Refuge in the Storm
- June 8, 2022
Claire Patty, a 2016 Moody Bible Institute graduate, is kids director with Josiah Venture, a missions organization serving 16 countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
By Jeff Smith
To the casual observer, the sight of a group of children and their mothers enjoying a trip to the Ostrava Zoological Garden in the Czech Republic was far from unusual. But the scene on this particular afternoon in March was anything but typical.
From the moment the boys and girls entered the zoo, they acted like first-time patrons to Disney World. The children ran from exhibit to exhibit, chattering and fawning over encounters with lions, zebras, monkeys, and every other animal in the park. When they spotted a petting zoo, the kids were so thrilled that they sprinted inside and hugged each of the goats.
The children’s exuberant reactions to everything they experienced made total sense when placed in context. These kids were Ukrainian refugees who had undergone unimaginable trauma and chaos for four chaotic weeks. Russian forces had begun a full-scale military invasion of their homeland that eventually prompted nearly seven million Ukrainians to flee to safety during the first three months of the war.
These children and their moms were forced to evacuate Ukraine at a moment’s notice. They left behind their homes, extended family, friends, possessions, neighborhoods, churches, schools, and even their dads, whom the Ukrainian government mandated to stay and defend the country. They had lived the last month in complete survival mode—hiding in bomb shelters, traveling by any means available, and waiting for hours and even days to cross the border.
No one knew what the short-term or long-term future held and when—or if—life would ever return to some semblance of normal.
This devastating series of circumstances explained why the zoo trip that Claire Patty ’16 helped organize elicited such unbridled happiness among the children . . . and a rush of emotions from their mothers.
“Claire said the moms were crying because they said their kids hadn’t smiled for a month until that zoo visit,” said Elizabeth Smith, one of Patty’s professors at Moody Bible Institute, who stays in touch with her. “She said it was such a privilege to give them a day where they could just be kids and families.”
Heart for missionary kids
Patty helped plan the zoo excursion for Ukrainian families as part of her role as kids director of Josiah Venture. JV is an evangelical missions organization that equips young leaders in Eastern and Central Europe to reach and train people for Jesus Christ through the local church.
Founded by Patty’s parents, Dave and Connie Patty, JV has expanded from three missionary couples in 1993 to over 300 staff working with hundreds of churches in 16 countries. JV also operates a support team in the US as well as ministry training centers in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Ukraine.
Patty joined JV in 2017 as a kids specialist and later as kids director. Growing up as the daughter of JV missionaries in Czech, she spent her childhood in a cross-cultural setting as a third culture kid—living her formative years outside of her parents’ home country. This experience provided a keen understanding and empathy for the 120-plus children of JV missionaries and their families that she serves throughout the region.
“I care for and shepherd our MKs [missionary kids] across the 16 countries that JV missionaries serve in,” Patty said. “Most of them are third culture kids. Some are from cross-cultural families. We get to come alongside them as they grow up on the mission field and walk alongside their families as they grow and train their kids spiritually.”
Adapting to the demands of war
Patty’s responsibilities as JV kids director adapted significantly when Russia’s military invaded Ukraine on February 24. Many of the 20 families on JV’s Ukraine missionary team were uprooted from their homeland shortly after the war erupted. Those that remained, as well as JV missionary teams from some of the other countries, pivoted their duties to devote time, energy, and resources to support Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn nation.
Patty and the local JV ministry team soon started assisting however they could. The team regularly supports members of their Ukraine missionary team as they care for the physical and spiritual needs of refugees inside and outside of Ukraine. They also help displaced missionaries from their JV Ukraine team who are now refugees, many of whom relocated to Czech or Poland through one of JV’s two training centers there.
“We banded together and said to our Ukraine team, ‘You’re going full throttle. Whenever you have any needs, just text us,’” Patty said. “Especially during the initial months after the invasion, when everything was in chaos, we were ready to do whatever would be helpful. Whether our teammates refugees needed medicine, supplies, or for us to just take their JV kids out for lunch, they communicated with us and we jumped in. We even coordinated babysitting for our missionaries’ families while they took care of refugees.
“The times they needed babysitting and child care were different from day to day. We were just asking God to fill that need, even on days when it wasn’t easy to find the needed help.”
‘Kids need a sense of consistency’
One of Patty’s primary goals as JV kids director during the war is to help create moments of normalcy for refugee children, both the JV missionary kids as well as any other refugees she and her team are asked to assist.
“Kids need a sense of consistency,” Patty said. “Sometimes it was someone we knew that they hadn’t met before who stepped up and offered to help when a refugee family needed babysitting or childcare. That isn’t the normalcy we hoped for, but God always provided someone to meet that need. Sometimes it meant going to the zoo with the kids, doing painting projects with them, anything to provide a place of safety for them.”
Through these interactions with Ukrainian refugees, Patty has seen firsthand the effects of war on kids.
“I do a processing game called JV Kid Jenga where they answer a question written on each block,” Patty said. “One time I was playing this game with a 6-year-old girl. I asked questions like ‘What’s your favorite toy?’ and ‘What’s a skill you wish you had?’ Without a beat she said, ‘I wish I could help Ukraine.’ She didn’t say, ‘I wish I could learn to play the violin or do a cartwheel.’
“This was one of many moments that showed me how impactful this war has been for kids. Kids are processing it in their own ways. We’ll see the continuing impact of the war on kids for years down the road.”
‘He cares for all our needs’
Patty and the JV team have also witnessed the emotional and spiritual challenges of the war on their JV Ukraine missionary team members.
“I was taking one of my JV teammates to the airport so she could fly to stay with her sister in Germany,” Patty said. “I asked her, ‘How is the Lord meeting your needs right now?’ She said, ‘I think God is OK with me not knowing how to pray or not always having time to spend quality time in my Bible.’ In this time of war and chaos, she can’t give what she normally gives to God, but she still feels safe with Him.”
While the war has weighed heavily on Ukrainians and secondarily on all of Eastern and Central Europe, it has also drawn Patty and the JV team into a closer dependence on God and a more biblical perspective on His sovereignty and character.
“It’s so hard because you believe in God’s justice and mercy and you long for it, specifically for Ukraine,” Patty said. “It’s been teaching me to pray in faith and trust that God is still full of justice and compassion. I’ve learned that it may play out in ways different than what I pray for. God sees the bigger picture and will take care of the small things that will bring about restoration.
“It’s been challenging, but I’ve seen even small things like God providing a babysitter for a family from Ukraine here that desperately needed a babysitter at the last minute. He cares for all our needs, big and small, and wants us to rest in His provision. He has definitely been providing throughout the war.”
Opening Ukrainian hearts to Jesus
One way God has been providing is by opening Ukrainians’ hearts to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Even as Russian forces relentlessly assault the country through air missile strikes, ground attacks, and bombings of civilian sites, Ukraine has become home to the fastest-growing church movement in all of Europe.
Until recently, less than three percent of the population was considered Protestant Christian. Atheistic communist rule when Ukraine was a member of the Soviet Union’s block of Marxist countries has been a factor as well as the rule-based legalism of the Orthodox Church.
But the youth of Ukraine are very receptive to God’s call, and older generations have grown more amenable as the war has developed. Besides helping plant local youth ministries, training youth leaders, and running evangelistic outreaches through English-language clubs and summer camps, JV is now working with hundreds of local churches to meet Ukrainians’ practical needs during the conflict.
Patty said JV missionaries and partner churches are converting churches into temporary refugee housing, bringing in vast tons of food and humanitarian aid at a time on buses and semi-trucks from neighboring countries, distributing gospel tracts and books of the Bible, and risking their lives to transport residents from eastern to western Ukraine and then across the border to stay in JV training centers until they can travel deep into the European Union.
During the first two months after the invasion, there were evening programs at JV training centers and hubs in Czech, Poland, Slovakia and western Ukraine, where God’s plan of salvation was explained each night.
“Before the war there was skepticism from Ukrainians on the part of the evangelical church,” said Ben Williams, the JV country leader for Ukraine. “A lot of Ukrainians know God at a distance, you could say. They go once or twice a year to a traditional church like the Orthodox Church. The evangelical church has been saying we’re not a sect, we’re a church that’s part of the body of Christ, and we love Jesus Christ.”
Patty, Williams, and the rest of the JV missionaries have noticed Ukrainians growing increasingly receptive to a relationship with Christ as the conflict has taken a heartbreaking toll on their daily lives.
“People are growing more open to Christ and churches are growing as a result because hearts are now more open during the war,” Williams said. “People are seeing how bravely and sacrificially local churches and believers are serving them and caring for their immediate needs in the middle of great danger, trauma, and chaos. They are seeing Christ’s love tangibly demonstrated through the courage and sacrifice of believers in Ukraine and around Eastern Europe. People are trusting Christ in bomb shelters and refugee centers when they come across the border. It’s been beautiful to see God’s hand working.”
An unexpected calling
As passionately as Patty loves her role as JV kids director, she never expected to serve in children’s ministry when she enrolled at Moody Bible Institute in 2012. She originally planned to major in TESOL [Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages], but God transformed her heart and vocational focus through her first Practical Christian Ministry [PCM] assignment as a freshman at Moody.
PCM is a program that plugs Moody students into weekly volunteer opportunities with established ministries around Chicago. Students gain skills for serving others in their area of study while applying what they learn from their classes.
“I wouldn’t be in children’s ministry without Moody. Moody absolutely changed the trajectory of my life,” Patty said. “It was through my PCM that God gave me a life shift. I didn’t have any kids ministry experience prior to Moody. Everything I learned about kids ministry I learned at Moody. I also learned a lot through my PCMs. God used my PCM serving children at the New Life Center in Humboldt Park to redirect my path, and I volunteered in Awana [a children’s ministry outreach program] at the Great Lakes Training Center Naval Base and then at a local church in Lincoln Park.
“I discovered how much I loved working with children and God’s incredible love for them.”
New major, new mission
Patty switched her degree to Children and Family Ministry [CFM] in 2013. She credits CFM department chair Elizabeth Smith and her other professors for preparing her for service in kids and family ministry in Europe. Patty joined the JV staff a few months after graduating from Moody in 2016.
“The foundations that Elizabeth Smith taught us of listening to kids and walking through various emotions with them and creating safe spaces for their emotions have been so helpful as we’ve worked with children from Ukraine during the war,” she said. “Even through all of this I’ve emailed Elizabeth for resources during the war.”
Smith is proud of Patty’s wise and calming influence on children and parents in the midst of massive conflict and upheaval in Ukraine.
“She’s doing great things with kids who have tremendous needs for comfort and advice,” Smith said. “In Ukraine most men are staying behind to offer care and to fight the Russian military. Women and children are fleeing. As a mom you’re under so much strain running with toddlers, elementary-age kids. What Claire and her team are doing is bringing in normal for them. The kids and moms can’t live in crisis 24-7. Claire is offering compassion done very well, including how to love well in the midst of war.”