Episcopal priest travels to Ukraine as chaplain in extension of her congregation’s support

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Sep 22, 2022
St. James' Ukraine banner

A banner on St. James’ Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, California, sparked interest from several Ukrainian expatriates in the area, resulting in a growing relationship between the congregation and the local Ukrainian community. Photo: Cindy Voorhees

[Diocese of Los Angeles] The Rev. Cindy Voorhees, who spent several weeks during the summer as a chaplain in Ukraine, brought back a message from the war-torn country’s people: “Please don’t give up on us,” they told her, “because we’re determined to win.”

And there’s more: Ukrainians “believe they will win the war against Russia to defend freedom and democracy, but they need more help and weapons,” said Voorhees, vicar of St. James Church in Newport Beach. “They want the world to understand that Russia is not just a Ukrainian problem. Russian ideology poses a global existential threat to the world.”

For Voorhees, the call to go to Ukraine and serve as a chaplain began with the simple act of hanging a banner outside the church: “Pray for Ukraine.”

The banner, in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, drew the attention of Ukrainian expatriate Lidiia Zamaraieva, 37, a Costa Mesa resident, who is actively collecting and shipping essentials for the military, and local refugees.

“The banner resonated with me, and I thought, I have to stop by and say thank you for supporting Ukraine,” she told the Diocese of Los Angeles’ Episcopal News recently. A few weeks later, she brought a cake as a “thank you” on a Sunday morning, Voorhees recalled, and St. James became a gathering spot for Zamaraieva and other local Ukrainians “who need community.”

One such gathering – a how-to-get-settled session for newly arrived refugees – drew about 40 people, Zamaraieva said. “The Ukrainian community has grown because of the war. People need so many things right now. We try to help those who’ve just arrived, with clothing, furniture, translation, insurance, food stamps, to give them rides to appointments,” she said.

The women’s friendship quickly evolved into a mission to travel together to witness firsthand the suffering of the Ukrainian people and to offer them comfort.

“So many things happened; I was waking up at 3 a.m., worrying about the innocent people being slaughtered in Ukraine,” Voorhees said. “There’ve been other wars, but this one really got to me. I felt compelled to put the banner up.”

That was in March; by August, Voorhees and Zamaraieva were en route to Ukraine, via Switzerland and Poland. In Poland, “we saw a strong presence of U.S. Air Force military planes and artillery on the ground. It was sobering to see this at a civilian airport, but at the same time very comforting to know that the U.S. was on the ground,” Voorhees said.

Along the way, opportunities to listen to and learn from people abounded, she said.

Journey of discovery, compassion to Ukraine

During a 14-hour overnight train ride from Poland to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, “I spoke to a very intelligent Ukrainian woman named Nellie. (She) was returning to Kyiv to work for a German nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Ukrainians on the ground,” Voorhees recalled.

“She definitely had a handle on the political situation between Russia and Ukraine, and the rest of Europe,” Voorhees said. “She also wanted to be heard. … She was sure Ukraine would win the war simply because it is their mindset, and they are not in the least bit psychologically feeling defeated.”

Nellie and many others Voorhees encountered felt “that America doesn’t understand the threat to democracy” posed by the Russian invasion. There was also definite worry about the winter coming and the need for heat and food, Voorhees said.

Cindy Voorhees

The Rev. Cindy Voorhees, left, met with Tetiana Tsyba, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, during her visit to the country this summer. Photo courtesy of Cindy Voorhees.

With Zamaraieva acting as interpreter, the pair visited churches including St. Michael the Archangel, where “destroyed Russian military equipment” was parked nearby. They met with journalists, officials from the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic churches, members of Parliament, local residents, a military psychologist, and Alex Luna, an opera singer who also works for a member of Parliament.

Each encounter led to another, and the visit included stops at a local restaurant-turned-soup kitchen for refugees feeding about 120 people per day, Voorhees said. There was a waiting list of about another 120, people arriving from the Mariupol region, which Russia overran in April and where reports of Russian torture of noncombatants have surfaced.

In Bucha and Irpin, neighboring cities about 15.5 miles west of Kyiv, it “was an incredibly sobering experience to see dozens and dozens of buildings just completely sheared off, demolished, and destroyed,” Voorhees said.

And yet she noticed a “local woman planting her winter garden in her bombed-out house and backyard,” Voorhees added. “We both got chills thinking about her and the challenges ahead for the entire community as the freezing cold winter was approaching. What will happen to her and these people? How will they survive?”

For Zamaraieva, the return home for the first time in three years was both bittersweet and devastating. On the one hand, “I was impossibly happy to be at home, to walk my streets, breathe my air, see my people, eat my food, speak my language,” she said.

But “your heart hurts that your people are going through this,” she added. “My family is in occupied territory … (it felt) very devastating to be at home and be unable to go to see them or to call them.”

Although the war has inflicted incredible trauma psychologically on Ukrainians, both at home and elsewhere, they remain convicted that they will win. Their message to the world is to stay the course with them; don’t forgo freedom for convenience, Zamaraieva said.

“The Ukrainian people are asking Western society to be strong and to accept the fact that maybe you have to suffer a bit through the cold winter and be more uncomfortable than before, and to pay a greater price for gas.”

Zamaraieva is collecting tourniquets, blankets, handwarmers, water filters and purifiers for both the military and civilians in Ukraine, she said. “These are small things but they’re helping people, and they don’t cost a lot, but they are crucial,” she said.

Vicky Shemer, 46, who has lived in Orange County for 15 years, has been collecting infant formula and other necessities for Ukrainians at the U.S.-Mexico border, “for those starting their lives from zero.”

“They need everything, living necessities, from clothes to kitchen equipment to strollers,” she said. She stores donated items in her Irvine garage, and maintains a social media presence, advocating not only for household items but also for jobs for refugees.

“It’s been really tough; especially for families who’ve been through the bombardments in Mariupol,” she said. “We have people with a lot of psychological damage. They just cry as they’re picking out items. I cry with them.”

Shemer said she attended a Sunday service at St. James’ after hearing about the church’s Ukrainian banner. “They played a Ukrainian anthem toward the end of the service. I broke down and cried,” she recalled. “I realized that St. James is a nonjudgmental community, where nobody cares what you wear. It’s an easygoing, home feeling. Even though I’m Greek Orthodox, what mattered was how it feels there – like a real connection.”

She added: “After the war, many Ukrainians say they’re done with God. Especially after what happened in Mariupol, my faith has been challenged like never before. But St. James is helping with that.”

Additionally, Voorhees said, Ukraine “is going to be a country in great need of support not just financially, but emotionally. My call to go as a female chaplain to women and children was just part of the call. I believe I was able to minister to a variety of people who I met along the way. This was a drop in the bucket to what Ukrainians will need now and in the future.”