Churches converted into shelters to welcome Ukrainian refugees

A church-turned-refugee shelter in Chelm, Poland.(Photo: European Baptist Federation)

Pews are being pushed aside in Polish churches to make room for people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Alan Donaldson, General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation (EBF), saw firsthand the response of Polish churches in a visit to the country last week. 

In an update on the EBF website, he described the "tension" in the air in countries bordering Ukraine. 

"In Poland, you feel the breath of this war," he said. 

But the Baptist church he visited in the southeastern city of Chelm is "filled with life" after welcoming mothers and children fleeing the violence. 

"It is not tension that you feel as you enter the building but life, peace and joy. Children laugh and play while mothers prepare for onward journeys," he said.

"The church piano plays a variety of tunes, none of the hymns, as the children practise their piano lessons." 

Inside the church, pews have been moved to the front to make space for beds in the sanctuary, balcony and "every available space". 

The church has installed three new washing machines to allow the refugees to do their laundry after a long and difficult journey from their homes in Ukraine.

It has also received donations of new clothes and toys, while local hotels have brought fresh linen for the beds. 

"It is hard to believe that this refugee centre, serving 400 people a day was a church wondering what to do with all the space it had. As the pastor comments, 'Never before have we seen such life in the church,'" said Donaldson. 

Many of the 400 are just passing through on their way to other parts of Europe. For those who do not have their own vehicles, the pastor has been helping to arrange transport and organise lifts.  

Donaldson also described the emotional toll that the war is having on those who have fled. 

"Yet every so often you see in the corner of the room a face staring deep into space. A mind lost in worry and fear," he said.

"A church member approaches and stops for a while listening intently, gently questioning and quietly blessing. The busyness has not left the room but in that space, there is privacy, intimacy and deep emotion. At that moment the gospel message is simply that you are noticed in the crowd.

"The good news is to be listened to, to be prayed with, to be understood and to experience the presence of the one who feels the gentle touch of the woman in the crowd who is in need of healing."