March 24, 2022
For United Methodists with close ties to Ukraine, the Russian invasion of that country is an ever-present, wrenching concern, keeping them tethered to news reports and social media, and costing them sleep.
It’s also an occasion to try to help, however far they may be from the war itself.
The Rev. Lydia Istomina led her church, Francis Street First United Methodist in St. Joseph, Missouri, to host a March 13 “Stand Tall with Ukraine” community rally.
“I believe prayers are wonderful and very important, but it’s not enough,” Istomina said. “God gave us our brains and our hearts, so we have to act.”
Istomina grew up in Russia and was a pioneering female United Methodist pastor there before coming to the U.S. in 1995. But her first husband’s father was Ukrainian. Thus, the two children Istomina had with her first husband are of Ukrainian ancestry, and they were baptized in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Distraught over the invasion, Istomina worked with church members to organize the community event on behalf of Ukraine. The St. Joseph mayor came, as did clergy and congregants from other local churches. The small sanctuary was packed, with more than a few people wearing yellow and blue, the Ukrainian colors.
Francis Street First already had committed $5,000 from its endowment for United Methodist relief work related to the invasion. The event raised another $2,385.
“People responded because it’s really important,” Istomina said. “You can’t just watch the news.”
Since the invasion, the Rev. Michael Zdorow, pastor of The Gathering Place, a United Methodist Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, has not needed an alarm clock.
“I wake up every day at 2:30 a.m.,” he said. “That started right when this was happening.”
Zdorow was born and brought up in the U.S., but his late father was Ukrainian, and the pastor himself has connected with the Ukrainian community wherever he’s lived. His wife, Zenie, was raised in Crimea, and her mother remains in that previously Ukrainian, now Russian-annexed peninsula.
From 2015 to 2019, Zdorow worked for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in Russia, but he had earlier stints doing mission work and studying in the region, and he has traveled throughout Ukraine.
“All these places you’re seeing getting bombed and destroyed, I have friends and memories there,” he said.
The Rev. John Calhoun served as a Global Ministries missionary in Kyiv from 2011 to 2015, and again from 2017 to 2022, in partnership with the United Methodist Church of Ukraine. He’s currently the pastor of the English-speaking United Methodist Church of Vienna, Austria.
Calhoun said he’s particularly concerned for African students who until recently had been part of the United Methodist ministry in Kyiv. Most came to Ukraine a decade ago to study medicine in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine. But when Russia-backed separatists launched their offensive in the Donbas region in 2014, the students were driven out of the community and sought refuge in Kyiv.
“It has been heartbreaking to see these young friends displaced a second time due to the aggression of the Russian state, and now forced to flee the country,” Calhoun said by email.
Calhoun’s congregation has raised funds for a United Methodist church in Slovakia that has taken in refugees, and some of his congregation members have begun to take in refugees reaching Vienna.