Six months before I flew to Poland to report on Ukrainian refugees, a truck hit my mother-in-law, killing her instantly. Six weeks before I flew to Poland, I discovered I was 23 weeks pregnant.
A lot was on my mind when I boarded the plane to Warsaw. I had just started a new job. My husband’s grief was still raw, and I sometimes heard him crying in his sleep, dreaming vivid memories of his mother. Neither my husband nor I felt ready to become parents in less than three months. And there I was, unborn child tumbling in my belly, his rolls and jabs as turbulent as my thoughts and emotions. I tried to pray then, but all I could muster was: “Oh Lord, how I need you.”
In times of war and hardship, we seek stories of extraordinary courage and resilience. As a Christian journalist, I wasn’t sure what to expect in my reporting, but I knew what I hoped to find: powerful testimonies, inspiring images of the gospel at work, quote-worthy statements of faith.
I found all of those things in Poland as I visited churches, refugee shelters, train stations, and border crossings. It wasn’t hard to find heartwarming stories of the faithful: One Ukrainian pastor in Zabki, a suburb of Warsaw, invited more than 10 refugees to stay with his family in their tiny home. The day I visited his church shelter, Ukrainian refugee children gathered on the steps to sing a sweet Ukrainian hymn about God’s protection, forgiveness, and mercy.
I also saw giant steps of faith. Almost every church in Poland is helping Ukrainian refugees, but most can only offer short-term stays. The Church for the City in Krakow realized they needed a longer-term strategy. At first, the church began praying about hosting 700 refugees for six months. But the lead pastor, Zbigniew Marzec, wondered, “Why only 700? Why not shoot for 1,000? Why not stretch our faith and go bigger, without limiting God?” Hosting 1,000 refugees for six months would cost $5 million. The church decided to pray for 1,000. Marzec chuckled as he told me their vision: “To think that three weeks ago, we were struggling to buy sound equipment that costs $300!”
It warmed my heart to hear confident, definite statements of faith, to see self-sacrificing, purpose-driven Christians working on the front lines of war. I longed for that expression of faith for myself, especially as so many things were uncertain and heavy in my own life.
But that wasn’t the only expression of faith I witnessed in Poland. Not every Christian I met had a well-defined testimony, particularly the refugees whose lives have been torn apart by war, by loss, by a looming future of uncertainty and instability.
One refugee I met, Daniell, broke down as he recalled his horrible year even before the war. His firstborn daughter was born with a permanently damaged brain due to a botched delivery. Sometimes she suffered more than 300 seizures a day, and Daniell and his wife had spent sleepless nights trying to keep their little baby alive. Because of their child’s condition, evacuating Ukraine was near-impossible, even as shelling and bombing rattled their home. Through the help of other Christians, they were at least able to flee to Warsaw.
Daniell didn’t quote verses about God working all things for the good or testify about finding purpose in his sufferings, which have not ended. He recounted the past year with hollow eyes: “We lived life as though already dead.”
But Daniell, too, has an expression of faith—a real, living one. He continues to pray. He doesn’t pray “leap of faith” prayers declaring healing over his daughter; his lips burned through miracle-seeking prayers long ago. And yet, he prays. There is a name he calls out to, even if his prayers aren’t red-hot passionate or peppered with statements of profound conviction and Bible passages. He prays because, he explains simply, “I can’t imagine any other way of living.” His faith isn’t anchored in mission, in purpose, or in the miraculous. It is more like breathing, even when those breaths sometimes rasp out in gasps.
While I was interviewing refugees, back home in Los Angeles, my husband woke up one morning alone and sobbed. It was his mother’s birthday. She loved birthdays. She always went out of her way to make sure everyone felt special on their birthdays, and liked feeling special on hers, too. Had she been alive, my husband would have been receiving an email from her reminding him about her birthday. That morning, no email came.
One of the hardest struggles for my husband was the senselessness and suddenness of her death. “Your mother’s in a better place with Jesus,” people murmured, words that brought no comfort, only anger and confusion. But why? Why did it happen? Why like this, with no closure or greater meaning?
Such was my husband’s expression of faith: He wrestled, not just with grief, but with God. He couldn’t perform his usual daily devotions. All he could do was turn on worship music and listen to words of praise and joy he didn ’t yet have the strength or heart to sing himself.
In the several months after his mother died, I watched my husband’s faith evolve. It’s not as exuberant and self-assured as before. It’s simpler now, quieter, humbler, but in many ways, a lot more authentic. I saw similar expressions of faith in the stories of some refugees. One refugee told me she used to pray fervently out loud for God to stop the war. She had believed the war would cease in a week or two, but as the weeks dragged into months and the body count grew, her prayer changed. It now bears the wounds of much more pain, and her tone and expectations are not the same. And yet, she still prays. Like Daniell, like my husband, she prays, even if it’s short and simple, because he is listening.
My last day in Poland, I visited a church-run warehouse in Warsaw that was sending supplies to hot zones in Ukraine. It was a tense day. The Russians had just bombed a critical bridge to Chernihiv, blocking the only way across the river. Meanwhile, they had eight trucks, each full of about $40,000 worth of emergency supplies, stymied on one side of the bridge. The team at the warehouse decided to build rafts out of 50 barrels that would be sturdy enough to carry 160 refugees and several tons of food across the river.
Volunteers were still discussing this when a white-haired Ukrainian missionary gestured to my seven-month-pregnant belly with a smile: “Boy or girl?” He beamed, then asked, “Can we pray for you and the baby? We would love to pray. It’s so important to pray for a new life.”
I was taken aback. I had not expected a busy group of Ukrainians, besieged with the stresses and logistics of war, to pause their day to pray for a stranger from America. The missionary called everyone immediately to their feet and they gathered around, placed their hands on my shoulders, and began praying in unison in Ukrainian, with loud voices and raised palms and pumping fists. I had no idea what they were saying, but I understood their hearts and I soaked it all in: beautiful foreign words of faith, of blessing, of love and joy over a new life colliding with the presence of death and grief.
It took all my willpower not to burst out crying. I had not had much mental and emotional space to be still and pray. I didn’t realize how much I had needed this—an expression of faith declared by someone else over me, for me, to me.
On the flight back to Los Angeles, I felt like a dam had broken. I had left with a heart in turmoil and was returning with a heart full. What I witnessed was diverse expressions of faith in the body of Christ; each was rich and powerful and alive in its own way, but woven together, they portrayed the image of Christ in his full glory and beauty. And now, beholding the glory of the Lord, what other response could I have, but cry out?
So I did. In my seat I prayed, “Oh Lord, you are good.” A cry, and a worship. And in my womb, the baby danced. He wiggled and jiggled, did the booty pop and a pirouette—his own expression of faith, I suppose.
Sophia Lee is global staff writer at Christianity Today.