Serving at the Ukrainian Border: Carl and Ronda Winderl

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When a late train pulls into the station in Przemsyl, Poland, Drs. Carl and Ronda Winderl never know quite what needs will await them on the platform. What they do know is that they will do their best to help, and the bright yellow vests they wear signal that to the refugees from Ukraine as they disembark.

Refugees may be in need of train tickets, a place to rest, or even just someone to watch their bags so they can use a restroom. They may speak any number of languages. They may be traveling with children, elderly relatives, and pets. Whatever the needs and circumstances, as missionaries with Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM), the Winderls do their best to help and to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a difficult situation.

Before Carl retired as a professor of writing and literature and Ronda as a professor of communication and theatre, both in 2017, they decided they would spend their retirement as missionaries. The two had been in charge of PLNU’s London Semester Program. As soon as they completed their last semester abroad for the university, they transitioned into serving as Nazarene global missionaries in Croatia. They enjoyed learning the language and made many friends.

After two years, the Winderls returned to the States in order for Carl to have double knee replacement surgery. When they were ready to return to the mission field, they were reassigned to Ukraine. The Winderls loved living in Kyiv and were happy to be reunited with former PLNU director of spiritual development Sylvia Cortez and her husband. Since Ukrainian and Croatian are both Slavic languages, there were some similarities that helped them learn more quickly.

After the Winderls returned home to spend Christmas with their children in December 2021, it became clear that they would not be able to reenter Ukraine in January due to the rising conflict with Russia. The plan was for them to go back to Zagreb, Croatia, until they could return to Ukraine. However, they were in Zagreb only a few days before they received the call asking them if they could go to Poland. They were needed to help oversee the volunteers there since two other missionaries were about to return to the U.S for six weeks or so.

“Carl felt strongly in his prayer time that we were meant to go,” Ronda shared. “These were our people; these were our friends.”

They were in Zagreb only a few days before they received the call asking them if they could go to Poland…“Carl felt strongly in his prayer time that we were meant to go. These were our people; these were our friends.”

Originally, the Winderls expected to spend a few weeks at the border, but their assignment has been increased to six months for now. They have quickly settled into a routine that includes both directly assisting refugees and leading NCM’s team of volunteers. As time has gone on, many of their duties have necessarily become organizational and administrative. They have been responsible for renovation projects and Ronda also does the finances for this border operation.

Przemsyl, where they are stationed, is across the border from Lviv, Ukraine. It’s is the first train stop out of Ukraine. From Przemsyl, refugees seek asylum in many countries, including Poland, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Spain, and Portugal.

“The refugees are nearly all women and children as most men have stayed behind to help defend their country,” Carl said.

Trains from Ukraine typically come into Przemsyl three times a day – one in the morning, one in the early evening, and one late at night. 

“I feel like every morning, I wake up at the Tower of Babel,” Carl joked. “There is Russian here, Polish, Ukrainian, German, sometimes Croatian.”

Each volunteer’s yellow vest says what languages the person speaks in order to make it easier for refugees to connect with someone who can communicate with them.

“People are just desperate for help,” Ronda said. “There was one family with a great-grandma who was 90, a grandma who was 65, a mom, a young mom – and they had teenagers, babies, cats, dogs, bags. One teenage girl was able to say to me in English: ‘Tesco?’ so I knew she needed to go to the refugee center. I was able to find a bus driver who wasn’t full and told him I had a family group who needed to go now. I took the teenager’s hand, and we made a little train through the station. When they were getting on the bus, the old grandma boo-hooed and just thanked me and thanked me.”

Situations like this have been a frequent occurrence. 

“Many moms cry when they reach the platform,” Carl said. “They cry because they’ve had to be strong. This is the first time they can cry. You can see the emotional relief across their faces. You look into the eyes of these women and children, and you see the trauma.”

“Many moms cry when they reach the platform. They cry because they’ve had to be strong. This is the first time they can cry.”

The Winderls have been working on setting up a haven called The Safe Space where a few women and babies will be able to go for rest and care when they need it. The Safe Space is right across from the train station and will have a bathroom, kitchen, and toys and games for children. It will always be staffed with three Ukrainian multi-lingual women who can help provide respite for those in need.

In the meantime, they also have one hotel room reserved for emergency situations. Ronda pointed out that sometimes people who are elderly or disabled aren’t able to wait in line for the hours it may take to get on a bus immediately after arriving.

Overall, housing has been one of the challenges the Winderls have faced in Poland – for themselves and their volunteers as well. Part of Ronda’s job has been to help find apartments and places for people to stay. It hasn’t been easy because there are so many NGOs, volunteers, and journalists in what is normally a small town that every apartment and air B&B has been booked. Thankfully, God provided an apartment for Ronda and Carl within walking distance of the train station on the exact day that they had run out of other options and were planning to sleep at the volunteer staging area, which is called the HUB.

The HUB is an acronym for Helpers at the Ukrainian Border. It’s where Carl and Ronda start each day very early in the morning. They set up for the day, make coffee, and greet the volunteers as they start their days.

“Then usually stuff happens that you just can’t imagine all the way until 8:30 or 9 at night!” Ronda said. Sometimes volunteers are at the station until 1 or 2 a.m. if there is a late train.

Helping people who have or are experiencing trauma can be difficult and may lead to emotional fatigue or secondary psychological trauma, Carl explained. Volunteers are often worn out after three or four hours yet the need remains. As team leaders, the Winderls are committed to helping care for the volunteers’ mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

“Part of our plan as coordinators for the HUB and the volunteers is that everyone will have to take a Sabbath – sleep in, take a long walk, do their devotions out in the mountains, or whatever they need,” Ronda explained. “Also, twice a week, we are trying to do a team dinner or outing. A friend from NCM sent us $120 of her personal money for the team to do something fun. We did dinner and a movie – and, afterwards, most people went back to the train station to help.”

Ronda and Carl’s retirement could have been spent relaxing or traveling for pleasure. But, for them, the decision to spend this next phase of life in missionary service was one that made perfect sense.

“We were missionaries in Japan for one year when our kids were young,” Ronda said. “We loved that experience—studying the language, being fully engaged—it was one of the richest experiences of our lives. We loved teaching and doing the London program and all those things. In the back of our minds, we wanted to do the missionary experience again while we still could.”

“One of the things we observed was that other people often said, ‘When I retire, then I will make a plan.’ We decided to make a plan first,” Carl added.

The Winderls spent a few years researching Croatia before they retired. They also made sure they were open to God’s leading.

“We want to have our hands open and up; we want to say what can we do, Lord? How can you use us?”

“We have always kind of lived our lives [saying] that whatever window or door God opens, we want to be available. We want to have our hands open and up; we want to say what can we do, Lord? How can you use us?” Ronda said.

Carl agreed, adding, “I used to tell the students that what you really need to do when you leave PLNU is to find something that gives you meaning and purpose. The paycheck will only get you out of bed for so long. We have tried to live our lives this way: always be open to opportunity.”

In addition to their time living and taking students abroad, the Winderls previously worked with refugees in Croatia during the Syrian refugee crisis. Helping some of the 25,000 people a week pouring over the Croatian border through the asylum process helped prepare them for their work now.

Carl acknowledged that while it is not easy, he is happy to be able to help. The Winderls have also been encouraged by seeing how many people have been helping those in need. 

Read “An Ode to Przemsyl”, a lyrical prose poem by Carl Winderl on his experience in Poland during the invasion of Ukraine.

“In the face of this incredible evil, we see so much good arising in all the people we come in contact with here,” Ronda said. “Everyone is so eager to be part of a solution and to try to do what they can, give what they can, to try to make this stop.” 

For example, when they went to Castorama, a home improvement store, to buy supplies, they asked if by chance they could receive a discount since the supplies were for the refugees. (Carl joked that Ronda’s superpower is “giving people the opportunity to say yes”). 

“Not only did they say yes, but they seemed thrilled that we had asked,” Ronda said. “It was a helpful policy, but I think it was most helpful for me to see how eager and happy the numerous employees were. They were smiling and laughing and talking about how great it was that we were there and helping.”

For those in the PLNU community who want to help, the Winderls are grateful for prayers. They offered some specific ways to pray.

“People can pray for volunteers to come who have language skills – Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, even German—who can help these desperate refugees,” Ronda said. “Those hands are most helpful to us right now. Initially we had that with two Ukrainian women from Arizona who spoke all the languages. They were our stars. Prayers are needed for the right volunteers to come who will be a joyful part of the team, for the health of the volunteers and that they are energized by the experience and know they are doing this for Jesus, and that the ones that do come that we are able to keep them resourced.”

“Prayers are needed for the right volunteers to come who will be a joyful part of the team, for the health of the volunteers and that they are energized by the experience and know they are doing this for Jesus, and that the ones that do come that we are able to keep them resourced.”

“I know this sounds very generic,” Carl added, “but pray for Ukraine; pray for the people. Pray for good. This is evil. Everybody we have talked to says this is evil rampant on the streets. Who puts a rocket on a train station crowded with thousands of people – children, evacuees trying to get out of the country, and it’s targeted for that train station? Who, when they leave a town, leaves mines all over the city and puts booby traps in the houses? People are afraid to go back to their homes. Whatever you’ve heard about atrocities is absolutely true.”

Both Winderls asked for prayers for a miracle of peace and for people not to give up on the resilient people of Ukraine. They also encouraged others to serve the Lord wherever they are in their own lives.

“People need to be hands and feet wherever they are,” Carl added. “We live in such a day and age where you don’t have to go to Ukraine to help refugees and displaced people.”

For those who would like to connect with or give to NCM, Ronda suggests visiting ncm.org and specify “for Ukrainian crisis relief.”

Christine is the editor of the Viewpoint magazine at PLNU.