Why I Prayed in Kyiv When I Could Have Prayed at Home | Sojourners

Why I Prayed in Kyiv When I Could Have Prayed at Home

Three people walk amid rubble in a damaged building with a ceiling that is blackened.
Alek Temkin, Sr. Sheila Kinsey, and Rev. Mae Elise Cannon walk in the rubble of the Irpin Cultural Center near Kyiv bombed by Russian forces in March. Credit: file photo / 2022 Religious Delegation to Kyiv

I have just returned from an intensive trip to Kyiv, Ukraine, with an international, interreligious delegation for peace. We took our “hearing ear and seeing eye,” 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 has disturbed us to our very bones.

Since early March, I have been a part of a small group of religious leaders from around the world prayerfully discerning how to stop the bombing of Ukrainians by the Russian government. We have been seeking openings for the Holy Spirit to intervene for peace.

Not long after the bombing started in February, Mayor Vitali Klitschko of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, issued a call asking religious leaders to come to Kyiv: “I make an appeal to the world’s spiritual leaders to take a stand … and to proudly assume the responsibility of their religions for peace,” said Klitschko. “Come to Kyiv to show their solidarity with the Ukrainian people … Let us make Kyiv the capital of humanity, spirituality, and peace.”

That is how the Holy Spirit works. For two months Sojourners has coordinated with colleagues at Poland-based Europe: A Patient Association and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to put together a religious leaders’ delegation for peace in Ukraine that was prepared to travel 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 their suffering and their creative determination, to touch their wounds and understand how the word of life is surviving there. As a Catholic I believe in the “real presence” of Christ — so being really present in the flesh is part of my call and mission. The “real Presence” is the miracle that changes the “absolutely impossible” to a glimmer of the possible.

Kids’ bikes and roadblocks

While we prepared for the trip, we hit every administrative and logistical roadblock you can imagine. The Ukrainian churches and government were obviously busy with the war and had little time to assist us on our “prayer mission.” As organizers, we were working in four languages (Polish, Italian, English, and Ukrainian), which led to multiple miscommunications. For all our organizations, a religious delegation to Kyiv in the middle of a war was definitely an “unfunded mandate.”

Nonetheless, on May 21, I flew from my home in California to Warsaw, Poland, to meet with 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 staff with Europe: A Patient Association who worked tirelessly to make this trip possible.

Our delegation had traveled from the United Kingdom, United States, Italy, and Poland and included high-ranking clerics from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, as well as leaders from faith-based civil society organizations and members of Operazione Colomba, the nonviolent peace corps of the Pope John XXIII Community in Italy.

A day later, we began our 12-hour bus ride from Warsaw to Kyiv. As we approached the border between Poland and Ukraine, our bus drivers seemed tense. There was a lot of paperwork with all the delegates’ signatures to be processed. We saw military vehicles on the road and much less civilian traffic. Along the highway there were staging areas marked for humanitarian aid as well as hastily made bunkers topped by sandbags.

After crossing into northern Ukraine, we went through several military checkpoints. Amid the camouflaged equipment, kids were riding their bikes around the roadblocks and elders were sweeping the sidewalk and working in their kitchen gardens. We also saw those amazing fields of yellow-flowering rapeseed against the clear blue sky that inspired the Ukrainian flag. We drove swiftly to reach Kyiv before the 10 p.m. military curfew. Even as we entered the city, we had few scheduled meetings with religious leaders or government officials. Just a flurry of texts with few commitments.

After a quick supper at the hotel, most of us collapsed quickly into our beds. At midnight I bolted awake to the sound of air raid sirens, alerting of possible incoming missile strikes. The hotel’s night manager whipped out her smartphone and brought up an app that showed exactly which sirens were going off and the area of possible missile strike. We were outside the “red zone.” Many of us took advantage of the drill to locate the bomb shelter in the hotel basement. Though we were relatively safe, those sirens underscored exactly where we were — a still-active war zone in a city Russian troops had surrounded only six weeks earlier and where missile strikes still terrorize the capital.

Civilian targets

As Christians, we know that war disfigures truth, exploits the most vulnerable, and is not the answer to human conflict. And that has been true in Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Since at least 2014, Putin has been engaged in a slow-motion war of ethnic cleansing along his borders. He and his advisors promote an ideology called “Russkii Mir,” which many Orthodox theologians have defined as a contemporary Russian version of the Nazis’ “blood and soil” ideology, akin to the white supremacist Christian nationalism in the U.S. Undergirding the Russki Mir worldview is a drive for an “ethnically pure church,” a heresy in Christianity. Putin intends to annihilate Ukrainians in all their historic cultural diversity and move ethnic Rus settlers into Ukrainian territory as swiftly as possible. This is ethnic cleansing — an attack on the very heart of the Christian gospel.

Earlier this year, this slow-motion war turned swift and brutal. On Feb. 21, Putin publicly recognized two separatist regions in Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk — signaling his interest in taking those areas by military force. On Feb. 24, he launched a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine. However, within minutes of his announcement, missiles were exploding in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, and Donbas — the north, south, and east of Ukraine.

Putin has not engaged in a traditional military operation between armies but launched a wholesale 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.

Praying for peace

Our 48-hours in Kyiv and its surrounding areas were intense.

Our first public interreligious prayer service for a just peace was held 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 whether it was useful for us to come to Kyiv or was it better to organize aid from outside, he said, “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 TV tower near Babyn Yar was shelled by Russian forces; the attack killed five people.

Our public message at Babyn Yar was simple: Stop the 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 that the next prayer vigil for a just peace takes 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 word of the arrival of the delegation. Invitations to meet with us began pouring in.

The next day we prayed in the plaza of St. Sophia’s Cathedral, an 11th century monument to Holy Wisdom and the heart of Orthodoxy in Europe, where it is said St. Vladimir, patron saint of Ukraine, was baptized and led mass baptisms in the Dnieper river. In the presence of the cathedral staff and a variety of visitors, we again prayed publicly for a just peace in Ukraine. Over the golden domes of this heart of Eastern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Szychowski sang from Psalm 71: “In you, Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me; turn your ear to me and save me.” And the imams prayed aloud from the Holy Quran, Surah 49:1-10, calling believers to fight injustice and to make a just peace when believers fight one another.

A ministry of presence

Repeatedly Ukrainians expressed surprise that our delegation had come in person to Kyiv. On our final 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 that she developed quickly in response to the war. Sitting across the table from her, she reached and grabbed my hand. “I can’t believe you are here,” she said. “You are actually here. You came in person.”

Ukraine, of course, is not the only war going on in the world — and there is always a challenge to not let racism influence our ability to respond to suffering, as Imam Ibrahim Mogra, a member of our delegation from the United Kingdom, reminded us. Yet, the people of Ukraine need to know that the world is supporting them and caring for them.

Markovitz told us that the world is forgetting about Ukraine, something she meant quite literally. After 100 days of war, international donations have dropped off: Markovitz said that Kyiv used to receive 10 cargo trucks of food aid each week; now it’s down to two. “What do we do at the end of 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 scripture not to “stand idly by when the blood of your neighbor 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 not possible to be in person, then we show our solidarity with the suffering by sending practical humanitarian aid. And when it is not possible to do either of these, then we pray in our hearts for the end of injustice and the reestablishment of shalom, a 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 ongoing interreligious delegations to his city. He’d 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 people of faith, we practice the miracle. Please remember Ukraine.