By James Day
Silverton pastor Kurt Barnes is back from a week-long Ukrainian relief effort in Poland. He returned tired, inspired and eager to continue to help.
Poland has become ground zero for refugees from the conflict in Ukraine, and Barnes, a 39-year-old Silverton native, spent March 14-21 in Poland working with churches and relief agencies to tackle what has been an almost immeasurable task: absorbing and assisting more than 2 million refugees.
“Everyone is being welcomed and churches are a big part of that,” Barnes said. “It’s truly heart-warming and beautiful. It’s neighbor loving neighbor as we are supposed to do as Christians.”
Barnes’ Silver Creek Fellowship congregation has chipped in as well, with $30,000 flowing to relief efforts from local church members.
Barnes came away from the experience with a huge respect for the Polish people and their churches. They have proven to be resilient, organized and passionate about the relief effort, he said.
“And they are so acquainted with suffering,” said Barnes, noting occupations by the Nazis and the Soviet Union. “And now, they can’t watch their neighbors suffer.”
Inflation is up, cupboards are more bare because there is no importing of Russian goods, and gas is the equivalent of $12 or $13 per gallon. Add to that 2 million-plus refugees needing assistance.
“That’s a recipe for an awful lot of division and yet I saw no sign of that,” Barnes said. “There are welcoming signs. People are flying Polish and Ukrainian flags.”
And relief organizers are showing an innovative spirit, particular with their use of small vans. The vehicles are crammed to the gills with relief supplies in Warsaw and then sent to border areas and sometimes farther. Coming back the vans are full of refugees. And the vans just keep going, sometimes while under fire.
Barnes also was impressed with the work of the Chelm Baptist church, which is just 16 miles from the Ukrainian border. Church leaders, led by Pastor Henryk Skrzypkowski, anticipated the challenge and went to work before the Russian invasion, upgrading their kitchen to commercial requirements and finding ways to accommodate 175 beds inside church walls. The church already has worked with more than 3,500 refugees. Many, often 200 or so, spend the night, with hundreds of others stopping for meals, showers, clothes and medical help on their way to placement in Polish homes or other facilities.
Barnes never quite got used to the 9-hour time difference between Oregon and Poland and the scheduling nightmares that produced for what has become a global relief effort.
And for a conflict that only began Feb. 24, the effort has been remarkably well-organized, Barnes noted. You can’t put all 2.5 million refugees in Warsaw. So you turn the nation’s capital and largest city into a massive staging area: figure out the immediate needs of the refugees and then find places throughout the country to place them.
All public transportation is free for Ukrainians.
“People are sleeping in train stations because they don’t want to get too far away from where they are going to go next,” Barnes said. “This is not going to be a short-term relief effort. This is a long haul thing. And certainly Poland is taking on more than its share of the load at the moment.”