Well before Russia invaded Ukraine, John Stone, associate pastor of Willowbrook Church in Huntsville, sensed God calling him to minister there.
In early July he and other Willowbrook members answered that call, going to love, support and provide supplies to hurting, war-weary Ukrainians.
“God began dealing with my heart before the war ever began,” Stone recalled. “We had a prayer night for Ukraine at Willowbrook, and [God] asked me if I cared [for Him enough] to sacrifice for Ukraine. Did I care enough to go?”
Stone said “yes,” and the trip began to take shape after a Ukrainian connection contacted him to ask the church to consider ways it could support the Ukrainian people.
Stone shared his calling with pastor Mark McClelland. Church members Matt Adams and James Ward agreed God was leading them to partner with Ukrainian believers, too.
Many didn’t understand how he could hear God calling him into a war zone and ask others to join, Stone reflected. At first he also questioned it.
“And then that call became very powerful inside my heart,” Stone remembered. “I realized that when God calls us to do something, there are going to be obstacles. There are going to be roadblocks to our plans, and we had to take into account a little bit of a roadblock called war.
“But Jesus wants us to take time for individuals. He wants us to hear the cries of hurting people.”
During the next few weeks the church hosted a fundraising drive and plans began to solidify. The congregation purchased and shipped more than 1,300 pounds of aid supplies: nonperishable food, clothes, sleeping bags, boots and medical supplies.
The team prepared to enter a war zone, acquiring body armor and helmets and learning to apply tourniquets and pressure bandages correctly. During the trip they would witness missiles flying overhead and encounter Russian spies and drones watching the compound where they slept.
“People asked our team time and time again [if we were] afraid to be there because of the war. And the only answer that we could give them is that ‘the Lord is my shield and my protector. In whom shall I fear? In whom shall I be afraid?’” Stone said, paraphrasing Psalm 27.
Children, students and soldiers
According to Adams, the team connected with local Ukrainian churches, making nearly 50 house visits in rural communities. Team members preached in two local churches, and Adams, an illusionist, conducted impromptu magic shows with a gospel message for children, students and soldiers.
One man they met lost his leg and his livelihood from injuries sustained during a missile attack. Insurance denied the claim as a war injury and the government rejected his appeal for war injury benefits. The Willowbrook team members were the first people he allowed to visit since his injury.
“We took him a basket of food so that he could feed his family,” Stone recalled. “He looked at us and he said, ‘My life is now over.’ And we were able to say to him, ‘Your life is not over. Jesus still has a plan and a purpose for your life. He has a future for you if you’ll just put your trust in Him.’
“We saw so many people that needed encouragement and help,” Adams said. “The most important thing for them was not the supplies, it was literally our presence there.
Ministry of presence
“Just that ministry of presence is so powerful, just to be able to sit with somebody in their grief as their homes are being attacked, and their loved ones are being captured or killed. And just to be with people, cry with them and hurt with them — they were so grateful, so encouraged by that.”
Donations from Willowbrook purchased more supplies in country, and the team partnered with local churches, distributing nearly 100 bags of food and supplies to residents and refugees displaced after their homes were invaded.
“I left a large amount of money that had been given by our church with the church where we were so that could [be used] to buy food and supplies as needed,” Stone said. “Willowbrook has always been very generous through our world missions offering. This offering allows us to generously help the hurting all over the world.”
Stone’s mother died the day the team was scheduled to depart. Many encouraged him not to go on the trip, he said.
“I was in a real spiritual battle,” he recalled. “As much as I love my mother, she told me when God calls you to do something, you always do it no matter the price. I began to pray and look at the Scriptures. I said ‘yes,’ the team said ‘yes,’ and you know, great things happened because we were obedient.
“We will continue our partnership with the church in Ukraine. The pastor and his wife work tirelessly to help their flock and those hurting in their area. We feel very led by God to continue our physical presence on the ground with them. How that [looks] is still in the works.”