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Romanian hotel houses one-stop shop for ministry (UM News)

September 29, 2022

Editor’s Note: In late May, a team from United Methodist News, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries visited church refugee ministries in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and western Ukraine to share stories of the United Methodist presence in the wake of such tragedy and ongoing need. UM News has agreed to use first names only for some of those interviewed to protect their safety.

The Hotel Hanul Fullton, a hotel and ministry center run by The United Methodist Church in Romania, hosts numerous programs to help Ukrainian refugees, as well as the rest of the community. The hotel is not only an answered prayer for refugees but also for the church.

The Rev. Rares Calugar, superintendent of the church in Romania and overseer of the hotel, said they began praying for a place to house the ministry 10 years ago.

“We have been in a garage, and then we started to pray for such a place,” he said.

The hotel became available during the economic downturn due to the pandemic, and the church bought it in June 2021. The second floor is still rented out to hotel guests for income to support the ministries, but the rest of the rooms house various non-governmental organization (NGO) partners and shelter Ukrainian refugees.

The church’s NGO is called Asociatia Phoneo, and there are six other organizations at the hotel that offer programs like leadership development for teens, housing for young women who have aged out of orphanages, and oncology treatment for women. Calugar said the vision is to gather more NGOs and social projects into one place, “to be support for each other in what we are doing.”

Anca Beu, Asociatia Phoneo’s project manager, sold her manufacturing business to work with the ministry. She said they had big dreams but couldn’t have anticipated what would become the main area of focus: helping Ukrainians fleeing the war.

“This issue with refugees and with Ukraine was unexpected, but from God, it was expected. It changed our lives,” Beu said.

A day after the Russian invasion, the church organized the first transport of humanitarian aid to Ukraine: blankets, water and winter clothes. They’ve been sending food, medicine and supplies every week since, which they coordinate through the Revs. Oleg and Yulia Starodubets of The United Methodist Church in Ukraine. In early March, an initial $10,000 solidarity grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief helped to provide housing and food assistance for around 250 Ukrainian refugees.

The Rev. Samuel Goia, who delivered the first shipment, said he and Yulia Starodubets had communicated through Facebook but had never met, “and it was like just some connection that God did. It was a lot of emotions and we prayed together.”

Beu said it’s helpful to contract with local Ukrainians rather than the government. “They know the needs, they know the rules and they know how to find the solution the right way.”

When Ukrainians began to arrive, many were heading on to Western Europe, so Calugar said they gave the refugees a place to stay for a few days. “Some came very confused, didn’t know where to go,” he said.

Some who initially planned to move on wound up staying because of the community the church formed around them. In addition to shelter, the church offers facilities for business meetings and hosts a weekly dinner so Ukrainians have a chance to see and speak with fellow countrymen. Some also have started attending worship services.

“We are now as many Ukrainians as Romanians at this point, and it’s been cool to have multicultural church services,” said Leah Harper, a missionary who serves at the hotel. Though she’s not appointed through the denomination, she’s supported by her home church, Reynoldsburg United Methodist near Columbus, Ohio.

“I come back to the resilience of the people who come here,” Harper said. “They’re joyful and I don’t know how they can be — that’s a testimony to them and the Lord and his goodness.”

For those who are staying for longer periods, or perhaps permanently, Calugar works to find housing and jobs.

Sergei, a refugee from Kharkiv, got his job washing cars at an auto repair shop through Calugar, almost by accident. Calugar said he came for a car wash, only to be told he’d need to do it himself because the owner couldn’t find workers.

“We have different languages and it’s hard to understand each other, but we try,” said Sergiy, 70, who is from Kharkiv and is Paulina’s father.

Calugar said that they brought this group back while transporting food to Ukraine. On the weekends, the church van picks them up and takes them to the city so they can go to the market or get haircuts. They have lunch at the hotel so they can see other Ukrainians and feel like part of the community.

Goia, who is pastor at Way of Life United Methodist Church in Micești, said that as the war drags on, he has seen “donor fatigue” and a decline in help from the community, which means the church has an increasingly important role.

“What I love about The UMC is the marriage of preaching and evangelism with social work,” he said.

Beu said the social programs at the hotel are growing so rapidly that she has recommended a separate space for the church activities, but Calugar is hesitant to separate them because he wants people to see the church in daily life.

“I have hotel guests ask, ‘How come there’s a chapel in a hotel?’ And then I can start to share with them the gospel,” he said.

To donate, please give to UMCOR’s International Disaster Response and Recovery fund, Advance #982450, or UMCOR Global Migration, Advance # 3022144.