'Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself. Right now, these are our neighbors. They're literally showing up in our backyard.'
Phil Metzger was devastated by what he saw in Ukraine after Russia launched an all-out invasion of the nation by land, air and sea. He'd been on the ground in Ukraine, helping deliver medicine and evacuate families from danger, and when he had to fly home to California, the evangelical pastor knew he wanted the church he leads in suburban San Diego to do whatever it could to help those in need. Little did he know, they would soon have the opportunity presented to themselves right at home. The Calvary San Diego church is in Chula Vista, California, about 8 miles north of the US-Mexico border through which a growing number of Ukrainians were crossing to seek refuge in the United States.
"Who would ever imagine that a pipeline into America (for Ukrainians) would open through Mexico? That just caught us all completely off guard," Metzger told CNN. "Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself. Right now, these are our neighbors. They're literally showing up in our backyard." According to Metzger, over the past six weeks, thousands of Ukrainians crossing the border from Tijuana have spent at least a night inside the church while hundreds more have been welcomed into the homes of church members.
About 100 people connected to Calvary—extended families of congregation members—opened up their homes to give the Ukrainian refugees a warm and comfortable place to stay for a night or two. Many even volunteered to make airport runs, dropping off families who were continuing their journeys to meet up with their relatives across the US. "It's been life-changing," Metzger said of what happened when Ukrainians began sleeping in his church, attending services and thereby, changing his church's perspective on the world. "There are so many things happening in the world, and we can't be aware of everything. But this is an area that God gave us open doors to see."
Ana Casillas, one of those who opened up her home to Ukrainians fleeing from the war, still finds it heartbreaking to think about one of the first families who came to stay with her. There was a 2-year-old child—the same age as Casillas' daughter—who was "just crying and crying," she said. Casillas, a biochemist, later learned that they'd left his mom behind in Ukraine because she didn't have a passport and had no way to travel. Another family told her their parents were trapped in Russian-occupied territory, scared for their lives but unable to flee.
Although Nick Roach—a retired NFL linebacker, who played for the Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders—didn't know what to expect when his family of eight signed up to welcome Ukrainian families into their home, he knew many of the refugees would be in shock, upset and depressed. "Just when they arrived here, their hometowns and villages were getting destroyed," he said. Luckily, he found that he could communicate with them using Google Translate to figure out what they need and how his family could help.
Phil Metzger flew home to California from Ukraine soon after the war broke out, devastated by what he saw. https://t.co/7RE4ZBEj2f— KRDO NewsChannel 13 (@KRDONC13) April 23, 2022
Meanwhile, unlike adults who had both interpreters and technology on hand to connect with the Ukrainians, the younger ones didn't need any translation help. "The kids all played together," said Anna-Marie Roach, who has hosted about a dozen families in her home. "Toys and running around are a common language." Yet, it has been difficult for the parents to explain to their children why the Ukrainians are fleeing in the first place. "I explained to him there's a bad guy that's destroying people's homes, so they need to find a new home. So they're going to stay with us for a day or two until they can go to their new home," Casillas said of how she explained the crisis to her 5-year-old son. The boy responded with a question Casillas struggles to answer: "He's so mean. Why is he destroying people's houses?"
"Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself. Right now, these are our neighbors," Metzger says. "They're literally showing up in our backyard" https://t.co/hPqWhfSYLF #parishministry #ukrainewar #refugees #hospitality #generosity— Kendall Harmon (@KendallHarmon6) April 23, 2022
The congregation considers it "a great privilege" to be able to host the Ukrainians in their homes, Metzger said. "We're benefiting from amazing human beings that are coming into our country that we get to connect to." Merridith Choa agrees as she believes it's been a gift for her children to learn the importance of sharing what they have, and "the treasure that people are, even in the midst of horrible circumstances." She vividly recalls a day they took a Ukrainian family to see the ocean for the first time after finding the mom weeping and "just broken."
"I think it was exactly what the mom needed. She laughed and smiled. It just was a really amazing reprieve for a little while from their reality," Cho said. The Ukrainian mom returned the favor that night by teaching Cho and her daughters how to make pierogis. "My life has been so enriched and I'm so grateful," Cho said. "I don't know that I've ever had a chance to see someone's first time at the ocean before, and their reaction, and that will stick with me. And to have that shared cooking experience with our new friends and also my daughters, it just was such a treasure."