by Joanna Hester
I do not speak or understand Polish, Ukrainian, or Russian, I can’t drive the vans to and from the Polish/Ukrainian border, and I don’t have decades of established community in Poland. I signed up for a one-year contract, not a war.
But it is through a war that I have borne witness to what it means to love the people in front of you. I’ve met courageous men and women, listened to their stories, heard their pain, and offered what time I could, with the hope that it would bring comfort.
IT’S GONNA CHANGE YOUR LIFE
I had gone to a Christian college to study film and TV. Because of that, I had been recruited, at the last minute, to be the videographer for the Southeast team that was headed to Israel.
“I’m going to Israel,” I said.
“It’s gonna change your life,” I was told.
I thought that meant it would change how I interacted with the Bible.
I wanted to be a missionary when I was a child—to China—but then I read stories of missionaries getting their heads chopped off or being hung by their thumbs from trees, and I said, “Nah. Not that.”
I’m a bit of a coward.
WHO GOD IS TO ME
Rafal, the lead pastor for Proem Ministries, which serves to share the Gospel with families in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe, has said that the conversation about me coming to Poland started on a beach by the Mediterranean Sea. I remember it starting on a bus after a day of touring. Regardless, I was asking for an email address before we parted ways, and I was booking a flight to visit that year. It took a while, but I said yes to serving a year, and planned on arriving in May 2020.
But March 2020 arrived first, and I realized I wasn’t going to Poland any time soon.
2020 confronted me with idols I had set up that put my personal worth in my work. The lockdown due to the pandemic took away all my work in addition to going to Poland. My whole life that year had centered around raising funds to work for Proem, and that was stripped away. Temporary isn’t a real word when the rug’s been pulled from under your feet.
But God showed up anyway, and though I struggled to find joy, had to find work outside of my field just to survive financially, and couldn’t meet up with friends for coffee to talk, He stayed with me.
I spent a lot of time walking in the park, praying. I must confess, my prayers weren’t praises, and quite a few times they were filled with tears, asking for help.
2020 was not the year I thought I would have, but it was the year I gained the perspective of who I am to God, and even better, who God is to me.
WELCOME TO POLAND
2021 came with a green light, and I landed in Poland in September. A member of Proem’s media team, my primary work place is at our campgrounds—except for Wednesdays, when I film chapel at the school.
During Winter camp, there was news of Russia vaguely threatening Ukraine’s borders. I work closely with a Ukrainian married couple—Kostya is a jovial personality, sharply contrasted with his wife Olga’s deeply reserved but sweet nature. Kostya had made a few trips back and forth, and following the last, I asked, “What’s the vibe?”
“What?” he asked.
“How are things in Ukraine? How worried are the people there?” I replied.
“Oh. Not that worried. Maybe…16%,” he answered.
Later, when tensions got worse, Kostya added, “Now is not the time to trust politicians. Now, we need to trust God.”
A few of us had talked about what Proem would do if war broke out. In our staff meetings, there had been mention of friends and family in Ukraine asking if there was a place to stay if something happened. With Russian military clouds gathering on Ukraine’s eastern border—about a day’s journey away—it was doubtful fighting would reach us. However, if Russian troops did make their way to Poland, I would be sent home. That was discussed on a Tuesday, the 22nd of February.
Two days later, I climbed the stairs to the studio, where Olga and Kostya were glued to their computers. As they called family, I tried to sit and do my work. Lena, whom I had met at the end of Summer, reported waking to the sound of bombs in her city of Zhytomyr in northwest Ukraine. The group chat I was in with two other women raised the stress levels, and when I went home, I turned on all my lights and watched three hours of sitcoms before going to sleep.
The next day when I came to work, the studio was empty and it was difficult to concentrate. I went to talk with Misza, who is Ukrainian, and his Polish wife, Agata. Misza was preparing a van to go to the border, but he wouldn’t be able to cross into Ukraine. If he did, he wouldn’t be able to return, as the government there prohibits Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60, except fathers of at least three children, from leaving.
Kostya, I learned, had driven the night before to pick up family.
Proem began to move—messages were sent out and posts were made. We began taking donations in that night. We also started to set up cabins to house people, although we had no idea how many.
RELATIONSHIPS BEAR FRUIT
In 2020, I was to come during the 30-year anniversary celebration of Proem Ministries. When Maui, the founder, started working in ministry, Poland was still under Soviet control. He can tell you stories of going about his ministry and being stopped by police who asked him questions to which they already knew the answers. Since the beginning, Proem has worked hard to build relationships to show the Polish people who God is.
When I came, I knew about their camps. They are the oldest iteration of Proem’s ministry, having taken place all around Poland for 10 years before a permanent camp property was purchased in the early 2000s. When that happened, a church plant was started in a nearby town, where they met with and grew in community with local businesses.
Twenty years later, the fruit of the relationships formed with the Polish people showed itself in full force.
As Ukrainians began arriving in the immediate days after the start of the war, with Proem’s buses in constant rotation to the border, cars and cars of donations came through our gates. Some people even volunteered their time to sort food, clothes, and toiletries.
Robert, a long-time staff member with Proem, looked at the piles of donations and told me, “I did not know that such generosity was possible from Polish people.”
Within 72 hours of the invasion, we were asking people to stop bringing clothes. We instead tried to focus on food, and partnered with local shops for regular deliveries of perishable items—our cooks had to find new recipes for apples. The generosity of individuals also continued, as sheets and new mattresses were donated.
We created a small pharmacy in the guardhouse. Industrial washing machines were donated. I took a walk through the camp one day and did some light documentation via an Instagram post to show how our cabins now had cars parked next to them and laundry out to dry.
The Ukrainians on staff had all been working with me on the media team and usually stayed in the background, but now they came to the forefront to interpret, make announcements, and help organize buses so we could continue to take in Ukrainians.
The incoming refugees, however, didn’t arrive just to sit. They jumped in to help, cleaning the dining room, organizing supplies, and doing whatever they could to be useful. It is here that I learned the dignity and strength of refugees.
Different news sources reported this as the fastest exodus in history. Within weeks, millions of Ukrainians had fled for safety. Poland received the vast majority with arms no one knew could open so wide.
Proem had opened their doors within 24 hours to both strangers and family and friends of our Ukrainian staff. The campgrounds typically had been equipped with 180 beds for campers. However, at one point, in the height of receiving refugees, we had 220 beds set up. Over the course of four months, the camp was a stopping point for more than 950 Ukrainians. Proem also contacted churches in other countries to organize sustainable housing beyond our borders.
A few of our staff members are licensed counselors, and on a couple of afternoons they offered free sessions to anyone willing to talk. We moved worship services from our church location to our school auditorium to accommodate our extra guests.
Proem was already equipped to provide English interpretation for guests who needed it, and quickly adapted to provide Ukrainian interpretation as well.
GOD IS STILL WITH US
I told you I was a coward. In the early weeks of the war, I didn’t know how to process it, but I found that being near the refugees eased my anxiety. I am grateful to the leadership over me who offered their home as a place to decompress at the end of the day, to further give me some stability. If war had broken out in the first three or four months of my time here, I don’t know that I would have stayed. If that had happened, I would not have been here to bear witness of a Church at work.
I have watched an entire community pivot from preparing for the next event to mobilizing everyone to receive frightened and grieving people.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Rafal reminded us over and over.
There was a hotel in town that was put up for sale. Proem had been eyeing it as a Help Center for longer-term counseling. Summer was approaching, and we needed to shift to our camp ministries. But the hotel was expensive. We reached out to supporters, including Southeast, and within two weeks papers were signed.
Proem is still receiving refugees but now does so at our new Help Center. Olek, a Ukrainian pastor, holds a Bible study there, offering spiritual leadership for his fellow refugees, including a young man he baptized who had arrived soon after the war began. We are still hosting the refugees at church on Sundays and offering interpretation in both English and Ukrainian.
The war is still going on. But God is still with us.
Joanna Hester has been serving with Proem Ministries in Poland since 2021.