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Weaving a Team in Krakow From War-Torn Threads

By Winnie Smith, Oct 24, 2023

Thread #1

Yuri and Olya Boiko headed for Italy in March 2022.

The Russian invasion had quickly threatened their home of Kharkiv, Ukraine, where Yuri Boiko was a ruling elder, so the contingency plan they never wanted was suddenly forced into effect. Yuri was allowed to accompany his family as the father of four kids. They and a few other people loaded into two cars and headed to the promise of shelter and help in Milan. 

Both cars broke down in Krakow, Poland.

While they waited turbulent days for the improbability of spare car parts and an available mechanic, they started looking around. There were thousands of Ukrainians in the city. A Presbyterian church plant—Christ the Savior, started by one of Yuri’s seminary classmates—was doing relief work. The Boikos jumped in to help the growing community of Krakow urbanites, internationals, and Ukrainian refugees looking for the comfort of worship in their own language.

They knew that thousands would stay and put down roots in Krakow and would need to join a Polish church and integrate into Polish society. News filtered back to the Boikos that there might be problems for refugees in Milan, but by then it didn’t matter. They felt called to Christ the Savior’s growing ministry in this spiritually-hungry, intellectual center of Poland. “We had a certain plan in case of invasion, but the Lord changed our plans and led us in His ways,” Yuri said.

Olya and Yuri

The Boikos are one of three families to join MTW’s new team in Krakow this year, a team woven together from threads torn out by the war. MTW International Director for Europe, David Stoddard, says he is watching, amazed, as God opens doors in this new church-planting field. “There is no way we would have planned it like this.”

In 2019, as MTW leaders met to draft 10-year goals, they felt called to “pray God-sized prayers.” “We put all our dreams on the table and asked God for all of it,” he said. “We asked that churches in the U.S. would send more missionaries. We asked for more churches planted, more pastors, and more teachers. We asked God to open doors in new countries and new cities.

“Two months later, we were hit with a global pandemic and then the Russian invasion.

“If anything happened it would come from the Lord’s strength, not human strength. I’m thankful for how the Lord has worked through an atrocious situation to open doors of opportunity. It is His creativity making things happen.”

Krakow has a rich history traceable through its 13th-century Cloth Hall, crumbling Soviet-era apartments and factories, and gleaming new steel and glass offices. And it has deep war wounds from invasions by Mongols, Swedes, Austrian, French, Germans, and most recently the Soviet Union. But for the past 18 months, Krakow has been a hub of a different kind. It is conduit for relief work through Christ the Savior Presbyterian Church and its local church planter, Sasko Nezamutdinov.

Thread #2

Even with increased talk of war, in early 2022 Joel Spence was still planning to serve in Russia. Then he got a call at home in Texas: Can you be in Krakow in two days? And for the rest of that year, Joel served as the convoy commander and logistics operations manager for the Krakow crisis team—a team that evacuated Ukrainian church members, provided them with long-term housing, and distributed humanitarian aid to Ukrainians both in Krakow and western Ukraine.

Joel Spence with Convoy Drivers

Time on the road was time away from church, and he began to ache for corporate worship and preaching. So he asked to start an English language Bible study in Krakow. Soon the people in his group asked him to stay.

One Sunday after he served communion, a man from the church approached him. “Brother, you speak the truth. You speak the gospel. You need to stay here. This is where God wants you.” 

“And my first reaction was, I think he’s right. So I went off by myself to listen for an internal call to stay in Poland.

Thread #3

Mikael and Zuzanna Romer had initially planned to join MTW’s team in Lviv, Ukraine, where they would learn from an older team for a few years. The couple, who met in the U.S. and shared a passion for church planting in Europe, planned to eventually move to Poland. But certainly not right away.

Zuzanna, the only Polish native on the new team, said that growing up, she didn’t have a solid gospel church to go to. “I wasn’t bitter or disappointed ... It was something I never expected.” But there was a lack of Bible knowledge in her early church experience. “Faith was a list of rules that we needed to live by.”

But the Lviv team relocated to Krakow and when the Romers joined them, their vision expanded. 

Sasko Nezamutdinov Conducts a Baptism with Mikael Romer

Seeing the large Ukrainian population in the city, they saw this as a ripe moment in time to introduce people to a deeper picture of faith. 

“As one who has been mentored and counseled so well, I would love to share that with others in my country,” Zuzanna said. “Polish people take time to trust others. They need to be able to spend time together other than Sundays. They need hospitality. When you show them hospitality, it opens the door for showing their hearts and struggles.”

Zuzanna continued, “At some point, both of us felt convinced to stay here. We prayed through it and felt 100% sure.”

Mikael compares Krakow today to how his native Finland felt 30 years ago. The younger generation is adopting a far more secular view of life, whereas the older generation doesn’t want anything that could lead away from traditional Polish life or toward fanaticism where you “are taking Jesus too seriously.”

When Mikael was a teenager, he wanted to be the St. Paul of the Baltic, or at least somewhere with a lot of snow.

When he talks with people about faith, he highlights the importance of Scripture and of knowing Christ. People don’t know that they can go to the Bible for real answers.

Mikael teaches a Theology Class

The three threads of this new team are now woven into Christ the Savior Presbyterian Church. Founding pastor Sasko Nezamutdinov is well-placed to minister to a Polish-Ukrainian international congregation in Krakow. He grew up in Lviv—which was part of Poland until 1944—during Soviet rule. He also gently points out that people in Ukraine have been at or threatened by war with Russia since 2014. The military and political upheaval is sadly common.

But he doesn’t think Poland has ever had a moment like this.

“It is now polarized and society is splitting.

An Unraveling Religion

Historically, Poland is a very Catholic country. The Catholic church was seen as the institution that held the country’s culture, language, and values. It was the symbol of free Poland when the country didn't have its own government, and it stood up to Communism.

“But this generation today doesn’t remember the Catholic church as the hero,” Sasko said. “They were raised on Netflix and news of church scandals; they view the Catholic church as an evil monster. They are interested in other views on religion, or they are throwing off religion in general.”

He added, “A lot of visitors to the church come just curious to see who we are.”

Joel Spence with Bible Study Group

Sasko started Christ the Savior in 2015 in partnership with Redeemer City to City and other European organizations. It started with just 15 people and doubled during the pandemic. It doubled again during the initial weeks of the invasion, and the congregation reflects the international flair of the city. There are more than a dozen nationalities in the 50 members.

Sasko started a literature project to get theological resources in Polish into people’s hands. The most popular? Calvin’s Institutes.

As it turns out, Sasko had been praying for a deeper relationship with MTW, David said.

After the 2022 invasion, He suddenly found himself in the center of MTW volunteers, teams, and humanitarian aid crates.

Since then, the church has been a shelter and stop-over point for thousands of people. It has served food, distributed clothing, set up shelters, arranged transportation, and run kids’ Bible programs. Yuri runs the teen ministry, Vibe, for Ukrainian youth who are still in the city.

A Flexible Weave

Krakow wasn’t one of the 100 cities in Europe that MTW had in mind, David said. The war thrust it into the limelight. But it’s normal for missionaries to end up doing something other than what they planned.

We have to be Semper Gumby, David joked, but more seriously put, have resilience and flexibility to go where the Lord leads. “Our missionaries in Ukraine, Russia, Czech Republic, and throughout the region have shown that.”

He and the regional leadership decided to transform short-term relief into long-term service.

The team displays the mastery of the Weaver—a new design made from threads that were painfully pulled from other places. He redirected a family en route to Italy, a man headed to Russia, and a couple initially headed to Ukraine, to serve Him in Poland instead. None had immediately planned to serve in Krakow at this point in time, but now they are at work supporting a church planter who did. Together they serve the Maker who continues to show that He is weaving His kingdom even through the tribulations of a war-torn world.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that Lviv was part of Poland until 1991. We apologize for the error.

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