'We find comfort in prayer': Church leaders work 24/7 to help Ukrainians here and refugees abroad
Keeping the community's spirits up these past few weeks has been challenging for the Rev. Yaroslav Mendyuk, a Ukrainian Catholic priest whose Palatine church has been conducting nightly vigils and sending humanitarian aid to refugees fleeing war in Ukraine.
A month into the Russia-Ukraine war, which began Feb. 24, suburban Ukrainians still are scrambling to help family members, friends and countrymen escape the violence.
The conflict in their homeland has displaced more than 10 million Ukrainians, including 3.7 million people seeking refuge in neighboring countries mostly to the West, the U.N. refugee agency reports.
With help from other faith communities, Mendyuk's Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church has been sending shipments of food, clothing and medical supplies through Poland, which has been receiving the bulk of refugees from Ukraine.
"We're trying to help as much as we can," said Mendyuk, the church's associate pastor who also is the chaplain for Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and Advocate Children's Hospital in Park Ridge.
The Chicago area and suburbs are home to roughly 50,000 Ukrainians of various Christian denominations and other faiths that have pulled together during this time to support one another, he said.
"We're praying with clergy," Mendyuk said. "We're trying to support our faithful, the people of the Ukrainian community. (At) the same time, we are helping Ukraine financially and with humanitarian aid. Like tens of thousands of tons of clothing and food was sent to Ukraine during this time. And we (are) constantly collecting money to support refugees, to support the army."
For now, Chicago-area Ukrainian churches have stopped collecting and sending food and clothing because the relief agencies helping distribute them on the ground are overwhelmed with donations. Yet, monetary donations and prayers are welcomed, Mendyuk said.
Mendyuk's church held a Friday service coinciding with Pope Francis' special consecration for Ukraine and Russia during the Lenten feast of the Annunciation at the Vatican.
"Ukrainians are very prayerful people and we find comfort in prayer ... . That's how the community is dealing," Mendyuk said. "Our churches are open practically the whole day. People are welcome to come to pray.
"I was impressed because, in this time of crisis, we feel great support from our neighbors, who (are) not (of) Ukrainian heritage."
People from suburban Protestant, Jewish and Muslim communities have shown solidarity and brought in donations, he said.
Community members have been sending money through a Ukrainian credit union near the Palatine church to support refugee camps and volunteer territorial defense units protecting towns and villages in Ukraine. Mendyuk also has been sending medical supplies with the help of Lutheran General and its doctors, nurses and patients.
"I can't even express my gratitude to these people," he said.
Advocate Aurora Health has been donating critically needed items to Ukraine through Project CURE, the world's largest distributor of donated medical supplies, equipment and services.
Mendyuk has served as a support for Ukrainian patients, team members and physicians during this crisis, said the Rev. Lindsay Bona, vice president of mission and spiritual care at Lutheran General and Advocate Children's Hospital.
"He has been a point of contact for community organizations and volunteer groups that are supporting the people of Ukraine with humanitarian aid," she said. "Father Yaroslav filters the requests from these groups to hospital leadership for possible fulfillment."
Meanwhile, as fighting intensifies in the east, thousands of Ukrainians are taking shelter in western cities and villages, including Mendyuk's native city, Ivano-Frankivsk, where his brothers and their families remain, helping refugees who are passing through there.
Many suburban Ukrainians have reached out to their congressional representatives for help getting family members out.
"Our office has already helped four Ukrainian families get to safety through Poland, including a grandmother and her young grandson," said Will Baldwin, deputy chief of staff and communications director for U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg. "We're continuing to work with other families who've fled from Ukraine to Poland, as well as Romania and Moldova."
Krishnamoorthi said his 8th Congressional District includes a large Ukrainian American constituency. He anticipates congressional Democrats will be pushing for increasing the refugee caps above 125,000 to allow more Ukrainians, just as there was pressure to admit more Afghan refugees after U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Krishnamoorthi, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also has introduced legislation -- Supplying Ukraine with Provisions to Protect against Ongoing Russian Threats, or SUPPORT, Act -- for providing military support to Ukraine.
"It's meant to assess and prepare the United States to support a long-term insurgency in Ukraine, if the Russians do overrun the country," he said. "Now, nobody wants that to happen, and I hope it doesn't happen. And the Ukrainians are mounting an incredibly ferocious resistance to the Russians. But if it does happen, we need to be ready and we don't want to be caught unprepared."