
Free Will Baptists have responded to this crisis! Certainly, we expressed our compassionate concern and offered prayers on their behalf. But Free Will Baptists did not stop there. Our people acted quickly and offered a fast response.
In partnership with Pakistani Free Will Baptists, we established a safe house for Christian Afghan refugees endangered in the refugee camps. They receive lodging, food, clothing, protection, and compassionate care while healing from their trauma and adjusting to their new country.
The Taliban pursued a Christian family of 40, trapped in Afghanistan. Taliban soldiers brutally murdered nine family members. Our FWB partners in Pakistan located this family and, through the generosity of Free Will Baptists in the U.S. and Brazil, the 31 remaining family members were extracted to the safe house in Pakistan. They received help getting residency papers and have begun to establish a life in their new home.
We rarely hear about the Afghan refugee situation, but the crisis still exists and the needs are ongoing. Free Will Baptists have not forgotten their plight and our fast response continues.
In even greater ways, Free Will Baptists offered a fast response to Ukrainian refugees. When the Russian invasion forced Ukrainians to flee their homeland, they spread throughout Europe.
Missionaries and partners in Bulgaria, France, and Spain recognized and acted upon several opportunities to provide compassionate care and practical assistance. Free Will Baptists in the U.S. have given generously to fully support these efforts.
Our church in Svishtov, Bulgaria, set up living quarters inside the church to offer lodging for refugees. Tim Awtrey recently shared, “Last night, in the Bulgarian darkness, we were put in contact with a family from Ukraine who fled the Russian attack on their town of Mykolaiv. Anna, her two teenage boys, and Stasia with her little girl were worn out after two days’ travel. They are now safe and living at the Free Will Baptist church in Svishtov. Lydia has been seeing to their needs, and Josh Provow brought a meal for the whole family today. We have put out an appeal to church members for food and basic supplies.”
Later, Tim and Lydia traveled to Mykolaiv, Ukraine, to offer food and basic supplies to those ravished by the war. Lydia wrote,
Glory to God, we had a successful, exciting, and humbling day in Mykolaiv! There were not bombings for the first time since the war started, and we believe it's because of all the prayers! We gave away food and medical supplies to seven villages and a hospital. Everyone was very grateful....600,000 people live in Mykolaiv, but half of them have left, and it looks like a ghost city. There is no water. People live in their bunkers or garages. So far, officially 89 civilians have died from the bombings, but the Russian army is only 30 miles away, and they expect fierce battles soon. Pray for this city and for the wonderful people we have met there! The Ukrainian people are amazing, and their spirit is strong!
Our church in Varna offered Bulgarian language courses and provided other assistance to Ukrainian refugees in their city. Forty students filled the first class. Trif Trifonov shared this [edited] report, “I met Sergey at the Ukrainian Refugee Center in Varna in March. We were there as volunteers helping the new arrivals of refugees. He told me he was from Kyiv and had arrived in Varna with his wife. I told him we were starting Bulgarian language classes for refugees. So, that's how he and his wife Oksana came to our church and joined the language course.
“After the end of the language course, we started a church remodeling process. So, I invited our friends from Ukraine to come work alongside our Bulgarian volunteers. Sergey came and worked very hard for two weeks with us! After we finished the remodeling, he and Oksana helped us clean the church. I told Sergey, ‘You have to come to our first church service in the new church auditorium!’
“The next Sunday, both Sergey and Oksana came! At the end of the service, I felt the Holy Spirit's nudge to pray for them, so I asked them to come in front and led the church in prayer for them and for Ukraine. When I opened my eyes after prayer, they had tears in their eyes. Many of us did. With a trembling voice Sergey thanked the church for the support. Please, pray God would bring these dear souls to His Kingdom and they both would one day find their home.”
Similar examples of this fast response in Bulgaria are happening in the churches in Pleven and Shumen.
Matt Price, IM missionary in France wrote, “The St. Nazaire Church has been blessed with several Ukrainian workers who have attended the church for the past two years. With the war in Ukraine, we were asked by our Ukrainian brothers to help find lodging for their families as they arrive in St. Nazaire. We have already been solicited by five families for help. Our project is to help find temporary housing for them, help them get settled, and then help them move on to more permanent lodging. We will provide furniture, food, and essential needs to these families.”
The faithful, generous giving from FWBs in the States has allowed them to do this and much more. As time has gone on, the church learned of several other Ukrainians working in the city and reached out to them. They have started using their church building to provide Ukrainian worship services on Sunday afternoons.
Our workers in Southern Spain operate a food distribution center for immigrants and refugees. They increased the amount of food and other essential supplies they distribute to provide assistance to the Ukrainians who come to them for help. The increased demand has been so great they designate one day a week for Ukrainian refugees. They serve over 60 families each week and anticipate more in the months to come. Generous financial support from FWBs in the U.S. has funded this increase in ministry.
The overwhelming fast response from Free Will Baptists enabled us to help one of our partner ministries, Bible Mission Global, which works directly with refugees in Ukraine and neighboring Moldova. They provide food and essential supplies, help restore damaged churches and homes, and equip children for school. BMG sends over 700 tons of relief supplies into Ukraine each week. Beyond the physical supplies, they offer comfort and hope to these people.
I am thankful for the many ways you have offered and continue to provide a fast response to the refugee crisis. More importantly, I know God recognizes this as a fast He desires and will give His favor and blessing.
Our partner, The Hanna Project, has a fund to channel all donations to refugee aid. May I encourage you to contribute to these efforts.
About the Author: Danny Gasperson is the director of The Hanna Project. Before that, he served 19 years as pastor of Zephyr Hills FWB Church in Asheville, North Carolina. Helping individuals find and fulfill his or her place in the Great Commission is his passion. Learn more: HannaProject.com.