March 2022, Lawrence, along with his pregnant wife and three young children, fled from Russia shortly after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
After serving as a missions worker in Russia for eight years, Lawrence decided it was best for his family to relocate back to the Netherlands as the conflict escalated.
Lawrence, along with other missions workers who had recently relocated to the Netherlands, found that there was a unique opportunity to minister to recently arrived Ukrainians. They decided to start a service in Russian so Ukrainian refugees could come together and find hope and community in a language they understood.
As the fellowship began to meet, a group of Dutch church members volunteered to help with the service. Every Sunday, they made lunch, helped set up the service's technical aspects and offered childcare. The attendance began to dwindle after the first month, from as many as 180 people down to 30 or 40. During the summer, only about 10-15 people consistently attended the service. Lawrence began to worry that the initial draw of the gathering was wearing off as people found work, friends and some even returned to Ukraine.
“I thought we lost the opportunity, and the ministry was closing down. I was worried that some volunteers would become less motivated to keep serving a group of people with whom they didn't share a common language,” said Lawrence.
As the concerns were discussed among the coordinating team, several Ukrainian women voiced that they believed it was important to continue the services even with the small numbers. They volunteered to start coordinating and helping with the service.
“For me, this was a very pivotal moment. I realised that it was important to have more Ukrainians involved in the church services,” shared Lawrence. The service began to shift from being run for Ukrainians to being run by Ukrainians.
The group of women promised to invite their friends and colleagues to the services, and soon the numbers grew to 30-40 people. While many people do not attend consistently, the community is seeing more and more people returning each week.
Into the unknown
One of the Ukrainian women who was influential in preserving and maintaining the fellowship was a young woman named Anna.
Sirens echoed in the air as Anna and her parents drove her brother’s small car away from their home in Donetsk, Ukraine. After Russian soldiers invaded under the orders of Putin, they needed to go somewhere safe. Anna’s brother and his pregnant wife were unable to flee due to her pregnancy, but they hoped to join the family once the baby was born.
Anna didn’t know what to do or where to go. The unknowns loomed large as she and her family began their journey on 2 March 2022.
“The road was completely full, and there were siren sounds everywhere. Every night we would stop in a city and find a place to sleep,” Anna said.
As they drove through the country, Anna was told by other refugees that many Ukrainians were fleeing to the Netherlands. While she worried they wouldn’t make it, Anna told her parents about the proposed destination, and they began the long journey towards safety.
One week later, Anna and her family arrived in the Netherlands. As they settled into their new home, Anna and her parents decided to go to a local church. The church they visited was Dutch, and though they could not understand or speak the language, Anna still felt welcome because of how friendly everyone was.
“A lot of good people wanted to help, and they were asking what they could do [for us],” said Anna.
At the service Anna met Lawrence. He invited them to come back, and the same Dutch congregants who offered help and hospitality to Anna soon became some of the same people offering to help with the new Ukrainian fellowship.
A safe place
Lawrence continues to serve the fellowship by leading the services, preaching in Russian and pastoring the community. “I hope that this fellowship is a safe place for refugees, where they can experience the love of Jesus Christ and hear the gospel in clear words,” he said.
Many attendees of the Ukrainian fellowship have an Orthodox background or have never been to church before.
“They want to come because they know there are good people here, and they heard something true and something changed in their mind,” Anna said. “Most of the Orthodox people, they don’t know who God is and what He said in the Bible and that He really wants to be in our lives. Now they can hear more and more.”
Living in the Netherlands has been far from easy for Anna and her family. Though her brother, his wife and their baby joined the rest of the family, the adjustment to a new life in a country with a different language and culture has its challenges. Anna had many doubts about her ability to work and live in a country where she did not speak the language. Even so, things are improving as time passes, and she’s learning to trust God through it.
An added challenge for Anna is the responsibility and decisions for her family on her shoulders. Giving those decisions to God and trusting Him through them has been a large part of her spiritual journey over the past few months. She summed it up simply by saying: “He gives me everything I need.”
Now that Anna has a community of believers around her, she believes she has the tools to be an example for other believers.
“We all have a responsibility to be like Jesus,” Anna said. “[People] look at me and they know I’m Christian.”
Anna has continued to be a vital part of her new church family and is currently teaching Sunday School for the few children in the congregation. She explained that serving in church does not come naturally to her, but her motivation stems from the help that others have given her and her cultivation of discipline to serve in her own life.
“Everybody needs Jesus. It’s my decision to do this,” she says.
The fellowship, while small in number, has made an eternal impact. In December 2022, a Ukrainian woman decided to follow Jesus and was baptised.
“I see that God is working in the hearts of people as they return almost every Sunday,” Lawrence said. “From the beginning, I had the desire that the fellowship would be more and more run by Ukrainians. This seemed to be impossible, but bit by bit, the community has been taking over the tasks of volunteers. Truly God’s blessings in sending the right people.”