To the Least of These: Showing Love for Ukrainian Orphan Refugees

by Trish Duggan, CDM Communications Coordinator

Greg and Bonnie Harrison live in Romania. They are not Romanian by birth, nor have they lived there long. The Harrisons are longtime members of Second Parish OPC in Portland, Maine. Greg is a deacon, a builder by trade—and both Greg and Bonnie were considered some of the most sought-after wedding photographers in Maine. The two met at a dance hall and married in 1993. 

Almost a decade ago, just as Russia began its 2014 invasion, the Lord led the Harrisons to adopt four children from an orphanage in the city of Kiliya, in southwestern Ukraine.

After arriving back at their home in Maine, the Harrisons learned of the difficult circumstances for the remaining Ukrainian orphans. Greg and Bonnie longed to be able to rescue all of them but knew they could not adopt every one. This led them to investigate the possibility of moving to Ukraine, where they might be able to carry out some sort of ministry to these orphans.

With the help and support of their pastor and members of Second Parish OPC, as well as several other churches and individuals in New England and beyond, they established a non-profit called “Hearts of Hope”. In 2018, they moved back to Ukraine and purchased and renovated a home in Kiliya.

On February 24, 2022, an active war broke out again in Ukraine. The family fled Ukraine, seeking refuge near Brasov, Romania, where the MTW team who had been serving in Odessa, Ukraine, had also relocated. Bonnie and Greg value the local church, especially one that is reformed, and sought to establish themselves in Romania where they would be near a reformed local church. 

In God’s providence and timing, they stumbled upon the Kiliya orphans—who were now also refugees—just two hours from where they lived in Romania, in Valenii de Munte. This allowed the Harrison family to take up their ministry once again to these children, to visit them a few days a week, and to take several at a time out on excursions. 

In Ukraine, like in many other countries, orphans, especially those with special needs, are by all accounts discarded by society. In fact, some consider them to be the outcasts of the outcasts. Greg and Bonnie have a love for these children and recognize them as God’s image-bearers, in need of love, spiritual and practical guidance, training, and the ability to someday support themselves. 

In August, David Nakhla, administrator for the OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM) had an opportunity to visit and encourage this family in Romania and to see first-hand the impact that their ministry is having on the lives of several orphans from Ukraine with special needs, now suffering as refugees, who live with them. Amazed at the Harrison’s commitment, David said, “The Harrisons are truly huge-hearted people! They realize that this is not a short-term ministry. It’s hard work; it takes years, patience, and endurance.” Jesus perfectly expressed his love for the outcast in Luke 5:12-13, as He touched and healed a leper. In the same manner, the Harrisons are ministering to these children in His name. 

This couple is gifted with “thinking outside the box” and doesn’t allow challenges to deter them. With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, the Harrisons are considering permanently moving their ministry from Ukraine to Romania and creating a place in the beautiful Carpathian Mountains, where they can invite artisans from North America to teach the children sustainable skills and trades. Long-term they hope to encourage other Christian families to consider hosting orphans in their homes, for short periods. Hosting serves to show an example of a stable family and provides hope to orphans, many of whom have never experienced a loving, nurturing home. 

The CDM learned of the Harrisons and their ministry while seeking like-minded ministries in that region of the world who were ministering to refugees from Ukraine.  The CDM’s Refugee Ministry Subcommittee was thankful to learn of the Harrisons and the faithful ministry of mercy they are carrying out to “the least of these”, and, upon examining the various expenditures they have incurred in direct connection to the war in Ukraine and their ministry to Ukrainian refugees, recently approved a considerable disbursement to Hearts of Hope, to reimburse it for the ministry expenditures incurred, by means of the generous gifts of God’s people contributed to the Ukraine Crisis Fund.  

Lord willing, their mission will continue with more opportunities to show the love of Christ by offering a haven for more orphans and will possibly even inspire others to consider similar ministries. 

May all be encouraged by such service and pray that this ministry of the Harrison’s might serve as a glorious example of selfless diaconal care shown to those in need and distress.


Seeds of Hope in Ukraine

by Jamie Dean, OPC Communications Coordinator

When an Armenian living in Ukraine decided to practice his English on a couple of Americans he heard speaking on a street corner years ago, he had no idea the encounter would change the course of his life. He discovered his conversational English was awkward, but the Americans invited him to keep practicing in a class that used the Bible as a textbook. The Americans were missionaries, and the Lord used the class to draw George to saving faith in Christ.

George recently recalled those early days of faith from the upstairs room of a house in the southern port city of Odessa, where he serves his congregation as a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ukraine (EPCU).

The denomination of twelve churches is the fruit of decades of missionary and Ukrainian efforts that often began with simple, evangelistic conversations with men like George in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

OPC missionary Heero Hacquebord arrived in Ukraine nearly three decades ago, and he still serves alongside several of the original members of the MTW team in the country. (MTW is the missionary agency of the Presbyterian Church in America.) The team evangelized, discipled, worked to plant churches, and helped lay the groundwork for a seminary and the EPCU, a denomination now led almost entirely by Ukrainian pastors.

In March, a small contingent from the OPC visited the work in Ukraine, a year after Russia’s invasion of the Eastern European nation sparked the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II and upended life for millions in the country.

We saw firsthand how EPCU churches have distributed diaconal relief through the Crates for Ukraine project that many OPC congregations have contributed to over the last year. And we heard about Hacquebord’s bigger hopes for the effort: He’s praying the simple crates might become seeds for planting churches, as they build contacts across the country for the denomination.

The denomination that began with the seeds of street evangelism and outreach classes is now full of first-generation Christians and pastors like George. As those believers raise a new generation of covenant children, they also continue to reach out to others still hungry for the good news of Christ in a sinful and weary world.

The Kindness of God

George doesn’t have to go far to reach the weary. On the first floor of his home in Odessa, a sitting room is filled with supplies of medicine and hygiene products the pastor helps distribute through the church. On the morning we visited, George had just returned from a short trip to nearby hot zones, where he had been translating for a Christian paramedic training churches on how to administer first aid.

Upstairs, George’s wife sat with two women as they recounted their plight as refugees of war. One of the women fled to Odessa last year when Russian strikes hit her hometown and occupation seemed likely. She longs to return but doesn’t know if it will be possible.

The other woman fled her home during a Russian incursion in eastern Ukraine nearly ten years ago. After weeks of sheltering, she escaped on a train, without knowing where the train was headed. She found herself in Odessa, and she’s stayed ever since, including during the threats to the city over the last year.

The young woman teared up when she recounted her mother’s death, her father’s abandonment, her war experience, and her struggles as a single mother. She doesn’t have a church home, but George’s wife has been reaching out to her and other single moms in the area.  “I can’t go back home,” she said. “But I have found some kind people here.”

For both George and his wife, the kindness of missionaries and church members led to their own introduction to the gospel in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and it still informs their approach to ministry in the church George pastors.

These days, pastoring in war zones requires a mixture of the regular duties of preaching, teaching, and counseling, while also tackling unexpected tasks like making sure elderly congregants have clean drinking water and the medicines they need when supplies run scarce.

It’s a routine that’s become familiar to another pastor from a town nearby.

Grace Under Fire

Andre is a Ukrainian pastor from Mykolaiv, a city a couple of hours east of Odessa. The city suffered heavy bombardment at the outbreak of the war, and Russian missile strikes destroyed major pipelines for drinking water. At one point, the town’s mayor urged everyone who wanted to survive to leave. Pastor Andre stayed.

He recounted the early days of the war during our visit to Pastor George’s church in Odessa, where he also picked up medical supplies to take back to a city still struggling under the weight of wartime conditions.

When Mykolaiv came under attack, Andre and his brother raced to evacuate his wife, children, and other members of the church seeking to escape. But not everyone fled. Some were determined not to leave their homes. Others felt like they couldn’t: Many elderly Ukrainians remained in their villages and towns, unable to imagine piecing together lives as refugees somewhere else.

While Ukrainian laws prohibit most men ages eighteen to sixty from leaving the country during this war, Andre fell under an exception: he and his wife have four children. Any Ukrainian man with three or more children is allowed to travel abroad. Still, Andre stayed. He gives a simple reason: “I am a pastor.”

These days, he and his brother still make the rounds in a large passenger van, checking on church members and making trips to villages where little relief has arrived from the outside.

The pastor talks about the Lord with those he visits and says he encourages them with the ministry of the church: “I specifically tell the people that the church from all over the world is helping you right now.”

Thirty years ago, he couldn’t have imagined a life as a pastor. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Andre searched for something to believe. He read portions of the New Testament, and he tried in vain to keep the Ten Commandments on his own.

When he met members of the MTW team through an English club, he began learning about a concept he didn’t understand: Grace. Andre said the elders in the Presbyterian church he attended pressed him with the truth of repentance and faith in Christ. Over time he realized the good news of the gospel. “It’s a gift,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

Andre holds out that gift to others through his ministry to his own congregation now, preaching on Sundays to those who remain, and holding online prayer meetings with members taking refuge in other cities or countries.

He grows quiet for a few moments when he considers what the Lord has taught him over the last year. “In times like these, you realize what’s important,” he says. “It’s not your house. It’s not your money. It’s not your documents. . . . It’s the people God has called you to. It’s your family and it’s your church.”

Pastor George nods in agreement and says he’s also been freshly reminded of the urgency of sharing the gospel, whatever the circumstances. “It’s so important to bring the gospel and to do what Jesus said . . . to make disciples and build God’s kingdom,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

After a prayer and a warm farewell, Pastor Andre and his brother head downstairs and climb back into their van to reach Mykolaiv before dark.

Light in the Darkness

First-generation Christians aren’t a thing of the distant past. In L’viv, the western Ukrainian city where OP missionary Heero Hacquebord pastors Holy Trinity Reformed Church (another EPCU congregation), a young man named Ruslan is the point man for the Crates for Ukraine project.

He grew up in a Greek Catholic church, but he met an MTW missionary through campus ministry and started attending the L’viv church a couple of years ago. “It changed my life,” he says.

Ruslan now aspires to ministry himself and said he’s deeply encouraged by how many gospel conversations he’s had with people on the receiving end of the Crates for Ukraine. They keep calling him back, and he joins Hacquebord in hoping these new contacts might lead to more conversions—and more churches across Ukraine.

“It’s incredible to see how God uses such an evil thing as war to build his church, to prepare soil for his seeds,” Ruslan said. “And it’s not the end yet—He’ll work more.”    

The author is communications coordinator for the OPC. 

This article was originally published in the June 2023 edition of New Horizons.


Seeing the Lifeline Connection Among Saints

by Trish Duggan, Communications Coordinator for the Committee on Diaconal Ministries

David Nakhla, Administrator for the Committee on Diaconal Ministries, recently returned from a seven-day trip to Ukraine, with two others from the OPCdeacon from Covenant OPC in Orland Park, IL and CDM member, John Voss and OPC Communications coordinator, Jamie Deanalong with MTW Ukraine Country Director, John Eide. Their excursion began in Poland, where they met up with a Ukrainian woman, Olena, who escorted them by van over the border to L’viv, Ukraine. In the past year, Olena has made this over six-hour trip regularly, transporting over 1300 crates of supplies for the summer edition of Crates for Ukraine (CFU) and, Lord willing, will continue as the winter crates begin arriving from the states.

While in L’viv, the group was able to meet with OPC missionary Heero Hacquebord, visit his church’s building, Holy Trinity EPCU, tour the CFU warehouse, and meet the CFU distribution team. There is a huge sense of gratitude to all, which was particularly expressed to the OPC during the visit, for standing with them at this time. MTW team member, Doug Shepherd, in expressing his gratitude, described the OPC as “punching above our weight class.” In total, the OPC family was able to contribute 307 of the over 1300 total crates to Dallas and Chattanooga in the Crates for Ukraine Winter Edition effort.

There is a great sense of fulfillment from the distribution teams in passing on these gifts. The church’s website and access to the Ukrainian publishing house is posted on each gift as a way of incorporating gospel outreach with the distribution of supplies. The church views this as sowing many seeds in many directions. Recipients report the quality of the CFU items are far superior to what is coming to Ukraine via other channels and are saving lives.

The group then moved east on to Odessa, where life, as in L’viv, is operating at some level of normalcy, despite the circumstances. That said, they are all “affected people”, and as such they each suffer some level of PTSD.  Many feel a level of “survivor guilt”, hearing of the circumstances of those who live near the front or even in occupied territory, and where homes have been looted and/or destroyed. Further, while there is a degree of difficulty living as the “survivors”, this conflict is not over, there are no guarantees for tomorrow and a shadow of darkness looms large. Many are clinging to God’s sovereignty and care while some wrestle with understanding why God allows the horrific aspects of this war to persist.

The CFU effort has been a lifeline of connection between the mission team, the EPCU, and the church back in the States. It’s not been easy, but certainly worthwhile and has brought helpful connectionalism.

Thank you for your church’s participation in Crates for Ukraine. Further reports from the team’s visit to Ukraine are being written and will be distributed in the months to come.