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Time to leave?


WORLD Radio - Time to leave?

Missionaries in Ukraine debate whether to escape ahead of a possible Russian invasion

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuychenko during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 1st day of February, 2022.

You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re really glad you’ve joined us today! Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up on The World and Everything in It: tension in Ukraine.

World leaders continue to urge Moscow to back down, and foreigners in Ukraine are trying to decide if they should stay or pack their bags. Many in the West fear an invasion is imminent. But Ukraine is downplaying the urgency.

REICHARD: WORLD correspondent Jill Nelson reports on how missionaries are dealing with the mixed signals.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: It’s 12:30 in the morning and Bob Burnham is just winding down after a long day of conversations about the Russian troop buildup. He’s a missionary with Mission to the World, or MTW, and has lived in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa for 25 years.

Burnham says many foreigners are leaving the country, and the Ukrainians he knows are worried about all the evacuations.

BURNHAM: So it's been kind of an emotional day just dealing with people and assuring them we're not taking this lightly. We haven't left. We're still here. We don't think there's a reason to go yet. But people are, everyone's on edge. Everyone's just a little bit on edge. We are, too.

Most of the foreigners he talked to last week are either evacuating to the western city of Lviv or returning to their home countries. But Burnham, his wife, and their three daughters are staying put for now.

BURNHAM: I haven't seen a soldier in a long time. It doesn't look like a city that's about to go to war at all. It's peaceful, it's quiet. Everyone's in the park sledding with their kids and that kind of thing. It doesn't feel like we're in any kind of danger.

There are a few things that would change his mind besides a direct Russian invasion. If Russian troops stationed near Ukraine increase from 100,000 to 150,000, or the U.S. embassy evacuates essential personnel.

The U.S. State Department last week issued a travel advisory for Ukraine. It also authorized the voluntary evacuation of nonessential embassy personnel and the mandatory departures of diplomats’ families.

Burnham attended a U.S. Embassy town hall meeting on Tuesday and did not come away with a sense of urgency.

BURNMAM: It wasn't like, guys, this is serious, this is bad. You need to get out.

But many Americans in Ukraine are leaving the country, some at the request of their sending mission agencies. One missionary received word last week that his organization was evacuating all 50 people affiliated with the group. He trusts his leadership but mourns the decision.

We are identifying him only as Michael to protect his safety.

MICHAEL: One of the things about missionary life is through thick and thin, you get to earn credibility when you stay. I mean, we were here through the 2014 conflict and didn't leave, and people remembered that, and we were able to share the gospel and do great things. And so it's hard to leave now when we don't feel we need to.

It was a long day for Michael as well. He had spent part of it navigating through the snow to find an ATM machine with cash. Many Ukrainians are withdrawing money to have on hand in case Russia invades and they need to flee.

It was 11 p.m. in Ukraine when we spoke, and he was struggling with what to pack. The agency wanted him and his family to leave the following day.

MICHAEL: What do I take that I love, knowing that it's also possible we may not get back here or something might happen to our stuff? I'm leaving pictures on the wall of my kids when they're just born and stuff. You know, there's a lot of emotional things that we just can't take because we don't have it. We have a car, one car, one car with five people and five suitcases. If we can fit them, I don't even know we can fit them yet.

But the hardest part for this family was leaving their dogs behind.

MICHAEL: We have two dogs that, you can call them animals, but they're part of our family. One of them has been with us for seven years, the other one for almost two years. That's the hard thing, leaving them behind, trying to find someone that will care for them like we care for our dogs.

Michael and his family were planning to drive to Poland, but Warsaw closed the land border to Americans. They ended up in Hungary instead.

Evacuation orders aren’t just affecting churches. Kyiv Christian Academy is a K-12 international school primarily for missionary kids. Director Nick Sweeney says about 20 percent of his staff is planning to leave, some at the direction of their sending agency. Close to 30 percent of his students are also evacuating, and he expects that number to rise.

While some Christian ministries are trying to decide if they should evacuate their people, others are preparing for the possibility of war and how they might minister to those fleeing their homes.

SWEENEY: The churches will be absolutely overwhelmed in feeding the people and meeting their more direct living needs.

Eric Mock is vice president of ministry operations for Slavic Gospel Association. It partners with local churches in Ukraine to provide gospel and material resources. That included medical supplies, warm clothing, mattresses, and groceries in 2014. That’s when Russian separatists took over Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. More than 14,000 Ukrainians, including 3,000 civilians, have died in the ongoing conflict there.

Mock points out that Ukrainians are used to hardship, and it’s shaped the church there into a strong vessel prepared for gospel opportunities.

SWEENEY: As I send emails out and talk to them, I almost get a smile back saying, Eric, your world is different than ours. We've always had to struggle. So this is just one more struggle, and we're going to keep doing what God has raised us up to do.

And for those who have to leave Ukraine, ministry doesn’t stop, according to Michael.

MICHAEL: But for those that have to leave, even my nationals, when they leave, they take the gospel with them. They continue the ministry. I mean, that's biblical. That's what happened throughout Acts.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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