Local churches lead huge 'Immanuel's Child' outreach as economic crisis, brutal winter bear down
LOVES PARK, Ill. -- A U.S.-based Christian charity is ramping up its efforts to bring hope to more than 60,000 children and orphans across Ukraine, Russia and the former Soviet Union this Christmas – 10,000 more children than last year.
The huge-scale, church-led Immanuel's Child outreach supported by Illinois-based Slavic Gospel Association (SGA, www.sga.org) gives local pastors and church members the opportunity to encourage thousands of children and their parents suffering from poverty and war, and facing the ominous threat of a brutal winter.
"The war in Ukraine, combined with the global economic crisis, has opened the biggest door for aid and evangelism since the fall of the Soviet Union and communism," said SGA president Michael Johnson, who frequently visits the region.
"So many people have never been to church, never heard the story of Jesus," he said. "They're looking for hope, someone who can help them make sense of the chaos and hopelessness surrounding them. Our local church network can get into places when other international humanitarian agencies can't."
Children, Orphans In Humanitarian Catastrophe
This Christmas, the grassroots outreach will be even more vital, Johnson says, bringing hope and a sense of normality to thousands of children and orphans caught in a humanitarian catastrophe. It's estimated 7.5 million people, many of them children, have been displaced within Ukraine's borders, and as many as 5 million refugees are hunkering down in neighboring Poland.
Immanuel's Child's local church network is part of one of the most important aid distribution efforts in the former Soviet Union and war-torn Ukraine. Since the Ukraine conflict began, local churches supported by SGA -- an organization that’s been serving evangelical churches in the former Soviet Union for almost 90 years -- have supplied more than 7 million meals.
In the coming weeks, local churches will invite families to Immanuel's Child "celebrations," where they're given locally-purchased gifts and hear the Gospel story, many for the first time.
America Connection Sparks 'Great Excitement'
Every child receives a gift, kid-friendly Christian literature or Bible, and Star of Bethlehem ornament printed with "God Loves You" in their local language and signed by a sponsor in America.
"They love to receive gifts at Christmas, but it's the paper star signed by someone in America that really causes great excitement," Johnson said. "These ornaments are hung in pride of place in the home and often stay up all year round, even for years to come."
Many parents can't afford gifts for their children, and so they're "thrilled to bring them along to the celebrations," Johnson said. "It's giving local churches opportunities to share the Gospel like nothing I've ever seen before."
Last year, in the rural Russian village of Nazarovka, Katrina, a single mom-of-three, told church workers: "I don't have enough money to buy even small gifts." She -- like many others -- was overwhelmed when they showed up, bearing gifts.
Hope Arrives By Camels, Reindeer
As winter approaches, the cost-of-living crisis threatens misery for families across the former Soviet Union, covering 11 time zones from Eastern Europe to Far-East Russia.
In Central Asia, SGA's local church network in the "Stan" republics -- including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- uses camels to transport vital aid and Christmas gifts across the desert. In the Arctic Circle of Russia's frozen north, church workers use reindeer.
"It's a miracle to behold," Johnson said. "And the really incredible thing is that God is using us in America to spread hope and the Gospel in places and homes where they've never even heard about the God who loves them."
Founded in 1934, Slavic Gospel Association (SGA, www.sga.org) helps "forgotten" orphans, widows and families in Russia, the former Soviet countries of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel – caring for their physical needs and sharing the life-transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ. SGA supports an extensive grassroots network of local evangelical missionary pastors and churches in cities and rural villages across this vast region.