Local church efforts support Ukraine refugees through the holidays

War doesn’t stop with the holidays. Congregations across the UCC have stayed committed to their support of Ukrainian refugees throughout the cold weather and the Advent season.

A taste of Ukraine

Earlier this year, the Rev. Kim Mislin Cran wanted to find a video online that she could share in worship at Bethany United Church of Christ. She did not know that search would lead to a long-term connection between her Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, congregation and the Stradch Church in the Lviv region of Ukraine.

Stradch Church refugees and priests gather for a meal in the basement of the Pilgrim House retreat center. The dining room doubles as bomb shelter.

Cran found a video by Taras Sabadash — it showed how he and his grandma observed traditional Ukrainian Easter customs. When Sabadash gave the pastor permission to use the video, he also mentioned how Stradch Church was taking in war refugees. After learning more and connecting with Stradch Church leaders, Cran and Bethany UCC wanted to support this work.

“From our first connections with Stradch Church and learning about heroic things they were doing to take in people who had nowhere else to go and create a safe, healing space with them, we wanted to partner with that in whatever way we could,” Cran said.

Bethany UCC set out to send the Lviv church the $1,275 it costs each week to provide food for the refugees. The Ohio church has hosted meals, concerts, and most recently, a Taste of Ukraine benefit. Sabadash, now living as a refugee in the U.S., was able to attend and offer advice about cooking authentic Ukrainian food.

‘A conduit for the generosity of many’

“The more we got involved in this, the more we found people wanted to join us,” Cran said. Since July, Bethany UCC has sent the full amount the Lviv church needs to buy food every week, with funds raised for that purpose. The congregation plans to continue covering those food costs through Christmas and at least through the end of the year.*

Bethany United Church of Christ in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, hosted A Taste of Ukraine fund raiser on Nov. 12 with food provided by local Ukrainian merchants and church volunteers.

“A church our size should not be able to undertake this. And yet, by God’s grace, we have become a conduit for the generosity of many, and an important point of stability for war refugees we will probably never meet,” Cran said. “Each day I am humbled to be part of this sacred work. And awed by the goodness and generosity of others. May it be stronger than the powers that have put [Ukrainians] in this awful situation.”

Stradch Church runs the Pilgrim House, built as a retreat center, that now houses 62 people displaced from areas with heavy fighting. Since the war’s beginning, the church has cared for over 500 refugees, including many children and people with disabilities, according to a Stradch Church video.

Cran regularly connects with the Lviv parish priest over WhatsApp, and Stradch Church has sent video messages with songs and gratitude.

Stradch Church Fathers Koltun and Petro cook the evening meal outdoors during a period of no electricity, heat or water in the Stradch village of Ukraine.

“The needs throughout our world are great, and to focus on one place does not mean that the other needs are unimportant or of lesser value.” Cran said. “But when an opportunity presents itself, such as this did, we do our due diligence. If it looks like it’s from God, it’s worth taking the risk because incredible things can happen.

“I’m very happy that Bethany took that invitation and accepted that risk because I think it will change Bethany. I pray that it is a powerful presence for Stradch.”

Strumming for Ukraine

In New Hampshire, Bristol United Church of Christ held a ukulele concert to strum up support for humanitarian aid.

The Joyful Noise ukulele band performs at benefit concert raising money for the Common Man N.H. Relief for Ukraine Fund. Photo by Amanda Henderson.

The Bristol, N.H., church hosts the Joyful Noise, a ukulele band made up of people from the congregation and community. The band, headed by Debbie Doe, had been practicing freedom songs and thought they would work well in a fundraising concert for the The Common Man New Hampshire Relief for Ukraine Fund. Local businessman Alex Ray promised to match up to one million dollars donated to the relief effort, and Doe thought the matching funds would be a great way to extend their impact.

When Doe wrote to fundraisers about her benefit concert, she was surprised that Ray and others offered to attend, bringing posters and stories about the Ukrainian relief efforts. “It really beefed up what we were doing,” she said. The band of eight ukulele players performed several songs, a church member performed a song they had written about Ukraine, and the Bristol UCC music minister led attendees in singing “Let there be peace on earth.”

The church received over $3,400 in donations in boxes wrapped in blue and yellow paper set out for that purpose — an amount which would be matched by the New Hampshire Relief for Ukraine Fund.

“It was really a community-wide thing,” Doe said. “The benefit was way over the top from what I expected. I just thought it would be a little thing, but it was big. We were so pleased.”

The concert funds are among more than two million dollars raised by the New Hampshire relief fund. Distributed through the Rotary Clubs of Poland, these gifts have provided more than 700 tons of food, hundreds of generators, thousands of sleeping bags, trauma counseling for children and repairs in orphanages and refugee centers throughout Ukraine.

Ray and other volunteers visited Ukraine this month to deliver additional supplies and — with Ray dressed as a traditional “Father Frost” — to give Christmas presents to 1,300 children living orphanages.

‘Outpouring of love and support’

Sharing America’s Resources Abroad has been doing work in Ukraine for over 35 years. As a ministry affiliated with the Heartland Conference UCC, the Conference and other groups have raised over $110,000 for partners in Transcarpathia and Hungary. Since the outbreak of war, SARA has focused support on its connections with organizations that house children, offer humanitarian aid to refugees and send supplies into war-torn areas.  

Jean Szilagyi, SARA co-founder and president, said that the organization is working with two children’s homes that SARA has helped build or support, contributing money for food and heat as they provide care for refugees who flocked to their compounds. This includes St. Michael’s Children’s Home and The Hungarian Reformed Church Good Samaritan Children’s Home, which has the capacity for 50 girls but now houses over 100.

“We have already established relationships in these areas, so there’s been a direct capacity to provide for human need as it’s increased and provide needs amidst the uncertainties,” said the Rev. David Long-Higgins, Heartland Conference minister.

“One of the ways in which we’ve been a conduit is through inviting contributions that have come not just through Conference, but through many folks. So far we’ve received over $110,000 in that effort. It’s not been a small outpouring of love and support.”

Ukraine Emergency Appeal

The Ukraine Emergency Appeal issued in March by the United Church of Christ has raised more than $2.9 million for long-term relief. Wider Church Ministries Global H.O.P.E. has already sent several grants to the region to support humanitarian response, particularly in collaboration with the ecumenical, faith-based community.

*Update: As of Jan. 5, 2023, Bethany United Church of Christ leadership unanimously voted to continue the support and partnership with Stradch Church until there is no longer need or the church no longer has funds.

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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