Ukraine: Stories of faith, hope and love amid the grief

(AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic)
A priest is overcome with emotions as he holds a memorial service for protesters killed during clashes with the police, on the brinks of Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, in this photo dated February 21, 2014.

The people of Ukraine are facing a long road back to peace and normality after the shockingly violent protests of recent months.

Alla Gedz, of Christ Church, Kiev, an Anglican church in the Diocese of Europe, and Stepan Sus of the Centre for Military Chaplaincy in Lviv, western Ukraine, are just two Christians who have been trying to make sense of the turmoil and be a presence for God.

While some churches have been keeping very neutral, Mr Sus and the Greek-Catholic centre have from the outset been supportive of the people's right to protest.

"Our church, that is the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church has always been in solidarity with the people's will for self-determination and the struggle for the respect of human rights," he says.

"Since the beginning of protests in November our priests have been in central Kiev trying to console and support those who were protesting."

He believes the protests are about freedom and "the struggle for the respect of human rights" and the person. It is also a fight against "corruption, theft and police brutality".

"Overall Ukraine is going through an overhaul of mentality – a process of shedding of the Soviet way of thinking and the realisation of who we really are, of our own European identity and of our own right to live in a free and prosperous country," he says.

The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church has been proactive during the protests.  Even when the situation became "very grave" in the past few weeks, its priests were "constantly praying, administering the sacraments of reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist, and giving moral support to everyone by simply being there and showing that God is on the side of the truth".

The Church may be very supportive of the protesters and their call for change, but its practical assistance knows no political divisions.

"Our garrison church of saint apostles Peter and Paul has become a place of collecting donations for the victims of violence in Kiev from both sides," says Mr Sus.

Priests from Ukraine's various churches have been pictured by reporters holding up crosses as they walk side by side with protesters, and leading funerals and memorial services.

Ms Gedz said she saw priests "in the middle of the war who were praying and covering eyes of those who were shot by snipers".

Mr Sus has also been moved by the generosity of the people during hard times.

"The collection exceeded our expectations, since it appears that people where donating all that they had, reminding us of a parable of the poor widow's offering in Luke 21:1-4.

"The events of February 18 to 20, with the massive amounts of victims from sniper fire and violent clashes, have forced us to reopen the money collection and the people have eagerly responded.

"Besides collecting funds, our garrison church also serves as a semi-storage facility for medicine and medical supplies, which were donated by ordinary people in great quantities.

"Now these medical supplies are being prepared by volunteers from various medical universities and medical institutions and are sent to Kiev and to local hospitals that are accepting injured people, who come back from Independence Square."

(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
In this February 6 photo, an orthodox priest prays in front of police officers in Kiev, Ukraine

The chaos has impacted daily life significantly.  For the faithful, this includes the journey to church.  Ms Gedz described how she had to pass through two police barriers near to her church and explain where she was going.

"It feels very strange," she admits.

The increased levels of security are unnerving, and there has been a fear even of those who are supposed to protect.

"We hear about death, so much nowadays, but it seems so far, unless it comes to your family," she said.

"My relative Nataliya Gedz wrote on Facebook a few days ago: 'My son has just come home and says that his girlfriend's father has been murdered today. And only yesterday we had tea together.' That man has been beaten to death by the police."

She continued: "Thursday, 20 February was the horror day, when our lives, the lives of Ukrainians didn't cost anything. And it seems that no one cares. Neither the opposition nor our president were sorry about it. Some people who were shot by snipers only arrived in the morning on that day, some weren't protesters."

The scale of the killing has horrified Ukrainians and a shadow of grief hangs over the nation.

"I can't stop crying together with mothers and relatives of those children and beloved ones who were killed," says Ms Gedz.

"The country is full of funerals. A lot of people went out in the streets to support families who have lost their children and beloved ones."

Mr Sus tells a similar story: "All of our citizens feel a lot of grief and all of the churches are full of people lighting candles, praying or just quietly standing in front of our Lord."

Remarkably, the sorrow has also been punctuated by stories of hope, of people giving what they can, and of people finding solace in faith. 

"As members of the Catholic Church we have seen a lot of conversions in people who stopped going to Church a long time ago. We have seen repentance and the newly rekindled faith," he said.

"We have also seen a lot of people volunteering their funds and their precious time so that they could help out at least with something. People have started praying a lot more.

"One of the things that have disappeared from the Ukrainian lexicon is the phrase 'I do not care'. Everyone cares and wants the change for the better. It is one of the examples of God turning evil into good, that this tragedy in Kiev can raise hope and faith in the Lord and human beings.

"Our church is calling for repentance and for living life with God. We believe that many people have heard this message and are re-evaluating their life this moment."

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