By Jenifer Jones
The northern European country of Estonia is bordered to the west by the Baltic Sea, and to the east by Russia. In the last several months, thousands of Ukrainians have either passed through on their way to other places in Europe, or temporarily settled there as they wait for the war to end.
TMS Global international partner Hindrek Taavet Taimla (pictured here) lives in Estonia, where he pastors a church and teaches at Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary and a basic school. Both the membership and normal attendance at the church are around 20 people. But on recent Sundays there have also been 8-12 Ukrainian refugees in the pews.
“The little sanctuary is packed,” Taimla notes. “Like the Bible says, the nations have come to us, to our light, and now even that little tiny countryside congregation has the chance to do missions. And everybody senses that this is what really counts, this is what’s really important: to clothe the naked and to feed the hungry and to preach the gospel to the poor.”
The seminary and school where Taimla teach are doing their best to take in and support Ukrainian students as well. About 25 percent of people living in Estonia are ethnic Russians. Taimla notes that his seminary has always been home to both Ukrainian and Russian students. “So we have a great opportunity there to unite them,” Taimla says.
There is some friction now between Ukrainians and Russians in Estonia, Taimla notes, as more Ukrainians enter the country. He says the Church in Estonia has an important role to play in building peace. “The Church, I think, really has to take on the ministry of reconciliation, like Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5,” Taimla says.
There’s also an opportunity for the Church in Estonia to put aside personal dramas, conflicts, and politics for the sake of the gospel and help people in need. “Now that lives are on the line, it’s a matter of life and death for many people,” Taimla says. “Now it’s time to get serious. I think that has hit the church as well. Until now, we had our own opinions and differences. But for now, for this reason, we can come together. And now we do come together to seek God and pray and fast and do everything we can to host the Ukrainians.”
But Taimla wishes the Church would unite before times get hard. “People just become very devout during their hard circumstances,” Taimla says. “But I would like to see Christians become desperate for God even when circumstances aren’t bad. How do you experience revival and growth and really healthy church life in fairly good circumstances? I think that has to come from some kind of inner desperation. If the situation is not desperate, then you have to become desperate.”
While Estonian Christians host refugees, the Estonian Church is encouraged by stories of how God is caring for people in Ukraine. Taimla shares a story from Mariupol, a city that’s been devastated by weeks of shelling from Russia. A group of family and friends in Mariupol took shelter together underground. For one week, the 10 people had one package of cookies, and one 17-ounce bottle of water to share between them. “Everybody would have a little bit every day,” Taimla says. “And every day there would be new water and new cookies in the package. There was supernatural multiplication of food and they survived and then they were able to evacuate.”
The arrival of more Ukrainians is spurring the body of Christ in Estonia to lay aside division and focus on what’s truly important. Taimla says the war between Russia and Ukraine is causing Estonian Christians to pray more, seek God, and come together as they work to become ministers of reconciliation.
This story was originally written in the spring of 2022. Today, most Ukrainians have moved on because there are no jobs in the area. But a few have stayed and now run a local pub with a special Ukrainian menu. This is the sixith article in a series by TMS Global introducing voices and stories in global Methodism. Jenifer Jones is a writer who serves on staff of TMS Global; Taimla is a TMS Global international partner.