Refuge for Ukrainians in the U.S., Part 1

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Rest for the Weary at Calvary San Diego

Story by Christmas Beeler
Photos courtesy of Calvary San Diego

More than 5 million Ukrainians have fled the country for their lives—nearly half of them children. Answering a call to help amidst Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II, Calvary San Diego has spent the past month working with other churches, Samaritan’s Purse, and border patrol to safely funnel several thousand Ukrainian families from Mexico into the U.S. On Easter Sunday, 20 new believers were baptized at the church, a refuge of God’s love for many of them.

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At the Easter Sunday service at Calvary San Diego (Calvary SD), Assistant Pastor Carlos Kalczuk baptizes a young woman who came forward to receive Christ. She and her husband had been staying with a host family from the church, and both responded to the Gospel invitation. Her husband was baptized that day also.

A New Life
At Calvary San Diego (Calvary SD) on Easter Sunday, Jeremy Camp and the congregation sang, “Jesus, awesome in power forever, awesome and great is Your Name; You overcame,” as people came forward to be baptized. One Ukrainian couple had been staying with a church family, heard the Gospel that morning, and decided to trust in Jesus as their Savior. The day that the world celebrates Christ’s resurrection became the day of their own spiritual rebirth. They were ready to embark on their new life in America—having made it safely out of Ukraine’s war zones and into the arms of Christ.

Pastor Phil prayed from the stage: “You made a way because You are the Way. Today, God, this Easter, we celebrate an empty tomb, a God who loved us so much that He died for us and conquered death in the process. ... May more people come to know our Living Jesus.”

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Romans 6:4 (NIV)

Assistant Pastor Carlos Kalczuk noted, “When that couple decided to get baptized, we got to see the power of this ministry come full circle: them coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus at this church. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”

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Senior Pastor Phil Metzger (left) and Assistant Pastor Aaron Szloboda (right) baptize a Ukrainian refugee on Easter Sunday at Calvary SD. The man and his wife were among the 20 people who came forward for baptism after accepting Christ at Calvary SD that morning. Many Ukrainians were deeply touched by the love shown them through the body of Christ in their time of need. After Christians helped them safely cross the border from Mexico into the San Diego area, the couple were welcomed into the home of a family from the church. Pastor Phil is no stranger to refugee ministry, having served in Hungary during the Syrian Refugee Crisis in 2014.

A Privilege to Serve
Since late March, Calvary SD has been spearheading the efforts on the U.S. side to direct thousands of refugees safely to their loved ones throughout the States. Calvary SD staff members don’t refer to them as refugees but as “our Ukrainian friends”—Pastor Phil having spent much of his life ministering in Eastern Europe.

Pastor Phil formerly served for 20 years in Hungary as a church planter, pastor, and director of a Calvary Chapel Bible College campus before his role at Calvary SD. So, when the Russian-Ukrainian crisis first escalated in late February, he quickly boarded a plane to Eastern Europe to work with other Calvary leaders there to help establish access routes to get supplies in and people out of the war-torn nation. After his return to the U.S., his church soon became an important hub for receiving Ukrainian families.

God seemed to bring the opportunity to their doorstep. Less than two weeks after Pastor Phil had returned from Eastern Europe, the Calvary SD staff received a call from a Slavic church in Sacramento with a request: Ukrainian refugees were at the border in Tijuana, Mexico—could someone from Calvary San Diego help them cross safely and get them on their way to their loved ones in the United States? After encountering massive crowds of Ukrainians at the border, Calvary SD staffers realized that the need went beyond a few families to hundreds and possibly thousands.

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After traveling for multiple days through several countries to flee Ukraine, a young girl plays with a doll at Calvary San Diego. Nearly half of the 5 million people who have evacuated from Ukraine are children, experts estimate. Sadly, many children and elderly have been killed in the brutal Russo-Ukrainian War.

The first two weeks were intense. A bottleneck of thousands began to pile up on the Mexican side of the border. Word had spread fast that refugees could enter the U.S. through Mexico, but no one anticipated the sheer volume of arrivals in March. “The first two weeks, [border officials] were only processing 300 a day. But 650 people were coming into Tijuana every day on all the different flights,” Carlos explained.

“We were receiving people 24/7,” Carlos recalled, so he reached out to others in the Calvary family for help. On the Mexico side, Calvary Training Center in La Gloria, Tijuana, under Jeff Roenspie provided food and helping hands to the Ukrainians while they waited a few days to cross. On the U.S. side, students came from Calvary Bible Institute to receive those who came in during the night. Students from Calvary Chapel Bible College also came. Pastor Caleb Beller and others came from Calvary Chapel Fullerton, CA. Other area churches in San Diego came to help serve meals at Calvary SD.

After about two weeks, the processing got quicker on the U.S. side, Carlos recalled, going from processing 300 a day to about 1,000 a day. “That really helped with the bottleneck. Instead of having to wait two or three days at the border, some were able to cross the same day.”

“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.’” Leviticus 19:33-34

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In a tent outside of Calvary San Diego, a young Ukrainian girl enjoys a fresh meal. After a grueling journey from Europe to Mexico and into the U.S., refugees were received with loving care at the church. Host families took them to the beach and helped them to relax and find a sense of normalcy again before they journeyed on to their loved ones in other parts of the U.S.

Protecting the Vulnerable
“We feel it’s a privilege to get to serve and help people,” explained Calvary SD Senior Pastor Phil Metzger. “They’re here because they have no other options. We just want to love them, to let them know God loves them and that He has a plan for them. We want to help them as much as we can.”

Ministering to refugees and protecting them from exploitation is nothing new for Pastor Phil. Having served in Hungary during the Syrian Refugee Crisis of 2014, he knows firsthand just how vulnerable people are when they are fleeing for their lives into a strange country. Back then, he had helped spread awareness, reporting that initially traffickers had been more organized than rescue workers. Sadly, those with cruel intentions had come in force to the makeshift refugee camp on a remote country road, offering to whisk weary people to safety in their cars—some never to be seen again.

“That was a massive issue that we were wrestling with [then], so we did take preventative measures,” Phil shared in an interview on Morning in America in early April. “We’re trying to head off anybody getting picked up [by traffickers] at the border.”

Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy … free them from the hand of the wicked. Psalm 82:3-4

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In March and April, a large gym in Tijuana held thousands of refugees—some staying for one to three days—as they made their way from Mexico into the U.S. Volunteers came from several Calvary Chapel churches, ministries, and schools on both sides of the border to help serve displaced evacuees in a joint effort. Calvary San Diego served as the refugee hub in Southern California, hosting more than 1,500 Ukrainians over the past month.

To protect the refugees—half of whom are children—Phil explained, “We had people at the airport when the refugees landed, speaking Ukrainian or Russian, to meet them and explain the process.” First, they would assign the refugees a number, put them on a bus, and take them to a hub for evacuees on the Tijuana side where there was oversight to help them cross. Mexican officials offered a park with a large indoor gymnasium for hundreds to sleep in mattresses on the floor. That soon filled to overflowing with more than 1,000 people, Carlos recalled. Pastor Phil came to the site to visit and help oversee ministry and care alongside other Calvary Chapels and workers with Samaritan’s Purse.

Love and Care
Once refugees made it across the border, the Calvary SD church building served as the hub on the U.S. side, where believers would provide a bed, food, Wi-Fi to connect with their families, a listening ear, and prayer. Dozens in the Calvary SD church family stepped up to serve in a more personal way: 83 families opened their homes to more than 1,500 refugees in about a month’s time. Most of the evacuees only needed to stay one or two nights to make travel arrangements to their loved ones in other U.S. cities.

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At a Mexico border crossing near Tijuana, Ukrainian evacuees wait for their chance to enter the United States. Authorities estimate that nearly 12,000 war refugees have entered the United States since Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s major cities. Soon, Ukrainians who have completed the necessary paperwork online will be able to fly directly from Europe into the U.S., avoiding long lines at the Mexican border.

“Our host families were just loving on them—feeding them, taking them to see the beach, giving them a sense of normalcy again. By the time they cross the border, some of these Ukrainians have been traveling for a week or more.” Nearly half of Ukraine’s refugees first went to Poland, and then through Germany or Switzerland, then to Mexico City and Tijuana. Dazed children had endured frightening experiences in Ukraine and then spent multiple days traveling in strange countries.

“These simple acts of love to people who have had everything stripped away from them is an amazing testimony of God’s love for them,” Carlos reflected. “They constantly thanked us; they were blown away. The ministry of care and help goes a long way.”

Serving others is what Jesus did, Carlos noted, citing the Savior’s words in the Gospels: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Carlos recalled the impact that Christians had on the nonbelieving Ukrainian translators who had traveled down from other parts of California to help their countrymen. “They were working at the Tijuana hub helping people,” he said. “Seeing the work happening, they began asking us more questions about the Lord. Some had renounced God but said they were rethinking everything because they had never seen anything like it—the Church acting like Jesus and loving people with nothing to gain themselves.” As Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

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Translators came from other churches in the San Diego area to assist in the Ukrainian refugee ministry at Calvary SD. This tent was a popular spot at the church for fellowship, meals, and relaxation.

                  

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U.S. Policy to Change Monday
Calvary SD may see a decrease in the number of refugees they receive starting next week, due to a new U.S. policy which will allow Ukrainian families to apply for permission to enter online and fly directly into whatever U.S. city they have a sponsor.

The U.S. announced earlier it would admit up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, with an estimated 15,000 having come since the February 24 invasion—mostly through Mexico, according to reports. Starting Monday, the route through Mexico will no longer be an option except in extreme circumstances, officials said.

Ukraine had a pre-war population of 44 million; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the conflict has displaced more than 7 million people within Ukraine along with the 5 million who have evacuated so far. The agency estimates another 13 million people are currently trapped in hot zones. “We’ve seen about a quarter of Ukraine’s population, more than 12 million people in total … have been forced to flee their homes, so this is a staggering amount of people,” UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo told The Associated Press.

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Watching Christian cartoons at Calvary San Diego, these youngsters enjoy refreshments and a quiet place to play. The church became a hub for refugees from late March to late April. More than 80 families from Calvary SD opened their homes to refugee families, most of whom only stayed for a night or two on their way to stay with loved ones elsewhere in the U.S.

Being able to fly directly into the U.S. will greatly benefit the harried evacuees, noted Carlos. “If they can get a friend to sponsor them, they can fly right into that city from Europe. That’s going to cut us out altogether—which is what we’ve been praying for,” Carlos said. “We are still hosting families and meeting them at border, but it may be that Sunday will be the last day we are needed to do that.”

Still, the opportunities to minister to Ukrainian refugees in the U.S. have just begun. Carlos noted that Samaritan’s Purse has started a long-term refugee resettlement program that U.S. churches may participate in “to help them start a new life.”

                  

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, as we report how other Calvary Chapels across the U.S. can get involved in ministering to Ukrainian refugees.

                  

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All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.

© 2022 Calvary Chapel Magazine (CCM). All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.