Pastor's Blog

Spring Valley Community Church with Ukrainian blue and yellow overlay

An Adventure in Saying "Yes"

The adventure began on Tuesday, April 5th, as Rhonda and I met Pastor Steve and Tammie Babbitt from Spring Valley Community Church (SVCC) for an early evening walk around our neighborhood as we try to do as often as possible. We had hardly begun when Pastor Steve stopped in mid-stride and turned toward Rhonda and me. “I need your help,” he said.

Steve then summarized a meeting he had just attended with pastors and denominational leaders from the Church of the Nazarene fellowship with which SVCC is associated. The topic was an opportunity to assist Ukrainian refugees coming into the US via Tijuana, Mexico. Steve said that he and his church would love to help, and the next thing he knew he was given leadership of the entire project. It quickly became apparent that the most urgent need was for overnight housing hubs where the Ukrainians could be brought from the border to get a meal, hopefully, a shower, some rest, and a ride to the airport or train station, or help with other travel plans.

In the spirit of the book written by my good friend, Carl Medearis, Adventures In Saying Yes!, and without any clear understanding of what was ahead, Rhonda and I joined with Pastor Steve and Tammie by responding with a resounding, Yes! sensing that this was a clear opportunity to join Jesus on His mission.

Believing that we would be hosting refugees that very night, we finished our walk and sprang into action. We put out the call for donations and volunteers and headed to SVCC to clean the facility and get organized. Thanks to many of you, we began receiving donations that night, and by the next day, our own Hannah Allen and SVCC’s  Gidgitte Dougherty had put their heads and organizational skills together to come up with the volunteer information and sign-up portal that so many of you have used to get involved. Also, Pastor Steve and Tammie put their technical and spreadsheet skills to work to develop a detailed intake system that enabled us to keep track of our guests, their luggage and their travel plans.

As it turned out, we welcomed our first Ukrainian refugees on Wednesday evening, rather than Tuesday. We hosted ten people that first night—men, women and children—and we served our first bowls of borscht– the main comfort food for Ukrainians that so many of you learned to make. The next night we welcomed 35 guests, by Friday night our occupancy was over 50 people, and from then on, we hosted 75 refugees or more each night for the next two and a half weeks.

One of the most encouraging and rewarding aspects of the entire endeavor, in addition to meeting and assisting our U.S. Ukrainians, was the number of people who stepped up to help from different churches across many denominational lines, from various areas of the West Coast, and even many of our near neighbors who do not attend church regularly, but who had heard about the opportunity from friends or on social media. In a time of such religious and political polarization, it was wonderful to work in solidarity for the Glory of God and the Good of Our Neighbors, as we like to say at Central Congregational Church.

I was especially impressed by the faith and faithfulness of the Ukrainian and Russian- speaking believers who mobilized to assist their brothers and sisters in Christ and their countrymen and women in  general. We had several translators and Sprinter drivers from Sacramento and Seattle who came for weeks at a time—taking time off work so that they could work with us to support the refugees. The main organization of the various hubs was led by a local Russian/American young man named Mark Rybikov and his assistant, Irina Leshchik. We now have many new friends with names like Slav, Olga, Vadim, Nataliya and Ilya who we look forward to meeting again here in San Diego and on road trips to Northern California and the Northwest.

The SVCC Refugee Hub was just one of several church-sponsored hubs working to support the thousands of Ukrainian refugees making their way into the US at the Tijuana border crossing. In fact, the United States government had made no provision to support the refugees once they crossed into the US. From the moment a Ukrainian individual or family came out of the Pedestrian West border crossing it was overwhelmingly the Church that cared for them and guided them to transportation and safe havens of rest and support.

This particular adventure in saying yes has ended. We bid a bitter-sweet goodbye to our last translators, Sprinter drivers and refugees on Tuesday, April 26th, and began the cleanup process that afternoon. From Wednesday, April 6th, to the 26th, our doors were open 24/7. Together, we housed and helped 1,156 Ukrainians, served thousands of bowls of borscht and other meals, scheduled scores of plane, train and bus trips, transported hundreds of refugees to Sacramento and Seattle and other West Coast locales via Sprinter and bus, washed a zillion loads of laundry, and completed endless cleaning of the facilities. In our hub alone 251 people were involved by way of donations, volunteering, or both. We and our efforts were sustained by the prayers of each of you, whether you were able to be physically or financially involved, or not.

In addition to saying thank you to each of you who participated in this project, some specific words of thanks are in order. A huge thank you to Pastor Steve and Tammie and their congregation for opening their home, as it were, to house the Ukrainians and to give the rest of us the opportunity to join them on this adventure of faith and service. Thank you to Hannah and Gidgitte for their tireless efforts in recruiting, tracking and organizing the volunteers and donations. Thank you to Mark and Irina, mentioned above, who worked countless hours, often through the night, organizing volunteer drivers from the border to the various hubs, securing and often transporting translators where needed, and taking care of a variety of other essential elements of the overall effort. And finally, thank you to Pastor Phil Metzger from Calvary Chapel San Diego. Phil and his team in conjunction with a team from Samaritan’s Purse were the only groups officially recognized by the California Border Patrol to welcome and help process the refugees once they exited the border building onto US soil. Phil and his team worked tirelessly day and night in managing the chaos at the border in their efforts to welcome, protect and support the refugees.

This unified effort of individual Christians, specific churches and even denominations working together to address the Ukrainian refugee crisis should be celebrated as a much-needed testimony to the grace and love of Jesus Christ—expressed through the faithfulness and unity of his people. However, as our efforts end on this front, it should give us pause to consider the ongoing humanitarian crisis at our border and borders and camps across the world, where millions of refugees and displaced persons languish in limbo in their attempt to escape religious, political and cartel violence. As this unexpected journey comes to an end and we get on with our daily lives, where and to whom might the Spirit of Jesus be leading us to serve next? To what adventure in saying yes is Jesus calling you and me today?