MINNEAPOLIS — Hearing that his ailing mother was in a hospital in his homeland of Ukraine, Yuri Ivan, music director at St. Constantine Ukrainian Catholic Church in Minneapolis, realized he had to get home.
“I had to get on a plane ASAP, and the war didn’t matter at the time,” Ivan told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Ivan spent three weeks in battle-worn Ukraine, leaving the Twin Cities March 18 on a flight to Budapest, Hungary. He then traveled to the border by car and walked into Ukraine.
He stayed with his ailing mother, who is legally blind, and his sister in their third-story apartment in a town in western Ukraine that had not been hit by Russian shelling or an invasion of combat troops since the war began Feb. 24. The town is not being named because of security concerns.
In mid-April, no combat was taking place near his family’s residence, but “the notion of war” is ever present, Ivan said. “The air raid sirens wear you out. It’s psychologically hard.”
Faith helps his family, Ivan said, adding that faith is very much part of everyday life for many in Ukraine.
“People kept their faith during World War II and during the Soviet times when our church was outlawed,” he explained. “Many ended up in gulags for their faith,” including some in his family.
“Of course, with the start of the war, we put even more emphasis on praying for peace, for prisoners and for those in need,” he said. “With that said, I don’t think faith ‘kicked into a higher gear’ with the start of the war. It was always (an) important part of (our) being.”
Faith is especially important to Ukrainian refugees, he said. “There is nothing else left but faith because they lost everything.”
Ivan said his grandfather was a priest in the underground church and led liturgies when religious practice was banned. “During Soviet times, we worshipped at my grandparents’ place with windows and doors closed, and blinds down so that the neighbors couldn’t see or hear,” he said.
With her limited mobility, Ivan’s mother cannot attend Mass in person, but she livestreams it from local churches daily. Her radio is preset to a local Catholic station.
Ivan attended Mass at a local Byzantine-rite Catholic Church. It is a small but vibrant parish, which he described as “a living example” of how faith helps parishioners live during times of war and assist others.
“They run the only branch of the L’Arche community in town,” he said, “an organization that creates a community for people with mental challenges to interact and work alongside people without disability as equals.” His sister, who has Down syndrome, participates.
Ivan recalled hearing up to five air raid sirens every day. Once a second siren follows the first, “you have to listen carefully,” he said, because the second siren can mean a missile is coming and residents have about five minutes to get into a basement. Sirens go off in a wide territory until officials zero in on the locality where the missile is approaching, he said.
The first siren usually comes with a message saying “run for shelter,” he said. And when the sirens begin, churches ring their bells, too, until the warning is canceled, he said. Church bells ring because not all areas have loudspeakers, and if the bells ring long enough, “that’s the warning signal,” he said.
While walking into Ukraine, Ivan saw “swarms of refugees” leaving, but he persisted in his journey, motivated by reports of his mother’s failing health and the need to arrange a caretaker for her.
Right now, she uses a walker instead of a cane and is able to care for herself, and she gets help and support from extended family.
Despite the war, family gatherings are taking place, including those at Easter. Churches are open and full, he said, including many in the congregation wearing military attire.
Ivan’s hometown looks the same, but traffic is “overflowing” and long lines for food are common. Ivan attributed the congestion to the quadrupling of his hometown’s population because refugees are moving through, including “tons of people” who have lost everything, he said.
Residents are trying to lead normal lives, he said, but many are hosting refugees. “My cousin probably had 30 people since the start of the war, from different groups,” Ivan said.
Some people open their homes to refugees, some churches open their rectories and some refugees want to find a stable living situation, but rent has quadrupled in his hometown, Ivan said, making it difficult to find a place.
Ivan hopes that Ukrainians have the resolve to not give up, to carry on with their everyday lives and eventually prevail. “We all hope” the war will end sooner rather than later, he said. “Because the more it drags out, the more suffering it brings.”
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Umberger is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.