After a short but much-needed break in Paris, it was time for me to jump back into the mission I was in France for – to help a Ukrainian refugee family rebuild their lives and potentially plant a church for Ukrainian refugees in the area.
This required me to hop on a train for a few hours’ ride down to Nîmes, before finding my way to the obscure street where the family was living, in a nearby city in Anduze.
About 30 minutes before I managed to locate the train station, not one, but two of the four wheels on my luggage completely broke off due to the harsh cobblestone streets of Paris.
Admittedly, I was stretching those wheels to their limits as I had picked up a light jogging pace in fear of missing my train.
“Is this how the mission is going to start, God?” I thought to myself.
While every fibre in me could find a reason to get frustrated over this situation as I ran with my 14kg luggage in search of my train, I was filled with peace.
His yoke is easy, His burden is light. This mission wasn’t my idea, it was God’s.
So, I refused to let a minor hiccup dampen my excitement of adventure with Him.
Hunched over and panting every few minutes, I displayed my two broken wheels to any stranger who would look at me quizzically, and we’d share a momentary laugh.
A few hours later, I was still fighting to carry my luggage along, but I was in Nîmes.
I took a couple of buses to the city of Anduze, and had intended to take an Uber to the family’s house which was a few kilometres away up a steep hill.
Unfortunately, there were no cars to be found.
With my iPad and Google Translate, I held up a sign asking for a ride to my desired address.
A French couple on holiday in the region saw my veiled cry for help and told me to hop on their car — they’d take me there!
A joyful reunion
I had a joyful reunion with the Ukrainian family once we reached their temporary house provided by the government.
We exchanged hugs and special handshakes before I was shown to my room.
I was just too happy to see everyone, so even when news came from the house’s caretaker (a Red Cross volunteer) that I could only stay there a night, it did not bother me too much.
After all, God has found a way to provide me with accommodation every step of the way even though I had made zero arrangements in advance.
I eventually found a quaint apartment in a village down the hill about 8km away, and cycling up and down the hill everyday became a daily routine.
“Love not at arm’s length, but as close as He is to the broken-hearted”: Serving refugees at the Poland-Ukraine border
Anyway, the house had a huge garden and backyard for the 10 children to run around and play freely, and we made use of every inch of that space playing “Sardines” and football ever so often.
Other than playing together, we had meals together — I had quickly fallen in love with Ukrainian cooking.
We had intimate moments of fellowship, just hearing from the older family members about their fears and anxieties moving here and encouraging them whenever I could.
I found out that they had felt deceived as they were reallocated to a city they were not originally supposed to go to and no one had told them about the change in advance.
The mother, Olga, blamed herself for being too trusting and not being wise enough to understand the administrative process.
On a few occasions, we got on our knees and prayed together for God’s wisdom and protection in this foreign land and spent time reading from His Word as well.
We had quickly become like family, as we both shared, in different ways, the experience of being far from home.
One of my favourite things to do was to buy special treats for the family in the city below the hill to supplement the limited food provisions from the government.
This included condiments, fruits and juice to add some colour to their diet, and the occasional birthday cake as we celebrated two birthdays together while I was there.
Seeing the lives of the 10 children up close, I marvelled at how differently they were raised from many of us in Singapore, yet how similar we all were as children.
The kids went about their days with little supervision and figured many things out on their own through trial and error.
They were better than me with their hands — repairing a bicycle intuitively and performing many party tricks they learnt from the internet.
The younger ones had a stubborn curiosity for how anything tasted and eagerly put anything that grew from the plants in their mouths.
The older ones were sensible beyond their years — cooking, changing diapers and disciplining the younger kids like parents.
Yet, they all had friends they missed, social media accounts to keep up with their circles and were very glad they did not have to go to school (for the first few weeks at least!).
Doing life with them, being the 11th child of the family, gave me a different view of what ministering like Jesus could look like.
There was no stage, and certainly no programme.
Yet some days chores had to be done, and some days they’d need legal advice.
Some days the boys just needed a goalkeeper, and some days they needed more food.
Naturally, there were many days I wondered: What might I actually achieve here?
What has been achieved?
Many people I came into contact with had the same question as well.
Whenever I raised the topic of potentially planting a church for Ukrainian refugees here in France, eyebrows would be raised.
I would be told of the challenges: my limited network, my lack of experience (some thought I was a teenager), language barriers… the list could go on.
I learnt to take these concerns not as deflation to my vision, but to sieve out nuggets of wisdom.
For the church plant to happen, it was indeed true that I needed to overcome the language barrier.
The family had to settle in and integrate in their new home; I had to expand my network in Europe and learn how others have planted churches for Ukrainians or refugees in general.
Though I wish more could have been achieved towards the church plant in the two short weeks I had been with them, I felt that it was time for me to leave as God had other plans for me in Europe.
The seed surely had been sown. The church plant was still very much on the family’s mind, and we had in-depth conversations about God’s plans for their family in their new home.
I was encouraged that they, too, saw themselves as missionaries — not merely refugees.
With the question of what had I actually achieved in France on my mind, I began to share my intentions to depart from the family in France.
Their responses answered my question in a roundabout manner.
Olga was heartbroken as she felt she was losing a son, and many tears were shed among the kids as they felt they were losing a brother.
It was then I realised that I was so caught up in the question of what I had achieved, I might have inadvertently missed the great gain I had in the relationship I now share with this family.
Love gives weight to any Christian endeavour. Great ministries will come to an end, but love remains.
This simple but deep truth was etched in my heart as I look back on my time in France.
It is not the list of things I had done for them that really counted at the end of the day, but who I had become to them as we just did life together in the unspectacular.
Perhaps this is what it means to not love at arm’s length. To be with them, feel with them and walk with them – just as Christ first did for us.
The father of the refugee family left his job in Ukraine to be with them in France. As the sole breadwinner, he is still looking for a job, but language is a barrier.
Due to the number of children Olga’s family has (10), their financial support from the government is limited. If you’d like to find out more about how you can help, do get in touch with Wesley.
MORE ON UKRAINE:
After spending two weeks in France to help a Ukrainian refugee family settle in, Wesley is currently in Germany right now — you can follow us on our Instagram and TikTok for video updates on his journey.
You can also read our other stories on Ukraine here!
- What was one thing in Wesley’s sharing that stood out to you?
- What might God be saying to you through this insight?
- This week, what is one practical thing you can do to advance the Gospel right where you are?