I have just returned from an intensive trip to Kyiv, Ukraine, with an international interreligious delegation for peace. We have taken our “hearing ears and our seeing eyes,” as it says in Proverbs 20:12, to offer public prayers for peace and to see the impacts of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unjust war.
What we learned shook us to our bones.
Since early March, I have been part of a small group of religious leaders around the world who are prayerfully discerning how to stop the bombing of Ukrainians by the Russian government. We looked for openings for the Holy Spirit to intervene for peace.
Shortly after the bombing began in February, Mayor Vitali Klitschko of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, issued an appeal for religious leaders to come to Kyiv: “I call on the spiritual leaders of the world to take a stand…and proudly take responsibility for their religions for peace,” Klitschko said. . “Come to Kyiv to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people…Let’s make Kyiv the capital of humanity, spirituality and peace.”
That’s how the Holy Spirit works. For two months, Sojourners coordinated with colleagues from Europe, a Poland-based patient association, and Georgetown University in Washington, DC, to put together a delegation of religious leaders for peace in Ukraine that was ready to go to Kyiv and answer the mayor’s call.
I went to Ukraine to hear Jesus speak in the language of the Ukrainian people, to see his suffering and his creative determination, to touch his wounds and to understand how the word of life survives there. As a Catholic, I believe in the “real presence” of Christ – so being truly present in the flesh is part of my calling and mission. The “Real Presence” is the miracle that transforms the “absolutely impossible” into a glimmer of the possible.
Children’s bikes and roadblocks
As we prepared for the trip, we ran into every administrative and logistical hurdle you can imagine. The Ukrainian churches and government were obviously busy with the war and had little time to help us in our “prayer mission”. As organizers, we worked in four languages (Polish, Italian, English and Ukrainian), which led to many misunderstandings. For all of our organizations, a religious delegation to Kyiv in the midst of war was definitely an “unfunded mandate”.
Nevertheless, on May 21, I flew from my home in California to Warsaw, Poland, to meet the delegation of 17 people committed to taking this small risk for peace. In Warsaw, I met collaborators Mateusz Piotrowski and Alek Tempkin – two Polish collaborators from Europe: an association of patients who worked tirelessly to make this trip possible.
Our delegation came from the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy and Poland and included senior clerics from Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, as well as leaders of faith-based civil society organizations and members of Operazione Colomba, the non-violent peace corps of the Pope John XXIII Community in Italy.
A day later we started our 12 hour bus ride from Warsaw to Kyiv. As we approached the Polish-Ukrainian border, our bus drivers seemed tense. There was a lot of paperwork with all the delegate signatures to process. We saw military vehicles on the road and much less civilian traffic. Along the highway were marked staging areas for humanitarian aid as well as hastily constructed bunkers topped with sandbags.
After crossing into northern Ukraine, we passed through several military checkpoints. Amid the camouflaged gear, children cycled around roadblocks and elders swept the sidewalk and worked in their vegetable gardens. We also saw those incredible fields of rapeseed with yellow flowers against the clear blue sky that inspired the Ukrainian flag. We drove quickly to reach Kyiv before the 10 p.m. military curfew. Even when we entered the city, we had few scheduled appointments with religious leaders or government officials. Just a flurry of texts with few engagements.
After a quick supper at the hotel, most of us quickly collapsed into our beds. At midnight, I woke with a bang to the sound of air raid sirens, alerting of possible incoming missile strikes. The hotel’s night manager pulled out his smartphone and opened an app that pinpointed exactly which sirens were going off and the area of a possible missile strike. We were outside the “red zone”. Many of us took advantage of the exercise to locate the bomb shelter in the basement of the hotel. Although we were relatively safe, those sirens underscored exactly where we were – a still active war zone in a city that Russian troops had surrounded only six weeks earlier and where missile strikes still terrorize the capital.
As Christians we know that war distorts the truth, exploits the most vulnerable and is not the answer to human conflict. And that was true in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Since at least 2014, Putin has been engaged in a slow-motion war of ethnic cleansing along its borders. He and his advisers promote an ideology called “Russkii Mir”, which many Orthodox theologians have defined as a contemporary Russian version of the “blood and soil” ideology of the Nazis, similar to white supremacist Christian nationalism in the United States. is a campaign for an “ethnically pure church”, a heresy in Christianity. Putin intends to wipe out Ukrainians in all their historical cultural diversity and move ethnic Russian settlers to Ukrainian territory as quickly as possible. This is ethnic cleansing – an attack on the very heart of the Christian gospel.
Earlier this year, this slow-motion war turned fast and brutal. On February 21, Putin publicly recognized two breakaway regions in Ukraine – Donetsk and Lugansk – signaling his interest in taking these regions by military force. On February 24, he launched a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine. However, within minutes of his announcement, missiles exploded in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa and Donbass – northern, southern and eastern Ukraine.
Putin did not engage in a traditional military operation between armies but launched a massive attack on civilian life – as evidenced by the multiple documented war crimes committed by Russian forces throughout Ukraine, including the suburbs of Kyiv – especially Bucha and Irpin.
Pray for peace
Our 48 hours in Kyiv and its surroundings were intense.
Our first public interfaith prayer service for a just peace took place on May 24 at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, our Ukrainian host partner. Earlier in the spring, when we asked the director of Babyn Yar if it was useful for us to come to Kyiv or if it was better to organize help from outside, he replied: “Come. Just come and see. Babyn Yar, the first modern Holocaust museum in Eastern Europe and a center for “tragedy studies”. On March 1, 2022, during the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, a television tower near Babyn Yar was shelled by Russian forces; the attack killed five people.
Our public message in Babyn Yar was simple: stop aggression against Ukraine, stop bombing Ukrainian cities, promote human dignity for all and join in prayer for a just peace. We made a special appeal to the Russian authorities for the next prayer vigil for a just peace to take place in Moscow. Members of our delegation offered prayers in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions.
The presence of the Ukrainian press at this first prayer service soon spread the arrival of the delegation. The invitations to meet us started pouring in.
The next day we prayed in the square of Saint Sophia Cathedral, an 11th century monument dedicated to Holy Wisdom and the heart of Orthodoxy in Europe, where it is said that Saint Vladimir, patron saint of Ukraine , was baptized and conducted mass baptisms in the Dnieper River. In the presence of the cathedral staff and various visitors, we again publicly prayed for a just peace in Ukraine. Above the golden domes of this heart of Eastern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Szychowski sang from Psalm 71: “In you, Lord, have I taken refuge; never leave me ashamed. In your righteousness save me and deliver me; listen to me and save me. And the imams prayed aloud from the Holy Quran, Sura 49:1-10, calling on believers to fight injustice and make a just peace when believers fight each other.
A ministry of presence
On several occasions, the Ukrainians have expressed their surprise that our delegation has come to Kyiv in person. On our last evening in Kyiv, we were joined at dinner by Inna Markovitz, wife of the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and founder of CareForKiev.com, a humanitarian aid agency she quickly developed in response to the war. Sitting across from her, she reached out and grabbed my hand. “I can’t believe you’re here,” she said. “Actually, you are here. You came in person.
Ukraine, of course, is not the only war going on in the world – and it is always difficult not to let racism influence our ability to respond to suffering, as Imam Ibrahim Mogra reminded , a member of our UK delegation. we. Yet Ukrainians need to know that the world supports them and cares for them.
Markovitz told us that the world is forgetting Ukraine, which she literally meant. After 100 days of war, international donations plummeted: Markovitz said Kyiv received 10 truckloads of food aid every week; now there are only two. “What do we do at the end of the summer? What do we do when winter comes? Please don’t forget us,” she pleaded.
Christians have a duty to respond to injustice. We are commanded in the scriptures not to “stand idly by when your neighbor’s blood is at stake” (Leviticus 19:16). We must use every spiritual weapon at our disposal to fight injustice, “love your neighbor” (Mark 12:31) and even “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
When possible, we model these Christian practices in person. When it is not possible to be in person, we show our solidarity with the suffering by sending practical humanitarian aid. And when it is not possible to do either, then we pray in our hearts for an end to injustice and the restoration of shaloma peace rooted in justice built on truth.
On our return to Warsaw, we received an official letter of invitation from the mayor of Kyiv for the interreligious delegations taking place in his city. He would like the next group to come in a month to protect and promote Kyiv as a city of diverse cultures and religions and an example of spirituality and peace.
As believers, we practice the miracle. Don’t forget Ukraine.