AN INTERVIEW WITH LISA ROTHENBERGER-WINTER, WORLD RELIEF OFFICER, AMERICAN BAPTIST CHURCHES USA
March 23, 2022
Question: How would you describe the Baptist response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Answer: Unprecedented. What we are witnessing, and have the privilege to financially support, can only be described as a Christ-led grass roots Baptist movement! Across six countries, Baptists spontaneously opened their churches, homes, camps, etc. to shelter some of the millions that have been forced to flee their homes. I don’t believe most of us have witnessed anything like this in our lifetime. Baptists in Ukraine and the neighboring countries set up shelters and hospitality centers—large and small—within days/weeks. And not just one or two. Within days, in six countries more than 1,000 places were made ready—600 within Ukraine—for all that are migrating to sleep, eat, shower, and receive a word of hope.
Now the challenge is that there is a large cost to providing these services. Providing three meals a day, a place to sleep and shower, and some basic provisions to continue on, well, that adds up quickly because it’s constant—it’s 24/7. But the hidden cost—the human resources needed—the majority of that is being provided by thousands of volunteers. What our partners are requesting is funding primarily for the “hard goods” needed—the food, beds, sheets, blankets, towels, etc. Volunteers, organized by our Baptist partners, are providing most of the labor.
In addition to this large-scale response, International Ministries’ (“IM”) global servants have stepped into the gaps already evident. In Budapest, Hungary, Carmella Jones has been ministering to refugees of African descent—many of whom were university students in Ukraine. In Debrecen, Hungary, Amanda and Jon Good opened their home to host families, providing space and radical hospitality when their church is at capacity hosting other refugees. And Larry Stanton is traveling to the border weekly with IM partner, Hungarian Baptist Aid, modeling the best of what it means to serve alongside a partner—doing whatever needs to be done.
Question: Would you paint for us a picture of what this response looks like?
Answer: I’ll use North America as an example. Imagine you were living in northern Canada and you had to flee to safety. You have extended family in Topeka, Kansas, who have offered you a place to stay. Your journey south will take you through Canada and into the United States. But the journey is going to take 7-10 days. You make it to the first Baptist church that is about 1 hour from the US/Canada border. You stop there for 1 night and receive a bed and clean sheets for the night, dinner when you arrive and breakfast before you depart in the morning, and a shower and fresh supply of basic hygiene items. Most importantly, the volunteers at the church remind you that God is with you at what may be the scariest time of your life. They drive you to the train station to continue your onward journey and share with you the address of another Baptist church/home in Minnesota that can provide shelter and refuge to you for another night when you make it there. You travel like this, stopping at Baptist church shelters along the way, being referred to another home/center that will be along your route, until you reach your relatives in Topeka. That is what is happening in Ukraine and the neighboring countries. There is an informal yet understood network of shelters and homes that are helping people make it safely to family and friends. And this is repeated for tens of thousands of people each day.
All of this—all of it, is being done by a total of 5,300 churches with about 270,000 members spread across six countries. With the resources they have. By their volunteer effort. It’s amazing!
Question: How are you deciding who to financially support with donations given to One Great Hour of Sharing?
Answer: Our funds are following our relationships—foundations of trust, support and mutual accountability that were established in times of stability. That’s what carries us through crisis. It’s one of the many distinctives of how IM engages in ministry that serves us well. We turned immediately to the European Baptist Federation (EBF), as they seek to support and strengthen the ministry of European Baptists in times of stability and times of crisis. I’ve known Helle Liht, Assistant General Secretary of the EBF, for 16 years. Helle knows Baptists leaders across Europe—they are her friends and colleagues. She speaks their language—literally and figuratively. Since 2014 she has been working with Ukrainian Baptists to understand their needs and to assist them with building capacity in the event of invasion. While I don’t know that anyone could be prepared for the rapid onset of what we’ve seen happen in the past weeks, Helle and the Baptist leaders have worked together pretty much seamlessly since the escalation of the crisis.
You can imagine all the questions, offers of support, etc. The EBF gathers them all and brings them before our Baptists partners in a way that allows them to respond to many through one. They can talk straight—they can say what they need. And the needs are then communicated out to the rest of the global Baptist family. In times of crisis, frustration caused by exhaustion can show up very quickly. We don’t want that. We want leaders to focus on supporting their people—they are the ones in the crisis.
Question: What happens next?
Answer: For every person that has been forced to make the painful decision to leave their home or stay, their life has been altered in ways that will challenge them physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Eventually people will settle. Some outside of Ukraine will settle with family and friends throughout Europe and elsewhere. But there will be many who had no destination outside of Ukraine to go to. Their husbands and fathers will either remain within Ukraine to fight, they will join them, or they will have given their lives in the war. Each of these outcomes carries with it unique needs. Jobs will need to be found, kids will need to enroll in school, people will need a place to live, etc.—all after living through the trauma of this war experience.
For those within Ukraine, while we don’t know the outcome of this war at this time, we have seen widespread destruction of homes, infrastructure, government buildings, hospitals, schools, businesses, etc.—all of the necessary components of a stable and functioning society. That will take time to rebuild. And in the meantime—in the gap—there will be vulnerable people in need to support—financial, emotional, spiritual. It is this gap that we, the church, will look for. We will stand in this gap. Each humanitarian crisis is unique, so I don’t have a good sense today what that will look like. But I know that we will be supporting the Baptists churches in Europe, as they define what this ministry will be into the future.
Question: There are many ways to give. Why is One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) the best option?
Answer: I celebrate all giving to this humanitarian crisis. In the midst of this tragedy, there are many good things happening because of the generosity of people across the U.S./Puerto Rico and around the world. Why OGHS? We have the privilege of supporting our Baptist brothers and sisters. They are giving their time and their money. We can join them with our donations—what a witness! For me, remembering that my donation is providing not only shelter and refuge, but through people that are a reminder of God’s presence and provision—well, it’s priceless. Many are providing shelter, but not all are doing so as an expression of their faith. That’s what differentiates the Baptist response. What is happening today across these countries, I believe, will result in people coming to know Christ—not through coercion, but because they are seeing in the Baptists serving them the living God—the God who is always with them.
Thank you for the gifts you have already given, and those you will give into the future. This will be a marathon, not a sprint. When the media coverage fades, Baptists across Europe will still be hard at work to bring stability to the lives of all those who find themselves someplace other than where they once called home.