From refugee to missionary: A tale of determination in pursuit of God’s work

Ben Greene

Pastor & writer

  • Missions


Yana Osipenko’s path into Polish ministry resembles a saga: she has wanted and willed, wandered and wondered and worked for years to attempt an incredible deed.

The Ukraine native — who lived just 53 miles from Poland — made her first step toward ministry in Poland by flying more than 4000 miles away. In 1994, she left Lviv as an eight-year-old whose parents had won a lottery to become U.S. refugees.

The Christian story simplifies a confusing identity

The Osipenkos settled in the Philadelphia area. Yana worked hard to adjust to U.S. schools and life while learning English — she arrived here before ESL classes or instant translation apps on smartphones.

“I had a very hard introduction to the education system and really grew up feeling very different,” she said.

Related: Third-culture kids face challenges, but they’re not alone.

Her identity, she said, disconnected her from most people: Ukrainians knew her as an American, but Americans knew her as Ukrainian. Around that time, as a 16-year-old, she found Christ through a youth ministry.

“I watched God redeem my story once I became a believer,” she said.

Soon after her salvation, Yana went on an international mission trip at 17. How God saw her became more apparent to her through that experience.

“I started to see how God has gifted me and equipped me with a different culture and languages that help me connect cross-culturally with people,” she said. “I loved Jesus and wanted to share the gospel with people around me.”

The saga goes from personal to familial and financial

Such faith and love didn’t mean she’d glide straight into ministry. The saga’s subsequent struggle involved personal and family matters such as seeking theological education. That choice differed from family expectations that formed when they were refugees.

During that time, her desire to study God’s word and train for Christian education stayed strong. Yana learned about a Bible institute in Hungary that cost much less than schools in the States. The school accepted her application, plus the institute hired her as a resident assistant for one year. A couple of years later, the institute asked her to go on staff as a discipler and mentor of female students.

Osipenko devoted herself to that ministry by encouraging and empowering women from 13 countries to learn to do God’s work in their home countries. Those relationships also led to, yes, Poland, where Osipenko traveled with several of the girls she was mentoring.

On those trips, believers asked her to pray for more churches and missionaries in the country. She also had unplanned interactions with several Poles who told her, again and again, they didn’t believe in God. That atheism surprised her in a country that’s officially a Catholic nation. 

A burden grows even though some say the work’s too hard and unfruitful

Poland is the size of New Mexico and has 37 million people, the population of America’s 25 largest cities. Yet only .2 percent of the Polish population knows and follows Christ. If applied to Philadelphia, she said such a percentage would mean that city only has a few hundred Christians.

“Each time I came to Poland, my heart would get more and more burdened for this country,” she said.

Still, her journey’s jolts weren’t complete. More than one missions agency told Osipenko during the last seven years that they were leaving Poland. They told her the work was too hard, unfruitful and challenging due to spiritual oppression.

“I didn’t know who to partner with or how I was going to get here,” she said. “I just wanted to be obedient, and kept waiting.”

Then, Converge’s International Ministries offered another response: join our global workers who are solely starting gospel movements among least-reached peoples. So Osipenko and Steve and Jenny Valentine, who lead the 15:5 West Initiative, began building their connection in 2020 as Osipenko took steps to join the team.

Churches unite with committed confidence

Back in America, her church, Sozo Communities, planted by Jason and Leah Heim, was getting ready too. Jason Heim led the youth group where Yana came to faith in the 1990s. He remembers that, after she trusted Christ, she made fliers and went door-to-door to invite teenagers to the youth group.

“She has an evangelistic gift, and she’s not ashamed or afraid to use it,” Jason said. “She was clearly one of those people who comes to faith and are on fire. For Yana, that fire never went out.”

Each time I came to Poland, my heart would get more and more burdened for this country.

Yana Osipenko

Jenny Bolinger saw the same eagerness for people to know Christ when she and others evaluated Osipenko during Converge’s Missionary Discovery and Assessment. Bolinger is also a member of Converge MidAtlantic’s staff.

“No matter where Yana is, whether it’s here in America or whether it is in Poland, helping refugees from Ukraine coming in or just being a good neighbor, Yana is one who boldly proclaims God’s gospel,” Bolinger said. “Yana loves people, and ultimately she wants them to know about the love of Jesus.”

The church Jason and Leah Heim co-planted in 2015 has a few dozen people who strongly believe in Yana. She is the church’s first global worker sent to the field.

Related: How Converge can help your church send global workers and join global prayer networks to reach the world’s least-reached people groups with God’s love.  

Yana now recognizes the power of one body in Christ and what God can do when people walk by faith. She has seen what God does through the people of Sozo and Converge churches.

In particular, a family of believers from Sozo stunned Osipenko. She was working full-time and raising support with her remaining hours. The family wanted to pay all her bills so she could quit her job and get to Poland sooner.

Six months later, she was fully funded. To her, that’s a testimony of how the darkness never overcomes the light, not even after long, dim chapters of life.

“As we see the darkness growing, what I also see is God’s church building and rising up for the challenge of shining the light of Jesus,” she added.

This unified partnership in obedience happened in part because Converge MidAtlantic churches came alongside Sozo Communities.

“I’m so glad that Converge MidAtlantic churches rallied so she could go,” Converge MidAtlantic regional president Brian Weber said.

The moment finally arrives

Heim said Yana’s gifting and calling for a moment like this in Poland’s history is plain to see. Two years ago, the COVID pandemic upended life and ministry. Then, last year, Russia started a war against Ukraine.

Heim recognizes as a church planter that the European country’s spiritual needs require a particular approach that he wouldn’t take in the United States. But he believes the light of Christ can shine more now with Yana there.

“It’s difficult in a country that has been turned off to the gospel for so long to go out and plant a traditional church service like we would here,” Heim said. “She’s just there at a perfect time and has perfect gifting to do much for the kingdom of God.”

That’s why God, through many toils and snares, shifted Osipenko’s saga of service from struggling to starting a bold new opportunity among a least-reached people group. She knows exactly why she’s in Poznan, Poland. Years of struggle haven’t dimmed her passion for the moment the Lord has orchestrated.

“I’m going to take every single opportunity to talk about Jesus with people,” she said. “This is what I see as my vision and my task here: being a believer in a country where there aren’t many believers and watching the light of Jesus shine through my presence here.”

Converge is asking God for a gospel movement among every least-reached people group – in our generation. Learn how we are playing a role in accomplishing the Great Commission and how you can be involved.

Ben Greene, Pastor & writer

Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.

Additional articles by Ben Greene