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On a visit to Ukraine, a musician inspired by the country’s wartime faith

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MINNEAPOLIS — Learning that his ailing mother was in a hospital in his native Ukraine, Yuri Ivan, music director of St. Constantine Ukrainian Catholic Church in Minneapolis, realized he had to go home. .

“I had to get on a plane as soon as possible, and the war didn’t matter back then,” Ivan said. The catholic spiritjournal of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Ivan spent three weeks in battle-torn Ukraine, leaving the Twin Cities on March 18 for a flight to Budapest, Hungary. He then drove to the border and walked to Ukraine.

He stayed with his ailing mother, who is legally blind, and his sister in their third-floor apartment in a town in western Ukraine that had not been hit by Russian shelling or invading troops. of combat since the beginning of the war on February 24. the town is not named for security reasons.

As of mid-April, no fighting was taking place near his family’s residence, but “the notion of war” is still there, Ivan said. “Air raid sirens wear you out. It’s psychologically difficult. »

Faith helps his family, Ivan said, adding that faith is an integral part of daily life for many Ukrainians.

“People kept their faith during World War II and in Soviet times when our church was banned,” he explained. “Many ended up in the gulags for their faith,” including some of his family members.

“Of course, with the onset of the war, we put even more emphasis on praying for peace, for prisoners and for those in need,” he said. “Having said that, I don’t think the faith ‘shifted into high gear’ with the start of the war. It has always been (an) important part of (our) being.

Faith is particularly important for Ukrainian refugees, he said. “All that’s left is faith because they’ve lost everything.”

Ivan said his grandfather was a priest in the underground church and led liturgies when religious practice was prohibited. “In Soviet times, we worshiped at my grandparents’ house with the windows and doors closed and the blinds down so the neighbors couldn’t see or hear,” he said.

With her limited mobility, Ivan’s mother cannot attend mass in person, but she broadcasts it daily live from local churches. His 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 through times of war and help others.

“They run the only branch of the L’Arche community in town,” he said, “an organization that creates community for people with mental disabilities to interact and work alongside non-disabled people on equal footing.” Her sister, who has Down syndrome, is participating.

Ivan remembers 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 enter a sub- floor. Sirens are going off over a wide area until officials focus on the locality where the missile is approaching, he said.

The first siren is usually accompanied by a message saying “run for cover”, he said. And when the sirens sound, the churches also ring their bells until the warning is cancelled, he said. Church bells ring because not all areas have speakers, and if the bells ring long enough, “that’s the warning signal,” he said.

As he walked towards Ukraine, Ivan saw ‘swarms of refugees’ leaving, but he persisted on his journey, motivated by reports of his mother’s failing health and the need to find someone. to take care of her.

Currently, she uses a walker instead of a cane and is able to care for herself, and receives help and support from her extended family.

Despite the war, family gatherings take place, including those at Easter. Churches are open and full, he said, including many congregants wearing military gear.

Ivan’s hometown looks the same, but traffic is “busy” and long lines for food are common. Ivan attributed the congestion to his hometown’s population quadrupling because refugees are on the move, including “tons of people” who have lost everything, he said.

Residents are trying to lead normal lives, he said, but many are taking in refugees. “My cousin probably had 30 people since the war started, from different groups,” Ivan said.

Some people open their homes to refugees, some churches open their parsonages and some refugees want to find a stable living situation, but rent has quadrupled in his hometown, Ivan said, making it difficult to find housing.

Ivan hopes that the Ukrainians will have the resolve not to give up, to go on with their daily lives and to win in the end. “We all hope” that the war will end as soon as possible, he said. “Because the longer it drags on, the more it hurts.”

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Umberger is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.