July 13, 2024

A Gentle Word to Those Wanting to Help Ukrainian Refugees

Editor’s note: Julie Mosse and her husband Alfie have spent many years working as cross-cultural workers in Ukraine. Recently, they spent a few months in Poland, helping Ukrainian refugees fleeing the military conflict in their own country.

Recently, I sat with one beautiful Ukrainian church worker in a little cafe in Krakow, Poland. She loves Jesus, is a seminary mission program graduate, and has a wealth of ministry and cross-cultural experience. Currently she is also a refugee from the war in Ukraine, having fled Odessa with her mom, sister, and tiny nephew.1 See another blog post about refugees from Ukraine. She works with a local Ukrainian church which, like all of these churches, is flooded – with people, with needs, with decisions, and with opportunities.  

Weary leaders

The leaders of these Ukrainian diaspora churches are doing everything they can to be faithful in this flood. Meanwhile many of them carry much trauma and anxiety of their own. Even if they recognize the trauma they are carrying, many have no time to address the needs of their own hearts. My friend carries an enormous amount of responsibility in her church’s local ministry. God is using her in amazing ways. But she, like many other Ukrainian church leaders, is weary. She is in need of wise partners who can also refresh her. 

It’s a picture that tugs at many of our hearts. We Westerners long to jump in and help. Some of us have visited Ukraine and feel a connection to the terror and trauma our Ukrainian friends have experienced since February 24th. But while we feel the urgency to help somehow, we definitely don’t want already overburdened Ukrainian believers to also alleviate the needs of well-meaning, North American helpers. We don’t want them to carry additional burdens simply because their practice of both hospitality and boundaries differs from our North American cultural practices. 

A different understanding of boundaries

What do I mean by this? To begin with, I don’t want to minimize the abuse and dysfunction in many of our backgrounds. I recognize the value of healthy boundaries that we often encourage in our North American churches. This understanding of boundaries is meant to foster protection and healing. We teach church members to say “no” and not allow themselves to be pushed to do anything that feels unsafe or even just “too much”. We believe these are healthy practices in any healthy church and there is much wisdom in this. 

But there is another nuance to consider any time we relate to people from another culture. Other cultures may not necessarily agree on where to place those boundary lines in the life of an individual. Our Western view of boundaries has developed in a much more individualistic culture. And as you can imagine, collective cultures don’t do boundaries like Westerners. According to the Hofstede country comparisons, Ukrainian culture is one of the least individualistic cultures. So, a Ukrainian pastor or average believer’s idea of healthy boundaries will look very different from a Westerner’s view of them.

The ongoing war in Ukraine further blurs those boundaries. Imagine setting boundaries when the people you love and have responsibility for are experiencing the inescapable, never-ending insecurity of war, poverty, under-employment, or persistent lack of food.

The value of hospitality

In Ukrainian culture, expressing hospitality means serving a guest with your whole heart, with all you have, and is a very deeply held value. In fact, even in everyday life, real hospitality costs something in most collective cultures of our world. Therefore, before we jump on a plane to follow our hearts and help Ukrainian refugees, we must understand that there is one thing that Ukrainian believers cannot do, especially in this time of national crisis. They cannot put up a Western-style boundary for receiving well-meaning guests who want to come to refugee communities and help.  
Wanting to help is a beautiful thing. But we must consider that sometimes our help creates more problems for locals to solve than our “help” alleviates. Merging our compassion with discernment allows our help to bring true relief to those we care about. As Christ-followers, we have the amazing power and privilege to self-assess our skill sets, maturity levels, and readiness to serve in a given context. With God’s light shining, we can clearly see our own assumptions, our own weaknesses, and our own misconceptions – all of which can cloud our discernment.
Since the war in Ukraine began, Krakow has truly been flooded with short-term teams. Some have made an amazing impact. They’ve done the necessary self-assessment ahead of time, asked hard questions of themselves and other informed local people. They have considered what skills are truly needed now and which are not. As a result, they have ministered to dozens of displaced Ukrainians by building trust, speaking in heart languages, and offering real Gospel-grounded refreshment to overwhelmed and grieving people and to the Ukrainian leaders serving them.

Creating work for exhausted people 

But some groups have created exhausting work for already exhausted people. This happens when foreigners come with no language, no plan, no cultural sensitivity, no ability to find their own lodging, transportation, and translators, or no understanding of the time and energy limitations of the local people.

These sorts of teams have come to places like Krakow with lots of money and personal ministry expectations. But sadly, very often they have created enormous amounts of work for grieving, overwhelmed leaders. And these leaders often feel obligated to provide that “ministry” opportunity, no matter how burdensome, impractical or ineffective. They feel obligated because of their deep value for hospitality, and the prospect of funding for truly legitimate, truly never-ending needs.  

Most of these guests are really well-meaning. Many may object to this critique and insist that it doesn’t reflect belief in a big God who uses ordinary people. But our big God is also committed to growing his people and using each one, not on their own urgent timelines, but in his time.

God gives different believers different gifts, skills, and past experiences so they can all work uniquely in His Kingdom. Remember that “not everyone is a foot, or an ear” idea from 1 Corinthians 12?2 1 Cor 12:15-16. Sharing the Gospel in a cross-cultural crisis isn’t one person’s job alone, but the cumulative ministry of the entire body.

So, with God-given compassion and wisdom informing us, each of us can assess our own ability to give something useful. This assessment can then help us see when to stay in the background, supporting those who have the right skills, gifts, and experience for a more visible, relational ministry. That same compassion can also motivate us to see the long game and open ourselves to long-term, cross-cultural growth. 

What can we do?

What can we do when our compassion rightly moves us to action? 

1. Research and find trustworthy local ministry partners.

Ask them what they need and listen to them. Do not offer your ideas. Do not lead with your money but be ready to give wisely. As you listen to local leaders, know that the best servant may be someone else. Be willing to see that some people may be better qualified than you are and help look for those people in your God-given circles. If you don’t have necessary skills, assume the best place for you is in the background unless the local person sees a need for you to be doing more visible ministry.  

2. Become a person who cultivates cross-cultural skills.

Make this a lifestyle practice, not just something you do once a year on an overseas ministry trip. Commit weekly to be in another uncomfortable, ethnically different part of your own city, and go as a humble learner/servant.  You will learn so much about yourself, about Jesus and His enablement, and about the body working together. Jesus will transform you as you invest in the future, and not just in a temporary heart-string tug.

3. If you haven’t yet done so, learn another language.

Know what it’s like to be profoundly weak in presenting yourself in a second language. This in itself will increase your understanding of what it’s like to be a refugee, an immigrant, and a foreigner.  If you work in ESL ministry, use the break-time to learn your students’ languages. Take an interest in the language and culture of neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Bless every fast-food, immigrant worker with a strong accent who has the guts to work every day with hungry, impatient, English speakers. 

4. Finally, be ready when you are that someone who is needed.

The time will come when your gifts, skills, and past experiences are what is needed for such a moment as this. You will be that someone whom God has prepared to step forward.

That is a humbling commission. Know that you will be joining clouds of people, whom God has readied to work together in his harvest fields. You won’t feel ready. But remember that he never stops readying us to keep pushing farther into his harvest fields, farther into deep partnership with our brothers and sisters, and farther into a surrendered life for him.

Whether in the forefront or in the background, God has called us to bring him glory and reflect his goodness. We are never the rock stars here. Our God is always the Hero, the King, the Good Shepherd to us all. He alone is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

And he prepares his whole body and uses us in his great, global mission of redemption according to his multi-faceted wisdom.

2 thoughts on “A different understanding of boundaries

  1. What an excellent article. Plan to use it with university students this fall who want to help, but in their eagerness often have no idea how to be gracious.

    1. Dear Anna,
      Glad to hear the article will be useful to you and your students. So grateful to hear your desire to help university students to focus and nuance their beautiful, but
      sometimes raw, eagerness. Truly that particular lesson is one I continue to learn whenever my passions are engaged.

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