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Ministering to Families Seeking Refuge

Photo Credit: Jana Čavojská

Nearly nine months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Companion sat down (virtually) with Leonid Regheta, an associate with the Serve Globally mission priority. Regheta serves as pastor of River of Life Church in Dallas, Texas. As a native of Ukraine, he has an extensive background in refugee resettlement ministry. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jelani Greenidge: How did you get connected with Covenant World Relief and Development (CWRD)?

Leonid Regheta: I used to be a part of Serve Globally, or the World Missions Department as it was known at that time. Prior to my graduation from North Park Theological Seminary, I was on a short-term Covenant mission assignment to Magadan, Russia. We had a Bible college and a Christian radio station there, and every two weeks a new Covenant minister or pastor came to teach a course.

I ended up in Magadan, and Adam Edgerly, current director of CWRD, was one of the people I hosted. He taught an evangelism course, and we became good friends and stayed in touch over the years. After Russia invaded, Adam gave me a call and asked, “Are you doing anything?”

I said, “As a matter of fact, I’m chair of the board for Hope International Ministries, and we jumped into action on the second day of the war. How can we partner together?” Since then, the Covenant has been partnering with us. In early June, I invited Adam to come see firsthand some of what’s been happening. So Adam brought a crew, and they were able to shoot some video, and here we are.

How are your contacts both in Ukraine and in Russia doing? How has the war affected them?

While Ukraine is off the front pages of many newspapers, the war is still raging. Some would say that more people are being killed now than ever before in the last seven months because, as you probably have heard, the Ukrainian army launched a counter-offensive, which was able to liberate huge chunks of certain areas. And they’re fighting in the south. Russia declared mobilization, so they’re getting up to a million men and throwing them into the fire. Many of them are completely unprepared, so there will be a lot more death—on both sides, but especially on the Russian side.

And Ukrainian families are still suffering. All this time there have been so many families who have not been reunited. They live over in different countries where Hope International and Covenant World Relief and Development are trying to assist—Poland, Romania, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, and the rest of Europe. We are in touch with our partners on the ground, and we work very closely with those who work with Ukrainian refugees.

During the summer we were able to directly impact 500 kids through our Vacation Bible School and summer camp programs in a number of countries. But as we were interacting with those kids, we started hearing gut-wrenching stories of trauma and despair and anxiety, coming mostly from moms because most of the men had to stay back in Ukraine and were not allowed to leave.

When we returned to the States, we started praying and God showed us a way. We connected with some people with curriculum for trauma healing seminars, some people that speak the language. In October, we’re doing some trauma counseling and healing seminars in refugee camps in Poland. We’re looking to buy Christmas gifts for many of the trauma-impacted children. In December, we’ll be in Poland and Romania, and in January, we’ll visit Moldova and possibly Ukraine. Many of those Christians observe a different version of the church calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 7.

Can you tell us more about your local ministry and how it connects people on different sides of this war?

A few years ago I was the founding director of Project:Start Refugee Resource Center. I was doing immigrant advocacy here in north Texas, and I partnered with the mayor of Dallas on a refugee task force. We worked mostly with people from Congo, Sudan, Bhutan, Burma, Nepal, Iran, Iraq, Middle East, Asia, Africa—all around the world. God gave us grace and blessing, and the word got around. Over time, that work included the Russian Ukrainian-speaking community here in Dallas.

When the war started, people contacted me, saying, “You used to help refugees find furniture, get utilities, find an apartment. Can you work with Ukrainian refugees?” I’m from Ukraine and I’m seeing how much they’re suffering. Nearly every week someone asks for help—not only Ukrainians in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, but Ukrainians who are coming to north Texas.

You have a wide cultural scope of experiences serving people from different backgrounds and refugees from a variety of conflicts and situations. Every time I talk to Adam Edgerly and CWRD about Ukraine, he reminds me that though the suffering there is significant, similar conflicts are happening all over the world that result in people fleeing. Could you talk about some of the commonalities you’ve seen from people across cultures?

Until this year, just about all refugees I worked with were from countries in Asia, Middle East, Africa, and South America. The commonalities we’re talking about—the universal humanity we all share that we’re each created by God—that is what should be informing us, not the ethnicity or skin color, the civilization, or the history of where people are from. If we preach that Jesus loves the entire world, that he loves each one of us, we should have a similar attitude to every person.

When my family came to the US as religious refugees in 1989, we were part of the underground persecuted church in the Soviet Union. When we arrived, we were placed in an apartment in what was at that time a crime-ridden, violent area of Seattle in the Rainier Beach area. That area has been developed with condos and is very different now. But back then it was pretty bad. None of us had ever been outside of Ukraine. And we were in a neighborhood with refugees from places like Cambodia and Viet Nam. I was the oldest of five kids, living in a two-bedroom apartment. It was a rough beginning.

An African American church came to help us and many other Ukrainian refugees in the area. That congregation remains in my memory, because nobody forced them to do that. They just wanted to show the light of Christ, so they opened their hearts and homes and donated furniture and bedsheets, dishes and cutlery sets, and everything a family needs when they move to a new place.

When refugees come to this country in Dallas, they’re placed an area called Vickery Meadow, which is a very poor neighborhood. People call it the Little United Nations of Dallas, because it’s so diverse. You find apartments with holes in the windows and in the walls, rats running around. Those are the issues I help refugees with. Like when it’s 105 degrees, and the landlord won’t fix the AC, and there’s a family from Africa with a baby who has heat rash. I called a local news channel, and the next day when the journalists came to report on the situation, there was a handyman there fixing the AC.

Sometimes there are large families of Syrian refugees, and we help them with their green card applications and help them get bunk beds for their kids. One family was so grateful when we brought them dishes and supplies that they invited us back for a delicious meal of meat and rice and vegetables. It was beautiful.

Of course, we want them to come to church. Many of them know about our faith and ask about Jesus, and some don’t. But we’re still salt and light. That’s what Christians are called to be. God commanded the Israelites to take care of the foreigners in their new land, because they once were foreigners. I know there’s politics, but I usually tell people, all that stuff is above my pay grade. I’m not called to be a politician—I’m called be the salt and the light.

What else can regular people do to help ease so much suffering?

It’s the language of hospitality. Unfortunately, American society doesn’t often speak that language, but the rest of the world does. It’s the language of opening your home and your family and welcoming somebody in. It’s so much easier to order a hundred dollars’ worth of stuff on Amazon and bring a box of stuff to a family. But it’s a bit more complex to invite someone into your home whose culture and language you don’t share, and say, “Please come have tea with me, come have coffee with me.” But that’s exactly what we need to do.

Because that’s the currency. That’s the language the rest of the world speaks. They hang out with one another. They spend time with one another. These are the kinds of traits that cultures have all around the world. In American and Western culture we’ve become so individualistic, we all live in our little bubbles. But if we want to live heart to heart, that means letting someone else into our bubble. If even one-third of the people in every local church started practicing hospitality a little bit more, we would reach a lot more people.

As the war wages on in Ukraine, how can we be praying for people in both Ukraine and Russia?

After my time with Adam, I went with some of our partners and we sneaked into Ukraine. We traveled all the way to the capital and met with some pastors and government officials there, and we asked, “How can we continue to be of help to Ukraine?”

This is what we heard: Number one, thank every person who has already done something— from donating money to sending humanitarian aid, thank you. The needs are so great.

Second, they’re expecting the war to continue for a while, and with the cold winter coming, one of the projects we’ve requested CWRD to be a part of is to build some temporary housing or rebuild some roofs and windows and doors into the homes where those were destroyed, to make them at least weather-tight against the coming cold and snow and rain.

Finally, I’ve been asking people to join me in this personal prayer, that God will humble the evil intentions of politicians and business leaders who benefit either financially or gain power and influence by prolonging this war. I hear language from the Pentagon, saying things like, “We want to weaken Russia militarily, economically, socially, politically.” But the thing is, weakening a country is very different from working hard to stop the war.

So I ask our brothers and sisters to pray that God will humble the hearts of politicians and oligarchs who watch their bank accounts increase because of the war, because it results in so many millions of lives uprooted and suffering, and so many tens of thousands dying.

That’s a prayer I can get behind.

I go back to Psalm 33:10-11: “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

To partner with Covenant World Relief and Development and respond to Ukraine, give here >>

About the Author

  • Jelani Greenidge

    Jelani Greenidge is the missional storyteller for the Evangelical Covenant Church and ministers in and around Portland, Oregon, as a worship musician, cultural consultant, and stand-up comic.

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