(RNS) — It’s not the fighter jets overhead or the explosions he’s heard nearby that bother missionary Ken Ward in his several trips to Ukraine since Russia invaded its neighbor.
It’s the people like those in a “little bitty village,” he said, outside of Kherson in the country’s southeast that was bombed in December. There he saw decimated houses and heard the story of villagers who buried “little pieces” of the body of a woman who died trying to get others to shelter.
“We just started driving down every road in the village,” Ward, 66, said of the small team he works with to deliver supplies provided by HelpingUkraine.US, a nonprofit. “It’s pitiful. You got to guess: Does somebody live there?”
Ward, a military veteran who has also served as a police officer and a probation officer, helped found churches in Moldova and Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and more recently assisted a homeless ministry in the U.S. state of Georgia, where he lives. But for the last few months, he has concentrated on helping the people of Ukraine survive the frigid temperatures of winter and the harsh effects of a war that is nearing its first anniversary.
Since November, as a team leader for HelpingUkraine.US, Ward has delivered blankets, wood-burning stoves and generators to Odessa, Kherson, Dnipro and surrounding villages and towns that have been hit by Russian rockets, and to centers that have become way stations for internally displaced people.
Helping Ukraine was founded by Emory Morsberger, an Atlanta community redevelopment expert, last year. Having visited the country decades ago, Morsberger decided after the Russian invasion that “I want to do more than just pray or talk or write a check,” he told supporters on a Zoom videoconference call featuring Ward.
RELATED: Lutheran World Federation head Anne Burghardt on historic firsts and helping Ukraine
Morsberger worked with other members of the U.S. service organization the Rotary and a faith-based organization called Friends of Disabled Adults and Children to ship medical equipment to Ukraine. In November, he and FODAC partnered with Ward, other Rotarians and several churches to get supplies to cities and villages.
“Ken goes back to Moldova after working in Ukraine all week and actually gets to take a shower and warm up and eat a warm meal,” Morsberger said of Ward.
“And then Monday morning at 4 a.m., he’s back across the border, right through Odessa, where he has a number of friends. And he is functioning around this southern part of the Ukraine warfront.”
Ask Ward if he’s a missionary or a humanitarian and his answer is that it’s a package deal. “When you’re loving others, you’re loving God,” he said. “It’s all one.”
Morsberger said Helping Ukraine has raised $650,000 for the medical equipment as well as providing the supplies Ward has helped distribute. He hopes to raise $2 million more in the coming months.
Contributions have come from individuals, a Jewish foundation and Morsberger’s United Methodist church in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville, which contributed $3,500 from donations received during its drive-through Christmas lights display.
Ward was introduced to several Ukrainian pastors on a visit in June, after Pastor Marcel Dascal, a church leader in Moldova, told Ward of their plight. Dascal began serving as his translator, connecting him with churches that, in turn, could help displaced Ukrainians. The work, Ward and Dascal say, has become more dire as the temperatures are at their coldest and the war is nearing its one-year mark.
“It’s really freezing,” Dascal said, of temperatures that can hit -10 Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) but feel like -20. “Even if you are really dressed nice, if you stay outside for a long time, you’re getting frozen.”
In Uman, a central Ukrainian city where a church has set up a heating center, the results of Helping Ukraine’s support are visible.
“They have bread, they have fellowship, and they can charge their phone,” he said of the centers. Uman residents bring clothes for displaced people who have arrived from other locations, such as Mykolaiv and Kherson, which have both been under attack for months.
Ward recently left the U.S. for his fourth relief mission with Helping Ukraine.
His ministry colleagues compare him to well-traveled biblical figures.
Mark Huckaby, a fellow Georgia resident who joined Ward on his January trip, recalled a woman who had a list of the people most in need of the dozens of cast-iron wood-burning stoves they purchased through Helping Ukraine.
“We want to help them stay warm,” said Huckaby, a chaplain and vice president of the homeless ministry Ward helps lead. “We want to help them survive.”
Speaking in late January with Helping Ukraine staffers and supporters via the videoconference, Ward said he felt uncomfortable tucked into his “good sleeping bag” on the floor of a church office or borrowed space in a home, given the cold nights Ukrainians are facing.
“I thought about the people in the village: All they’ve got is a piece of plastic on the roof and they might freeze,” he said.
He remembers the faces he saw in the little village hit by Russian artillery after its desperate residents heard his vehicle’s horn and gratefully received the blankets they were offered.
Ward said he had learned a few words in Ukrainian and Russian to say to the villagers: “God loves you. Jesus loves you. I love you.”
“It comes down to this: He has a heart to help people,” said the Rev. Greg Cater, a hospital chaplain who leads the homeless ministry in Georgia. Cater calls Ward a modern-day John the Baptist who can jump on a table or levee to proclaim his beliefs about “what God has done.”
He answered a similar spontaneous call to help when the war broke out. “Ken didn’t know anything else to do but go and help,” said Cater. “That’s how he’s wired.”
Pat McGivaren, a retired veterinarian who joined Ward on church-starting trips to eastern Moldova and western Ukraine starting in the 1990s, marvels at his colleague.
“I’d compare him almost to Apostle Paul,” said McGivaren. “Self-sacrifice to the kingdom of God. That’s what he does.”
But Ward’s longtime mentor is concerned about his friend’s can-do spirit.
“I told his wife that he needs to rest,” McGivaren said as Ward embarked on his latest trip after spending 54 days there since November. “He burns the candle at both ends. How long can you do that?”
Ward’s wife, Debra, said in a statement that she trusts her husband to “God’s hands,” just as she did when he served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ward said he and Debra had a pact that, when he departed on a combat mission, he would email her with “Psalm 91” in the subject line. The biblical song includes the verse “For He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you in all your ways.” She would then pray with their six children for his safety.
“When I returned, the email would only say in the subject line “Psalm 91″ — meaning I returned safely, praise the Lord,” he told RNS. “We now do the same thing while I am in Ukraine.”
Ward told the dozens on the January conference call, as he made plans to work with a growing number of teams, that his goal is “to fight to survive winter and rebuild in the spring.”
He added: “Giving up, quitting is not an option.”
RELATED: How the war in Ukraine dominated this year’s online searches for Bible verses