Susie Voke – Medway, UK
What would you do if you had 7 minutes to leave your home? What would you gather. Where would you go?
It takes me ages to prepare for a trip, faffing about wondering what clothes I’ll need. I weigh up who will I travel with and any nerves I feel are comforted by the thought that within a few days I’ll be home again. Back to my routines, my familiar comforts, photos that remind me of my history, my fluffy Barney dog.
What if I didn’t get that luxury. What if I didn’t have ages to faff, but had to grab what I could, go with a stranger, who hustled me onto a train, and before I knew it I was on a train to a town I didn’t know?What if I didn’t get to bring Barney? What if in my panic I forgot that set of photos? What if I never saw that home again? What if I had to do all that and at the same time say goodbye to my husband, knowing he had to stay and face an oppressor?
What if rather than celebrating my sons 18th birthday I dreaded that day? Because a 17-year-old boy becomes an 18-year-old man, called to the front line. What if 18 never becomes 19…
I visited Uzhgorod. I heard the sirens waking me. Reminding me of missiles launched. But I get to return to my home. I get to sit again with my fluffy Barney. I get to drink from my favourite mug, see my familiar things that remind me of who I am. I slot back into the relationships, routines & work that strengthen me daily and give me purpose, that provide for me.
I see my 17-year-old becoming an 18-year-old, anticipating the life and prosperity that comes from being trained with a pen in his hand; not the death and destruction that comes from being trained with a gun in his hand.
Like me, tens of thousands of people have visited Uzhgorod over the last year or two. But most of them didn’t get the luxury of faffing about what to pack. In 2022 the town’s population was doubled for a while by people seeking refuge. Although the sirens scream loudly, so far, no missiles have landed. Protected by its nearness to the Slovakian border.
So what of those who don’t get to return home. Where do they go? Many have dispersed across Europe. But many don’t have the funds, don’t have the energy. Many want to stay – Ukraine is their home! They hope that one day they will return to their own towns, but for now, Uzhgorod is their new normal.
Around 5 years ago a pair of pastors named Edik & Liana settled in Uzhgorod. They themselves were fleeing from the initial invasion of 2014. Liana found work there, managing two big hotels; and little did she know that the door which had opened for her, would be a door of hope that she would usher many others through. When the refugees started arriving in Uzhgorod, she was able to negotiate rooms for many of them at one of the hotels.
Last September the Lighthouse Community was able to help not just fund the rooms but also to begin a Refugee Lunch Club. Now 50+ people come together five days a week, to eat a hot, three-course meal.
Psalm 23 says that our shepherd God doesn’t just meet our physical needs but he also refreshes our soul. When we visited the lunch club, we saw people’s physical needs being met; but more than this, their souls were being refreshed in community, being cared for and experiencing friendship.
When people are loved well they find hope, not just for this world but for eternity. Many of these refugees who came grieving and lost have discovered the truth that nothing can separate them from the love of God, and they have turned to Jesus and been baptised. We met refugees who have lost everything and yet, have found Jesus and their faces were beaming. They were giving us gifts!
One older man we met used to be a soldier in the USSR special forces – Spetsnaz. When he arrived in Uzhgorod they said he was hard and that people found him difficult. But now that he’s met Jesus, his heart has been changed and he’s soft and kind, even organising flowers for the pastor’s wife!
We saw with our own eyes that Jesus had bound up the broken-hearted here. He had given them joy instead of mourning; he had swapped their spirit of despair for a garment of praise.
We grieve with those who grieve.
We know you as Emmanuel. God with us.
You came down into pain. You are familiar with suffering.You didn’t hide yourself from the mess.
Teach us to be like you; to remember, to step, with wisdom, into the pain of a broken world. But then to let our roots go deeply into you, so that we don’t wilt under the heaviness of grief. For joy was your hallmark. Let it be ours too.
For you are the artist that can take broken pottery and make a glorious mosaic.
Where we are seeking refuge ourselves let us be restored in you. Where we are aware of the damage of our own wrong choices, like the old soldier who found restorative hope in you, let our hearts be restored in you.
Like Liana, let us take our everyday lives and use them for good. Let our places of influence and prosperity be used to open up doorways of hope.