As a 17-mile-long convoy of Russian tanks rumbled towards Kyiv, and over 500,000 women and children made their way west towards Poland to escape death, leaving behind their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons to defend Ukrainian sovereignty, the people of New Jersey gathered at the steps of the St. Andrew Memorial Church to pray for their safety and the sovereign integrity of their ancestral homeland of Ukraine.
At 7 PM, as the church bells began to slowly chime, His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, Prime Hierarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and Diaspora, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the UOC of the USA, along with guest hierarchs His Grace Bishop Apostolos of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of New Jersey, Bishop Andrii Rabiy of Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and clergy emerged slowly and stood upon the steps of the tall, brightly illuminated church. The Saint Andrew Memorial Church is the first monument erected in memory of the millions of lives lost to the Soviet Russian perpetrated manmade famine known as Holodomor (murder by starvation). The church is made of light-colored stone, is narrow, and reaches high up into the heavens, resembling a candle lit in prayer, lit in memory, lit in hope. Echoing the church, the hundreds of people who had gathered at the steps of the church, braving the cold temperatures, began to slowly light candles which they held in their hands. These candles were in memory of those who had already perished in the war with Russia, but, also a reminder of the Light of Christ, and our hope in Him.
Picking up the microphone, Archbishop Daniel addressed those gathered. He began by informing the public, which included a number of government officials and dignitaries, leaders of various Faith groups, the faithful of various Orthodox parishes, and the people of New Jersey, that he was born in Ukraine and came to the United States as an exchange student. His family is in Ukraine, his parents in Buchach, and other family in Ivano-Frankivsk. He told how a short 12 days earlier he had visited his family back in Ukraine, but now the streets of Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine are destroyed and impassible. Many homes are destroyed, building demolished, innocent lives shattered.
Everyone was moved as His Eminence described his daily communications with his mother. He smiled as he recalled all the texts, and funny clipart she sends him daily. This morning he awoke expecting to read the numerous messages from her… but was surprised to see that the messages she had sent were labeled as having been deleted. He immediately got concerned; she had never deleted messages before. Was she okay? Had something happened? He phoned her, and she answered the phone from her basement, where the family had retreated for safety as the bombs fell nearby and the house shook. She told him she had written him messages of farewell, the final words of a mother to her son, but by God’s mercy they had survived, and she deleted them so as not to worry him.
Silence spread like a blanket over the entire crowd as they fought back tears, feeling the mother’s pain, her concern, and her fear. She, and millions of other innocent people were hiding, running, fleeing for their lives, and fighting for their freedom.
We are standing outside today, because of an 18-year-old soldier stands in the cold outside in Mariupol in order to protect the lives of innocent people, who are trying to rest, hiding in their basements, in underground subway stations, wherever they can find shelter.
His Eminence stated that driving home to New Jersey from Youngstown, Ohio yesterday, he and the seminarians stopped at a small gas station along the way. The clerk who was standing outside overheard them speaking amongst themselves in Ukrainian and asked them what language they were speaking. When the Archbishop told her they were Ukrainians, she stood up and told them how sorry she was for what was happening in their country. She said that today, she is also Ukrainian, and that everyone is Ukrainian, as we all stand against tyranny. His Eminence shared that Fr. Stephen Hutnick had told him that driving to this evening prayer service through Delaware, every single electronic billboard along the way displayed, “Pray for Ukraine” or “Ukraine, we are with you”. We, the Ukrainians, are so grateful to the people of the United States, of New Jersey, of our local communities for their unwavering support. This evening we offer a fervent prayer service for the people and the nation of Ukraine. While we pray for the safety of the living, we also remember those who have already lost their lives, including a 6-year-old child in Mariupol.
He asked that everyone be united with Ukraine and tell the world we cannot let such atrocities go unanswered. We must once and for all say “NO” to war.
With these words, His Eminence thanked the elected officials, the police, the Faith Community Leaders, and all those gathered, for joining together to support Ukraine, and honor the lives of the innocent people of Ukraine, and stepping down he joined Metropolitan Antony and the other hierarchs and clergy and began to pray.
The faithful filled the grounds behind their hierarchs, their candles rivaling the stars twinkling in the sky above. It seemed as if heaven had reached down and touched the earth, as the shimmering lights of the stars melded with the shimmering flames of the candles, the hopes, and the prayers of those who prayed.
“We pray for our God-loving and God-protected country the United States of America, for the Government and armed forces and for all the people; for our God-loving and God-protected ancestral homeland Ukraine and for all the people, that the Lord God help and aid them in all things and protect them from every enemy and adversary.”
The clergy prayed, while the seminarians of the Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary sang the responses. The faithful prayed, tears shining in their eyes, as they called out to God.
“Lord our God, Great and Almighty, we Your sinful children turn to You with humility in our hearts and bow our heads low before You. We beseech Your loving kindness and abundant blessings upon the nation – the people – of Ukraine during these days of great danger to their safety and well-being.”
With their heads bowed low before the Lord, the tears flowed freely, as the faithful were overcome with emotion, and as a child, pleaded with their Father to hear them and have mercy.
The service ended in silence. The only sound heard was the flapping of the flags that furled and snapped in the cold breeze.
His Eminence Metropolitan Antony stepped up to the podium and greeted everyone with the ancient Christian Greeting of “Christ is among us”. The world watches another attempt of the Russian leadership to invade Ukraine and turn her merely into a small region of Russia. A nation that attacks innocent civilians is guilty of tyranny, instigated by low self-esteem. This is a dangerous circumstance as it comes with the realization that all things of Ukrainian value are lost to them.
His Eminence continued stating that Russia first fried to intimidate the nation by surrounding the country with military installations and armored vehicles. When the intimidation failed, the Russian government chose to invade, to deliberately kill innocent civilians indiscriminately. No care was being taken to minimize civilian casualties. This is an act of terrorism against Ukraine, against Democracy and against the world.
He continued by stating the Ukraine is a geographic reality, with her own borders, which have been coveted over the centuries by neighboring countries. Ukraine is blessed with numerous and abundant natural resources, and rich black soil that yields plentiful crops. It is due to this rich soil that Ukraine is known as the “Breadbasket of Europe”.
It is no secret that under the guise of the Soviet Union, Russia wanted to claim these vast resources, but she also wanted to install a wide buffer zone between herself and Europe. In her efforts at acquiring what belonged to others for herself, Russia killed indiscriminately as human life meant nothing, it was expendable, and mass graves would soon be forgotten. What they did not realize, is that Ukraine is more than a border line, it is a nation, and her most valued resource are her people, who possess an indelible self-identity which will never be ripped from their hearts or souls. His Eminence continued by stating that it is exactly these people whom we are concerned for today. It is for their sakes that we are gathered on this cold evening on the steps of the church, to pray for their salvation and God’s protection of the Ukrainian nation, her sovereignty, and her very identity.
Metropolitan Antony expressed his joy at seeing the world finally united in the realization of Russian tyranny. From the farthest corners of the world, people are gathering, rallying, protesting, and making known their disapproval and condemnation of Russia’s act of war against an innocent, peaceful, and democratic nation. Formerly, rival nations have swung their doors wide open, accepting the thousands of refugees who are fleeing for their lives with little more than the clothes on their back. This is the Finger of the Lord, as He acts to save His people.
His Eminence thanked all the clergy, the faithful, the guests, and elected officials for joining in tonight’s prayer and standing up for freedom and for Ukraine. He thanked them for not only joining in prayer, but joining in showing the world that we will not back away from terror.
With this the Honorable Phil Murphy, Governor of the State of New Jersey, stepped up to share a few words. He said that we all pray for the people of Ukraine, but, also for the innocent people in Russia who stand with Ukraine. New Jersey boasts over 75,000 Ukrainians, and with those in residence in neighboring New York, supports the largest population of Ukrainians in the U.S.A.
He continued by stating that this unprovoked invasion of a democratic and independent nation was a choice made by a thug who play by his own rules and puts millions of lives at risk. However, this thug named Putin, never expected such solidarity, which is evidenced locally here tonight, and echoed throughout the world. Having formerly been the US Ambassador to Germany, Governor Murphy stated that he is familiar with European history and has studied the history of sovereign nations that have the right to defend their borders.
He concluded by declaring that tonight, we are all Ukrainians, and we will be Ukrainians every single night until Ukraine is once independent and knows peace. “Ukraine, New Jersey stands with you… the United States stands with you… and we will never ever waver. God bless you all.”
Next up to the podium was the Consul General of Ukraine to New York, Oleksii Holubov, who defended Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and expressed his condemnation of the Russian invasion of a freely elected, democratic nation. He encouraged everyone to continue to pray and to defend the freedom of Ukraine and the world.
Pastor George Montanari, of the Franklin Township Interfaith Council stepped up and explained that having attended services over the last few days, how moved he was by the pain and the hope in God of the people of Ukraine. His heart was torn at hearing the many horrific stories of the tragedies transpiring in Ukraine, and the many calls people had received with final goodbyes from their loved ones. Pastor George continued by stating that his heart was moved by the many prayers and songs seeking comfort in the Lord.
This incursion into Ukraine is not due to a fractured soul, but, due to a soul that is completely missing something. It is a deficiency in character that would justify such action. It is a deficiency that entices through a familial trust, promises of protection, and then turns and invades.
In vivid contrast, Ukraine shows that the true strength is in the character of the free people of Ukraine, which have inspired humanity throughout the world, even in Moscow, where people demand an end to this aggression.
Ukrainians are a defiant example to the rest of us. They made a choice between complacency and courage, between selfishness and sacrifice, and they chose to stand up against tyranny. Neutrality is not an option. Faithfulness to God demands us to take a stand. We must defend those in need. We must be strong and courageous. We pray for the protection of the Ukrainian people, that the Lord strengthen them, and that God’s embrace comforts and fortifies them. We pray that the day of victory and peace comes soon.
The final speaker represented the Muslim Community, Imam Mustafa El-Amin of Masjid Ibrahim, who stated that when God wishes to raise a people higher, He tests them. He tests them with the fruits of their labor, in order to see which of you will be steadfast, which will be patient, which will respond, and how they will respond. Throughout history, God has taken down the pharaohs of the world, who oppressed His people, the righteous and innocent, the people who wished only to live in peace and harmony. Therefore, the Muslims in the United States stand with the people of Ukraine, and he expressed his desire that one day soon we should all gather together once again to celebrate Ukraine’s freedom. May God bless Ukraine and support the just cause of that nation.
His Eminence Archbishop Daniel stepped up and explained that a short 8 years ago, Ukrainians had peacefully gathered on the Maidan of Independence in Kyiv, once and for all declaring to the pro-Russian president that they do not wish to move closer to Russia, but yearn for a European way of life. That president ordered the slaughter of those 100 men and women, which we now know as the “Heavenly Hundred”.
Just a few days ago on the 21st of this month, we marked the anniversary of their murders, and recall that as their bodies were prepared for burial a hymn was written to honor their sacrifice. His Eminence gestured to the side, pointing at the seminarians standing there, and explained that these young men remember that day, when the tragic murders occurred. They remember the sounds of the sniper fire, the images of the Independence Square massacre of those innocent boys and girls slaughtered by snipers merely for wishing to live a free and western way of life.
His Eminence stated that the seminarians will sing the deeply haunting and stirring song, “Plyve Kacha Po Tysyni” in honor of the Heavenly Hundred, and those who have died and are dying in the current war with Ukraine. Archbishop Daniel stated that this song is once again heard throughout Ukraine, as the bodies of first victims are returned to their families for burial.
The young men began to sing the soulful melody, as the deep and haunting lyrics wound their way down the steps of the church and enveloped everyone present, bringing them to tears. Even those who did not understand the Ukrainian words, were moved by the meaningful melody about a duckling and his mother.
“Oh, I will die on foreign lands, who will lay me in my grave?” the son asks his mother, to which the mother weeps in reply exclaiming her sorrow, and how he had laid upon her hear heart… as the melody fades, the duckling floats away…
As the evening service concluded, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel once again thanked everyone for joining them tonight in prayer, especially the hierarchs, clergy, local police, dignitaries, elected officials, Community Faith Leaders, faithful and guests.
Turning to the people His Eminence stated that these days we Ukrainians have a greeting, “Слава Україні!” to which the reply is “Героям слава!” He repeated the words slowly so that all those gathered could memorize them, and then yelled out loudly “Слава Україні!” and received a resounding response of “Героям слава!” Again, he called out, “Slava Ukrayini!” “Heroyam Slava!” “Glory to Ukraine!” “Glory to her heroes!”
As the final echoes stilled, the bells of the church began to toll slowly, somberly, sadly. Starting quietly the seminarians began to sing “Вічная Пам'ять!” / “Memory Eternal”. Their voices resonated between the chimes of the bells, as the people gathered joined in singing not only with their hearts but with their souls, that the Lord should give rest to all those who have lost their lives due to current and former Russian aggression among His Saints.
May the Lord safeguard Ukraine, protect her people, grant integrity to her borders, and chase all evil, danger, and trouble from her lands.
Слава Україні! Героям Слава!
Photos by Rev. Fr. Vasyl Pasakas and Subdeacon Yaroslav Bilohan
Text by Elizabeth Symonenko