UCC churches ‘stand for peace until there is peace’ in Ukraine
It’s a come-as-you-are show of solidarity. From Brookings, S.D., to Waitsfield, Vt., and other locales around the country, people of the United Church of Christ are holding prayer vigils for the people of Ukraine. Ecumenical vigils, interfaith vigils, vigils open to neighbors and others you meet on the street.
In the small town in Vermont, the vigils started with a member of Waitsfield UCC.
“Seeing the plight of the folks in Ukraine is so heart wrenching,” said Jessica Fox. “I’ve donated money to a few fundraisers to support the humanitarian efforts there. I just wanted to do more to show my support for folks suffering such brutality. At the end of the day, ‘But for the grace of God go I.’”
Fox approached her pastor, the Rev. Mark Wilson. Waitsfield UCC hosts the hourlong vigils on Saturdays at 4 p.m. They’ve quickly become a community effort for the folks of the Mad River Valley, made up of a half dozen towns, each with less than 1,500 people.
Saplings as symbols
“For me, standing in solidarity with people in Ukraine is really important to let people know I care about the horrible invasion of their country,” said Pat Folsom, another Waitsfield UCC organizer. “I’m glad that other people in the community feel the same way.”
Folsom said during the weekly vigils, which began on March 5, you’ll find the group standing outside the church on the sidewalk. “In this town, a ski town, people are just coming off the slopes at that time of day,” she said. “We have had 10 to 15 people join us, with some new people every time.”
They are a colorful group, flying a Ukrainian flag and carrying decorated sapling staffs that symbolize the lasting resolve, strength and resilience of the Ukrainian people. A local woman, Susan Hoyt, made a staff for a rally in the capitol city of Montpelier on March 13. When her neighbors saw how beautiful and striking it was, they got a March 19 workshop together.
“Susan agreed to facilitate, gave us a shopping list,” Folsom said. “Several of us scoured stores in Central Vermont to buy blue, yellow and white flowers, ribbon and florist tape. My sister and I cut 15 sturdy saplings, 5 to 6 feet tall. Mark gave permission for us to use the church and we invited folks to join us. We gathered on Saturday afternoon and within one-and-a-half hours had decorated 10 saplings.”
Participants say the Waitsfield vigils are garnering attention. “We get lots of positive feedback in waves, peace signs, tooting of horns,” Folsom said. And Fox said others offered to give them something: “We had a gentleman approach us to ask if we were taking donations, if we needed coffee or water — and he profusely thanked us for our time and effort.”
“I am always open to helping folks in the church pursue their callings, as the Spirit moves them, especially in the pursuit of peace and justice,” Wilson said. “I also appreciate the very public nature of this witness.
“At a recent vigil, a car pulled over, and a woman got out and took a photo. She was in tears. She has a friend in Ukraine, and she wanted her friend to see this local show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, half-way around the world.”
Braving the cold
In their college town in South Dakota, the people of Brookings UCC have been braving frigid weather as they call attention to their prayers for peace each week.
“We started three weeks ago when the temperature was about 10 degrees and the wind chill was below zero,” said the church’s pastor, Mark Johnsen. “Although I honestly wasn’t looking forward to standing out there that day, I also knew that it would cause me to more intently reflect upon the plight of the Ukrainians who have been bombed out or had to leave the their homes and who were having to endure the cold for days, and even weeks. So I was pleased with the number of ‘tough souls’ who showed up that day, as well as the two weeks since.”
Johnsen’s wife, Lisa, suggested the vigils. The church council thought it might be a way to “connect with some like-minded people … and maybe become an opportunity to build relationships with some new folks as well,” Johnsen said.
‘Had to respond’
So on Fridays at 5 p.m., since March 11, Brookings UCC members have been lining the sidewalk, holding signs and waving flags. Cole Sartell held a flag that read, “Stop Putin, Stop War.”
“I want to do something for the Ukrainian people,” he said. “So I figure standing with other community members to show my support is the bare minimum of what I can do. If we all keep banding together, to show our support, maybe that will help the Ukrainian people keep faith that they can win this with all of us standing with them.”
“As I watch what is going on in Ukraine, my heart breaks for what the people of Ukraine have to endure,” said Jim Cochrane, another member of the church. “Russian troops invaded their country and seem to be intent on causing as much destruction as possible. I wonder what they would do if someone invaded their country and caused such destruction. I feel for their president and all the people of that nation. May this end soon and peace be restored.”
“Reaching out to those in Ukraine is reaching out to real people — the families of students in my English as a Second Language classes, the friends of my son when he served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine, war refugees like those I’ve hosted in my home, and all the faces we see on TV,” said church member Mary McCaa. “As Christians, our church had to respond in some way. A peace vigil is a way for us to invite others in Brookings to stand with us in support of both those in Ukraine and the many refugees who have left, and together pray for peace.”
Neighbors join in
They’ve been joined by some of their neighbors, who have responded to the church’s invitation in the newspaper to please come.
“As someone committed to a pastoral calling to nonviolence training and action for the last 40 years, I believe we need to use every tool available to place alternatives to violence before the human community in this war-weary world,” said the Rev. Carl Kline, UCC minister and founder of the Brookings Interfaith Council. “The toolbox includes vigils for peace in Ukraine.”
“I feel so helpless in this struggle, so my only option is to pray for the people of Ukraine,” said Adele Buum. “By encouraging our community to come together in the vigil, we send forth prayers of love, support and peace.”
As Brookings UCC members Dave and Mona Dykhouse wrote, “It is our hope that this weekly vigil will give some the opportunity to stop and contemplate if only for a brief moment that we are all one world, that we are all connected and perhaps recognize the Christ in every single soul.”
Johnsen said the Brookings congregation will continue the half-hour Friday vigils until there is peace in Ukraine.
When asked how long they will continue to gather weekly outside Waitsfield UCC, Wilson said, “We will continue to stand for peace until there is peace.”
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