CHAMPAIGN — As Russian tanks closed in on the Ukrainian capital on Tuesday, a Champaign religious leader prepared to board a plane bound for a mission trip to the region.
Destination: Moldova, a small country on the southwestern border of Ukraine where tens of thousands of Ukrainians have fled in recent days, seeking refuge.
Exactly what Reverend Tracy Larr will do once there, he is not sure. But the Champaign Church of Christ pastor felt compelled to help as much as he could, having been to Ukraine several times, welcoming Ukrainian visitors to the country and developing many close friendships.
“They’re incredibly warm and friendly and fun, and laugh a lot,” Larr said. “Several of our friends from there have come to visit us here. It’s not what you think of the stereotypical Soviet bloc person. They are very family oriented.
Larr and Dave Tomlinson, a former firefighter from Champaign who retired to Arizona, will travel together to help. Larr said Tomlinson called him and told him he was planning to go to Moldova and asked if Larr wanted to join him. Larr quickly accepted the idea.
Both Larr and Tomlinson are affiliated with the European Missions Society, one of the Ukrainian refugee aid groups.
They were to start their long journey today. The itinerary: a flight to Romania, followed by a 13-hour train ride to the Moldovan capital, Chisinau.
A more direct route was not an option since the airspace over Moldova was closed.
“We cannot enter Ukraine,” Larr said. “They won’t let people in just yet. Many of them fled with just a suitcase. That’s all they have.
Larr said he would stay 10 days, while Tomlinson would stay longer.
Larr said the tragedy in Ukraine particularly affected him and his wife because they knew some of those affected.
“There are many, many of our friends and (other) people who have fled the country,” he said.
The Ukrainian city of Odessa, where the Church of Champaign’s sister parish is located, is highly developed, he said. The areas outside, however, are more like a third world country, although Ukraine is agriculturally rich.
“Our church has a very close relationship with our sister church in Odessa,” he said.
Initially, the Larrs were part of a mission work that visited Russia but cut it off “10 or 13 years ago because Ukraine was more aligned with Europe than Russia.”
“We went there for our first trip, toured Ukraine and became good friends with the minister and his wife who run Odessa Church of Christ,” he said.
At the church in Odessa, their missionary work consisted of encouraging members and holding workshops on marriage, as well as meeting with individuals and small groups.