A United States-based evangelical association has helped churches in over 10 countries in the former Soviet Union provide over 750,000 meals to hungry families as the coronavirus pandemic has caused economic struggles and hunger.
The Illinois-based Slavic Gospel Association, which serves over 6,350 churches across countries in Eastern Europe and Asia, has worked with its partners to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to feed families as the region continues to see spikes in the number of coronavirus cases.
Russia recently surpassed over 400,000 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 and ranks third in the world in a number of cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine. Over 5,000 have died in Russia after contracting the virus and the country is still on lockdown.
“The churches recognize that while this pandemic is a very difficult situation where many people are suffering, it probably represents the greatest opportunity for the proclamation of the Gospel since the [Berlin] Wall came down,” SGA President Michael Johnson told The Christian Post. “The churches and the church workers are highly motivated to do what they can to minister to the people in those communities, both in word and deed.”
“These people are already doing the work,” Johnson added. “What we are trying to do is connect people here with the churches over there and help them to purchase resources locally so they can distribute food, medicine, and other items.”
SGA, which was founded in 1934 to covertly distribute Bibles to Christians in the communist Soviet Union, today serves churches in the former Soviet Union aligned with the Union of Evangelical Christian and Baptist Churches.
SGA established its Christ Over COVID campaign earlier this spring and issued a worldwide call to prayer.
In the background, the SGA has worked with its partner ministries in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world to secure financial resources to help evangelical churches in those countries serve those in distress.
Johnson said that because SGA has a giant network of churches, it “can get aid to the point of need in just about all parts of those countries, even in the remotest regions in northern Siberia.”
“We have an infrastructure that we have established in those countries that provide all the accountability as well as the supply chain facilities,” he said. "So we are able to get the resources out to people pretty quickly. Those church workers have such compassion in their countries and they meet these people at their point of need. And many of these people are at the end of their ropes.”
In some cases, Johnson said church workers and volunteers are serving people who are “at the point of suicide” and others who haven’t eaten in days.
“They are really meeting those needs. Many of those people are open to the word of God,” Johnson said.
In order to identify the regions that need the most help at this time, SGA has coordinated with the national leaders of the Union of Evangelical Christian and Baptist Churches.
“As time goes on, that network of churches that are distributing these resources continues to grow,” Johnson said. “We send the money over and the food and everything is purchased over there locally and distributed to the people who are in need. The churches are aware of the people in need already. In many cases, they will go to the local municipality to get a list of people who are in need and take that list and go visit those people.”
According to SGA Communications Director Joel Griffith, the needs depend on the region. He said in Ukraine, where there has been an armed conflict since 2014, a lot of people are trapped and can’t afford to leave even though their apartments and houses have been “shelled out.”
“This food support is vital to them as pastors go and visit those areas,” Griffith said.
In Central Asia, Griffith said poverty is “horrendous” and some of governments “haven’t “really been as responsive to the pandemic as others.”
“A lot of attention gets focused on large cities, but when you get out to the outlying villages, the impact is severe and they don’t have the medical infrastructure that they do in some of the larger cities,” Griffith added. “So the impacts are much more severe there.”
According to Johnson, SGA is also helping its local partners to feed orphans during the lockdowns.
“We have access into hundreds of state-run orphanages but in many cases, the children’s homes, because of a lack of funding as a result of the collapsing economy, have had to shut down facilities,” Johnson detailed.
“Many of these kids are social orphans. This means at least one parent is alive but they have been taken away from the homes because of alcoholism and abuse. Now, they are being brought back to their homes. It is a very difficult situation. These workers are following these kids around and visiting them at the home to make sure everything is OK, and delivering food to them and their families.”
Although some state governments in the United States are in the early phases of their reopening plans, Johnson expects the impact of the pandemic will last much longer in the countries SGA serves.
“Yesterday, there was a big spike in cases in Russia. I think those counties are about three or four weeks behind us in terms of the onset of the pandemic,” he said. “They are in a more difficult situation than we are because they lack the medical infrastructure. And the Russian economy, which impacts a lot of those countries in that region and is based on the cost of fuel, is collapsing. It has reverberated all throughout that region.”
Johnson stressed that there is “still a lot of fear.” But as a result of the aid, he said, many are coming to Christ.
Yevgeny Bakhmutsky, pastor of the Russian Bible Church in Moscow, said in a statement shared by SGA that “there is an amazing hunger for truth and openness to the Gospel among people” as church pastors are working “day and night” to visit, preach, consult and provide aid to people in need.
“Our church has created a fund to help in Moscow,” Bakhmutsky wrote. “Even non-Christians (including some nominal Muslims) are donating some money to it. We are working as volunteers every day. Can you imagine — we have a dozen online Bible study Zoom groups for unbelievers now! We could not have dreamed this would be possible before!”
“Many people are preparing for the worst. There is less joy to be found, but churches have become truly joyful places in our society,” the pastor said. “Our church will soon baptize 15 people who came to faith in Christ during this pandemic. It’s all happening because of your faithful assistance and help.”