"The whole reason why I did this is because I felt like the church should be the first people who step forward and welcome immigrants and refugees. We should be the first ones stepping up and doing this," said Rev. Cory Thrall, leader of Mission Bismarck, who has connected to Ukrainians settling in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Mission Bismarck is a community-based church plant that allows people to interact and impact the community positively.
"It is definitely outside the doors of a church building. It functions in coffee shops, libraries, and the Science Center. We have held Mission Bismarck out in a field where we build and launch rockets with families in the community," said Pastor Cory. "It gives a chance to unchurched or de-churched people to make a difference. They may not have a lot of resources, but they have a desire to do good."
One group of people that Mission Bismarck is reaching are Ukrainians living in the community. The job market has brought people from Ukraine to North Dakota. This year, the Bismarck area has seen 200 refugees from Ukraine under the Uniting for Ukraine program.
"North Dakota brings in workers because we have a worker shortage. Recently, because of the war with Russia, Ukraine is a very unsafe place, especially on the border. North Dakota has opened the door because of the oil fields and shortage of workers," said Thrall.
Bismarck Global Neighbors, a non-profit group, helps immigrants when they arrive. They assist with paperwork, finding housing, and jobs. The organization serves as a resource for all immigrants.
"Bismarck Global Neighbors is my main point of contact. The original idea was for Mission Bismarck to work with lots of different immigration groups, offer a meal from different countries, and invite all its global neighbors. One night, we would have a meal from the Philippines, and our Filipino immigrants would share their culture and food. The only group that responded to me were the Ukrainians," said Pastor Cory.
It started with driving lessons
Building trust with the Ukrainian community in Bismarck was the first step for Pastor Cory. He met with Natalia, a coordinator for the Ukrainians with Bismarck Global Neighbors.
"I met with Natalia at a coffee shop. She asks, 'Who are you? What do you want from me?' I told her I was a pastor trying to connect with people. I asked her about the needs of the Ukrainian people in Bismarck. She said, 'We need to learn to drive. We need cars. We need boots, beds, and bikes. We need a place to sell things. Every Ukrainian woman loves to bake and make things, and we need a place to sell these goods.' I told her we can do all those things," said Pastor Cory. "We started with driving lessons. I've got a group of eight Ukrainians, and we meet at various times for driving lessons."
Pastor Cory has other students who are taking driving lessons. There are three from different nations in Africa. "It started with the Ukrainians, and now it's moved to the African nations, too," he said. "We have volunteers from the community and Legacy UMC that also teach driving."
Thrall and the other volunteers use Google Translate on their phones for the driving lessons. "The students speak Ukrainian on their phone, which translates to English. It also works the opposite way. I speak English on my phone, and it translates in Ukraine using Google Translate," he said. Watch a news story about driving lessons.
Legacy UMC partnership
Mission Bismarck has partnered with Legacy United Methodist Church in Bismarck to collect diapers, snow boots, and winter coats. When beds were needed, a call went out, and the beds showed up. People are looking online in the community forums for reasonably priced bikes. Pastor Cory and volunteers repair the bikes and get them ready to use.
A date to hold a farmer's market at Legacy UMC, where items from the Ukrainian community will be sold, is in the works.
"Natalia has contacted the Art Department at the University of Mary. The U of M students are helping the people to make bread and create carts and displays. They're learning a little bit about graphic design and marketing," Pastor Cory said. "They will set up at Legacy UMC on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings when the church is full of people. They will be set up in a safe environment. A translator will be around as they sell things."
Living out faith
The Ukrainian refugees in Bismarck came with faith but no place to live and grow in their faith.
"One of the things that Natalia requested was a place for people to go, a faith home. We invited them to Legacy UMC and searched for a translator. Now we have translation services. People come in, get a headset, and put it on. The translator stands in the back and translates the service live. Those people with headsets can hear it in Ukrainian," shares Pastor Cory. "After the service, I always sit down with the Ukrainians, and through a translator, we talk about the service."
Pastor Cory's vision is to have ten translators during any worship service. "The equipment can take several translators at once. It is a way to ensure that we are the body of Christ as a whole. It is not OK for us to just loan church space or a building to different groups but never connect. That is not how God envisions his body. He envisions us being one family, one bride."
The hope is to build the connection and tell Jesus stories in all languages to all people. What that looks like differs for each partnership community and will change over time.
"The larger hope in that is through the partnership, we connect and meet people where they are," said Pastor Cory.