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Lutheran Disaster Response

A Therapeutic Camp for Ukrainian Children in Slovakia

When the war in Ukraine started, and thousands of refugees were crossing the border, Lucia Martonová and Jana Tabačková from the Ecumenical Pastoral Service Centre and Evangelical Church of Augsburg Confession in Slovakia, and Marika Géciová from the Reformed Mission and Diakonia met at the Slovak-Ukrainian border. They decided to help the most vulnerable people affected by the war and created the project “You Are In My Heart.” They organized a children’s therapeutic camp for 16 children from Ukraine aged 8 to 14 years who lost one or both of their parents in the war. The camp took place in Zemplínska Šírava, a lake close to the border of Ukraine.


Trust in God

Camp leaders, with psychologists and interpreters, prepared introductory games for the children on the first day. On the second day, the campers went on a short trip to Michalovce, where they visited an observatory and attended a police horse demonstration. In the afternoon, the campers enjoyed their time together at the swimming pool in the hotel. Mrs. Masha Rudincová, a Slovak artist and designer, showed the children how to work with the technique of wet felting. Children, with her help, created various colorful and unique pictures.

In the evening, children listened to a Bible story about the healing of the paralyzed. “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” Jesus’s words from the story about the storm at sea were the ones the leaders tried to instill into the hearts of the children. They encouraged the children to trust these particular words of Jesus through all circumstances.

Even though there was a fog in eastern Slovakia, the group trusted in God and, without fear, set out on a trip to the Tatra Mountains. They were amazed and encouraged when the sun and perfect hiking weather welcomed them. The group explored the highest waterfall in Slovakia and visited Tricklandia, the Museum of Illusions.

The love of Jesus

The next day, the campers stayed near Chemes Wellness Hotel. They met with police dog trainers, took rides on the quad bikes with border policemen, and took a trip to the lake. The children crafted cherubs and Christmas ceramic decorations in the afternoon with Mrs. Rudincová.

During the evening program, children listened to a story of the healing of a man at the lake in Bethesda. They learned that even if everyone left them and forgot about them, the Lord Jesus is always with them.

The children went to the city of Košice on Friday. They saw the police officers and firefighters, toured the city center, visited the St. Elizabeth Cathedral and explored the Technical Museum. The evening program continued with the storytelling of Zacchaeus. Leaders emphasized that the children, although they are all unique and have their own sorrows and mistakes, are accepted by Jesus Christ and he loves them just as they are.


“You are in my heart”

On the last day of camp, the children visited Morské oko – the largest lake in the Vihorlat Mountains. They visited a small family farm where they had the opportunity to see and feed spotted fallow deer. The contact with nature was a great experience for the children. A typical swim followed the afternoon in the hotel pool. The evening program was a big farewell party with the entire camp, and included a great cake at the end. The children received little presents as a memory of the camp, like t-shirts with the program logo and a magnet with a group photo.

All the shared experiences and photos highlight that the timid little children with great sadness and pain in their eyes become CHILDREN again! Children to whom the organizers wanted to return joy and childhood to their lives, at least for a while.


“Do not fear, for I am with you”

On Sunday morning, they went to chapel at the nearby Vinian Castle. Together, they thanked God for the whole week and summarized everything they had experienced and learned.

Police chaplain Janka Tabačková sent them on their way home with these words of a blessing:

We have come here to this place to give thanks for the whole week that we were spent together, that we were able to survive it in good health, and you know that it is not easy to survive. During our week together, we learned more about what the Lord God is doing for us. We opened our arms all week and said  “Stay with us, don‘t be afraid because you are safe here. We said the Lord God is taking care of us, just as he multiplied the fish and the loaves; God will take care of you so that you will have everything you need. Trust Him.” He cares for you. The Lord God puts people in our lives who will care for us, protect us, bring us closer to Jesus. You have friends in Ukraine, and also here in Slovakia. It is good that we know each other, that we are your friends and will do everything you need. Earlier, when we released the balloons into the sky, we wrote our names on them and the names of those we cared about. We could release the balloons with our names because the Lord sacrificed himself for us. He hears and understands. We are in his heart. He died for us, and He laid down His life for everyone. And no one else in the world has done that. We also want to send you home with God’s word from Isaiah 41: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am you God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Yes, all who are incensed against you shall be ashamed and disgraced; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish. You shall seek those who contend with you, but you shall not find them; those who war against you shall be as nothing at all. For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you. Do not fear, I will help you.”

After the blessing and singing of songs, the group returned to the hotel. Then, already packed with many gifts and memories, they started their return journey home to their families, but to a country still in war, chaos, and turmoil. They all hope that they have not seen the last of each other and will be able to continue to meet.






Andrej Kuruc is the ELCA Emergency Response Coordinator for Central and Eastern Europe.

Healing Amidst Turmoil


Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.” 
Psalm 30:2 

Caring for the Caretakers

For decades, the Middle East has been a region of tumult. Civil wars, political instability, and an increased number of refugees and displaced peoples have impacted millionsIn countries like Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, the majority of the population has been affected by some kind of strife. The collective trauma of the region was a sign to the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), an ecumenical partner of the ELCA, that there was a need for help.  

Leaders in the MECC saw how the turmoil in the Middle East negatively affected the emotional wellbeing of people across the region. In 2018, the Theological and Ecumenical Department of the MECC began a Trauma Healing and Spiritual Counseling program to address the mental health issues in communities throughout multiple countries. A few months after the program began, Lutheran Disaster Response began supporting its development. 

However, healing as a community begins with individualsAs one of the participants statedWe need to be healed at a personal level. Without the [program] I would have run away from the problem.”To address personal emotional and spiritual health, the program had three main objectives: provide psychological, moral, and spiritual healing to participants, provide training to identify strategies and coping mechanisms to respond to trauma, and build a network among ministers and laypeople from different contexts to share their experiences with each otherBecause clergy are often in the position of counseling and supporting those who have experienced trauma yet have no one to turn to in dealing with their own mental health, developing techniques to manage their personal trauma was an important first step in helping entire faith communities heal. 

Addressing Trauma

Since 2018, the ongoing Trauma Healing and Spiritual Counseling program has held multiple workshops throughout the Middle East, originally targeting ordained ministers and later expanding to include laypeopleAs faith leaders, they were able to develop their mindsets to better serve their communities. When asked about the workshop, faith leader said it was new experience, as if I was in a spiritual exercise. I felt that it was important to build myself for the sake of my internal peace. I learned how to transfer the information to the others and how to make decisions without hesitation.  

Workshops last five to six days and have group sessions that include an Introduction to Stress Symptoms and Traumas, Emotional Maturity, Emotional Support, Spiritual Accompaniment, Art and Music Therapy, and Physical Activity. Later iterations included one-on-one sessions to work through personal anxieties. 

The array of sessions took varied approaches to address different aspects of trauma, how to work through them and how to build resilience. “I started to better hear what is going on inside me, to think of others, especially my children. I started to feel my ability to confront. I learned to absorb anger,” said one participant. “The sessions – the personal and group sessions – helped to empty myself and to listen well. 

During post-workshop evaluations, many participants voiced similar reactions. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive as faith leaders expressed a new understanding of the trauma they experienced and how to navigate it: “I learned not to exert too much on oneself and to elevate my self-esteem. I learned to take the initiative towards others, but with continuous self-care,” expressed another participant.

Not only does this counseling program support faith leaders that have experienced trauma, but it also gives them the skills they need to go back and assist their communitiesParticipants were invited to follow-up Training of Trainers workshops to help them engage with those who might come to them for guidanceAccording to Father Gaby Hachem, director of the Theological and Ecumenical Department, many groups are still in contact with one another and have participated in follow-up virtual programs.  

Adapting to New Challenges

With each new workshop, the program evolved. Participants expanded beyond rostered ministers to nuns and laypeople. The first workshops were in Iraq and later ones were in Syria and Egypt. Then, COVID-19 hit, and travel and in-person gatherings were out of the question. While new workshops were postponed, the team continued online follow-up with past participants. The previously planned sessions will continue once travel is viable again, says Hachem. 

In the midst of the pandemic, tragedy struck again in LebanonOn August 4th, a set of explosions in the port of Beirut damaged the city for miles and killed 190 people. It shook the city to the core. “The Trauma Healing and Spiritual Counseling team could not but think of all these people and what could be done to help them,” Hachem said after the explosion. “Many MECC contacts who know about the program are calling for the demand to help in this aspect.” 

A new program is being developed by the team, targeting youth in Beirut. The goals of these workshops are to help participants understand the disaster and accepting the resulting trauma and the impacts of losing loved ones and property. A group of psychotherapists, pastors, and nuns have already been recruited to guide and support participants. Additionally, the youth will receive training on how to accompany their peers on their healing journeys.  

“Our participation was meant by God”

As turbulence continues in the Middle East, the transformative value of the Trauma Healing and Spiritual Counseling program is clear. As one participant stated, “Before the workshop, I was nervous; I used to shout without listening. The workshop gave me a balance within myself. The emptiness and the worries inside me were removed. After the workshop I discovered that I could help [others].” 

As participants face their trauma and start to understand their emotions, they can begin a journey of resilienceThe experience allowed participants to reframe how they thought about daily problems and approach them from a different angle. I gained the audacity, courage and self-trust to speak about what we went through with our friends and people,” expressed a participantOur participation was meant by God.” With continuous self-care, faith leaders will be in a healthier mindset to continue their pastoral roles in helping their communities heal. By taking mental health seriously and building a network of support throughout the Middle East, the MECC is bringing God’s hope and renewal to communities throughout the region.