This is the seventh and last of a series of interviews about the war in Ukraine, which began February 24, 2022, with the Russian invasion. Laura Swart interviewed doctors, nurses, hospital patients, security personnel, humanitarian workers, and pastors. The speakers are not identified for security reasons.
Part Seven. God, Church, Religion
God is teaching us through this time of pain. He is giving us strength to survive. I know for sure that he has prepared something good for me, for my family, for my country. But how can I get the patience to wait?
When Russia left a territory, when a territory was de-occupied, we bought bread, as much as we could—maybe 300 loaves of bread at one time in my car. We brought it to people, and they ate from our hands. They fell on their knees, started crying, and they kissed the bread. Because they hadn’t had have bread for more than a month. When I drove in those territories, I knew that Russians could come from the woods, or from any house anytime at all. I was praying over and over, God, I’m scared, but I’m not afraid of you. I continued to repeat these words, and with these words I drove everywhere. I learned how important it is to trust God. I realized that I could not do anything by myself. Only God can; God is all powerful, almighty.
Good car, good life, expensive home. It’s nothing. Only life is important. And we’re so thankful to God that we’re all alive, all saved.
Many churches are working with refugees and internally displaced people. They’ve transformed the churches into hiding places that people from the front zones, red zones, can relocate to. They stay for two or three days and think about what to do next—move to west Ukraine, or stay in east Ukraine, or move somewhere else?
Every Christmas and Easter, my mom and my sister and I would go to church and pray for people, pray to keep safe, and we listen to the Bible and listen to stories and sermons about Jesus. It’s been like this since my childhood. But this year I can’t do this because I’m in a different city from my family.
I think that God is here. You know, I think God has his own plan for everyone. And everything’s going to be like it’s supposed to be. In this war I started to rely on God. And I started to understand that God has his own plan for me.
Our church is housing refugees, sending out drivers who are evacuating 500 refugees every night.
Light always defeats the darkness.
Our rituals are anchors in our very hectic lives. For Christmas, we greet people with ritual greetings. We say, Christ is born. And then you respond, Let us glorify Him! And the very first Christmas carol, at least according to tradition, is “God Eternal.”I think if you’re on a farm on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the livestock are given extra portions, and because Christ was born in a manger, they put hay under the tablecloth and under the table and whatnot. In the Eastern church, there’s a lot more sorrow, sorrow for Good Friday—there is always horseradish, usually ground in with beets, and the horseradish is the bitter tears of Mary when Christ was crucified.
The Easter greeting is Christ is risen, and the response is He is truly risen. We do this until Pentecost, forty days later. We also eat kutia. a wheat-based pudding, because wheat is life—bread is life—it symbolizes that Christ is life. It has honey in it, and ground poppy seeds and walnuts. Sometimes people will throw in a few raisins, but that’s infrequent. And sometimes—this was never done when I was growing up—but sometimes the man of the house will take a spoon of kutia and throw it toward the ceiling, and if it sticks, it means next year’s crop will be good. Being a peasant society, you know, next year’s harvest is important.
There’s joy on Easter, and that joy lasts a long time. And Lent, it’s not about food, it’s about self-sacrifice, humbling yourself before God. You’re saying, You’re the big guy. I’m the small guy. And you know, there’s a whole lot of food, each with its tradition. There are two Easter breads, one’s paska and the sweeter one is called bobka, with eggs and butter, symbolic of Christ Himself. These breads are in your Easter basket and the priest blesses it and that’s your breakfast.
Rituals are hollow unless you understand why they are done. If you don’t understand, someone will tell you; if you’re not taught at home, you’ll probably be taught in school. It’s very important for us. But depending on the community you come from, it can become an empty ritual that doesn’t make sense. It depends on your circumstances, how far away from it you are by generation.
We pray every day for our military and for our people, especially those who live in the east and the south of our country. I hope and I believe that the war will finish as early as it can. I believe that all will be good, and Ukraine will win this war. My mother said all the time when I was a child, God will help us. We must pray and believe, and all will be good.
We believe and I believe that Ukraine will be the heart of this new Christian movement when people start to come to Christ and start to repent, and maybe it will not be the whole word, but it will be a part of the post-Soviet Union.
We woke up every day and asked God, What can I do? What else can I do for people? We wanted to be useful, but we didn’t know how. It was quite a difficult time. And at the same time I was thinking, I have very little of money. I have very few opportunities to help people because I am a small little person. I cannot help everybody. I started to pray to God, I want to do more. I want more opportunities to help people. I want to bring food to feed everybody who needs food. And in one month I got a phone call. It was Sergey, from a humanitarian organization. He said they needed a carpenter. Won’t you go for an interview? he asked. Maybe it will work. And I knew that it was a response to my prayer. And I am very happy and thankful to God that I am here and I can do this work.
I think about people who don’t know Christ, and they’ve lost their reason to live. So it is good that churches are still open in those difficult places, these difficult times. They invite people to come to church; they invite people to come to God. It’s a very hard time; it’s a very scary situation, but at the same time, we have church. A possibility to take Christ to people’s lives. And it’s actually encouraging seeing this.
I am a deacon, and I sheltered 167 people for fifteen days in the basement of our church. God told me that all would survive. The Russians went from house to house, opened the doors, and threw in grenades. They didn’t do that at our church. It was a miracle.
We heated the basement with a wood stove. We sent two men to cut trees and get wood. The Russians caught them, made them kneel with guns to their heads, but didn’t shoot them.
We learned the name of the officer who was responsible for all the atrocities in Bucha, gunning down people in the streets, war crimes, reputed to be brutal. He came to the church, came down to the basement. We were terrified. But then we saw his face change like Daniel in the lion’s den. He said a few words and left; he didn’t kill us.
Outside the church was a Russian sniper, so we didn’t go outside. But we needed water. My son, thirteen, said, Dad, I want to help. I don’t want to just sit here. I want to get the water. I didn’t want him to go, but God said, Send your son. So I did. I said, Go, run to the end of the alley and get the water. And the sniper didn’t shoot.
The grocery store was being looted down street. We needed to eat. We needed supplies. But we’re not gonna steal. God will provide. The next day, the Ukrainian army brought more food than we could eat.
After sixteen days, God said, Leave now. We all went through a narrow window. All 167 survived. I was never scared for myself, but I was for others. My home was destroyed, and I am still living at the church.
Laura Swart is a novelist, poet, and playwright. She has taught creative and critical writing to adults for over thirty years, encouraging students to find and raise their writing voices. Her humanitarian work around the world—most recently in Ethiopia and Ukraine—have shaped her thinking, her teaching, and her writing.
From Laura Swart: My profound thanks go to the men and women who shared their lives and their stories with me. Thank you also to those who translated during interviews. Finally, Borys Sydoruk, chairman of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation, spent several hours teaching me about all things Ukraine. Thank you.
If you would like to support Ukrainians who are helping Ukrainians, consider donating to Dental Hope, which provides free dental work to victims of the war throughout Ukraine.
[These interviews were further edited and arranged by ACM‘s S.L. Wisenberg.]