COLESVILLE, Maryland — Ukrainian Orthodox Christians gathered at a bazaar to raise money for Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn country expressed optimism that “Ukraine will prevail” and spoke of how their congregation has grown since the Russian invasion began last month.
Saint Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in the Washington, D.C. suburb held a bazaar Sunday, marking the third straight weekend that the church had held such an event.
The bazaar, attended by hundreds, featured plenty of items for sale, including clothes, jewelry, Ukrainian flags and food. The church’s priest, Father Volodymyr Steliac, has served the parish since 2001. He elaborated on the church’s efforts to rally support and the impact of the Russian invasion on his faith community in an interview with The Christian Post.
Steliac said that while he had “a little bit” of family in Ukraine, he believes that “the whole country” is his family.
Halyna Breslawec, a longtime parishioner of Saint Andrew, echoed that sentiment, proclaiming that she has a family of “45 million minus 3.5 million,” referring to the total population of Ukraine and the number of refugees that have fled the country in recent weeks.
As over 10 million have been displaced from their homes in Ukraine, Steliac indicated that the money from the bazaar is “going to support Ukrainians.”
“We are the charity. We are helping directly,” he said.
The cleric said that the church plans to shelter refugees when they come to the U.S. He emphasized the need for a “living faith with God, and that is through charities.”
“Our life is not only metaphysical. We are Christians and … we are spiritual beings. We are pursuing metaphysical relationships, but [a] metaphysical relationship with God alone is not sufficient,” he asserted, adding the congregation will “do everything we can to support refugees and support our brothers and sisters from Ukraine.”
Many people have left the Russian Orthodox Church in recent weeks and requested to join the parish community, Steliac added.
The priest believes “the future of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is so much brighter than it was up to this point” and predicted that the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church will prosper so much more than they did so far.”
In addition to forecasting growth in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the religious leader feels confident about a Ukrainian victory in the ongoing conflict with Russia.
“Of course, Ukraine will prevail," he said. "Of course, Ukraine will be a much stronger country, much better country. And the world will etch these events in their hearts. For centuries, these diabolical actions by the Russians will be condemned.”
Steliac praised the efforts of other local churches to help Saint Andrew in its efforts to raise money for Ukraine aid. He reported that “God-loving people all over” have “voluntarily supported us” by providing “monetary and tangible things.”
“Our area is bountiful with so many wonderful church communities," detailed. "I knew they are there, I know they are kind, I know they are loving, but it was so special, continues to be so special, to see a true kindness, love and generosity being offered to you voluntarily. It’s humbling.”
‘Their apartment building was destroyed’
Parishioners of Saint Andrew discussed the situations their family members in Ukraine currently face in separate interviews with CP.
Breslawec, a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, who has attended Saint Andrew for more than four decades, has a first cousin who lives in Ukraine with her family and other distant relatives.
Throughout the past several weeks, Breslawec checked on the status of her family members daily to “see if anybody has posted or reacted to any postings on Facebook or Instagram.” Her nephew lives in Donetsk, one of two regions of Ukraine that Putin recognized as independent nations in the days leading up to the Russian invasion of the Eastern European country.
“My nephew lives about a mile from the separation line in Donetsk … between where the Russian separatists and the Ukrainian forces, so he lives pretty much right on the line,” she stated. “My first cousin lives outside of Kharkiv, and my niece … lived in Kharkiv.”
Breslawec’s niece left Kharkiv as soon as Russians began bombing the city last month and sought refuge in a “village where they had relatives living.” She believes that the decision to evacuate saved their lives because “their apartment building was destroyed.”
Breslawec’s nephew has relocated from Donetsk to “move inward to a smaller village” while her first cousin and her cousin’s husband decided to stay because “it’s our home.” She remarked that her family members residing in Ukraine “can’t flee the country because they don’t have visas.”
“Obviously, if they chose to go and we could do something to help, we most certainly would, but I understand their feelings. They’d have to leave without their spouses. People are looking at the refugees and saying, ‘They’re leaving Ukraine.’ You don’t leave Ukraine unless the situation there is so horrible that you simply can’t protect your children and yourself, and that’s the way it is there.”
Like Steliac, Breslawec believes that “Ukraine will prevail” in its conflict with Russia, which has continued for several weeks. In the meantime, she has helped out at the bazaars by selling $500 worth of Ukrainian Easter eggs and helping to “load up the donations into boxes that get shipped to Ukraine” during the week.
David Zaika, a native of Buffalo, New York, who has attended Saint Andrew for nearly 40 years, has donated “pre-packaged, ready-made meals” to the events.
“My mother’s cousins are still out there,” he continued. “[As] a matter of fact, it was coincidental that I just got a letter from them. It was in my mailbox when I checked it this morning.”
Because the letter was “dated in February,” Zaika considers the information in the document obsolete. While he has not “heard from them yet,” because they do not “have cell phones,” he is still “optimistic that they’re well, they’re close enough to the Polish border to hopefully escape, or maybe they haven’t been affected yet.”
Like the others, Zaika is optimistic about the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
“Whatever basically surfaces over, we’re trying to stay optimistic for the whole endeavor and just hope for the best, supporting the troops the best that we can out there,” he said.
“Hopefully, with God’s good graces, right certainly would [win] over might and good triumphs over evil,” he added. “That’s the best that we could hope for right now.”
Yaryna Kholog is a high school sophomore attending boarding school in New York City while her parents remain in Ukraine.
She told CP, “I’m staying for my spring break with a member of [the] Ukrainian diaspora.” Kholog left open the possibility of returning home to Ukraine for her summer vacation.
Kholog’s father has stayed in their hometown, where he “helps [the] territorial defense unit with helping to organize volunteer humanitarian aid and also medical supplies.”
Kholog’s father also helped with “taking care of the bomb shelters,” some of which dated back to World War II.
Meanwhile, Kholog’s mother and younger sister are in the western Ukrainian town of Chernobyl, “giving camouflage and also sending medical help to military hospitals.” She seemed concerned about her grandparents and great-grandmother’s current location in a “hotspot” for fighting. Kholog frequently checks on the situation on the ground there to inform them in advance if they need to evacuate to a bomb shelter.
A church official confirmed that the Sunday bazaars will continue for at least the next couple of weeks, rejoicing that each of the bazaars that have taken place thus far has had robust attendance. Those hoping to donate to the relief effort for Ukrainian refugees can do so online or drop a donation in the church’s poor box. In addition to monetary contributions, Saint Andrew cites medical supplies like Band-Aids, vitamins, nonperishable food items such as canned meat as the items of greatest need.
‘Obligation to help’
Steliac said he wants Americans to know that Ukrainians are loving and peaceful people who love their freedom and their families.
“They love their culture. They love their tradition. They love Europe. They love [the] United States. They love the world. They love life,” he said. “And everything they love is now under the threat of war. And they’re dying by the thousands because of that belief.”
As Steliac explained, “In 1991, when Ukraine got its independence, Ukraine was the … third-largest nuclear country in the world.” However, the country agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a promise that the United States, Great Britain and Russia would protect them if the country came under threat from a hostile foreign power.
Ukrainians weren’t interested in fighting or invading anyone, he recalled. Referring to Russia, Steliac lamented that “one of the guarantors invaded, took Crimea, took Eastern Europe and now opened a full-on war on them.”
Steliac said the United States has an “obligation to help,” “not a choice” because of its promise in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum to defend Ukraine.
While the memorandum includes assurances of protection, it doesn't carry the same weight as a treaty agreement, is not legally binding and has no enforcement measures.
He characterized Ukrainians as more aligned with the global West than the global east, a factor he sees as a key motivation behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Eastern European country.
“He cannot bear to allow Ukraine to be part of Europe, part of [the] European Union, NATO and so forth,” Steliac added.
Describing life in Russia as “very tough,” Steliac contends that it’s difficult for Putin to tell “the Russian people that they live in this wonderful country” when they “see on social media” that Ukrainians “live better than them.”
Such a narrative would counter what Putin has told them, specifically that they were “the best country in the world.”
Breslawec praised President Joe Biden’s handling of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
“I would thank him very much for the support he’s given Ukraine,” Breslawec said. “He has, of all the past four or five presidents, he’s the one that’s really most familiar with the situation in Ukraine. He understands Ukraine’s needs. I would thank him for all the support he’s provided.”
“I would ask him for more support,” she contended. “I understand the balance that he is striking between helping Ukraine and keeping the interests of the United States first and foremost in his mind. I’m an American. I was born here. I feel very strongly about Ukraine, but I’m an American, and his job is to be an American president. It’s in the interest of America to help protect Ukraine and help defend Ukraine.”
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: email@example.com