We try to be free and try to be more free over time.
I drove up to the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Kerhonkson, NY on an overcast spring day. Tucked away on a mountainous, long, quiet road, I made a wrong turn and texted Father Ivan. "It's the building with the crosses on the top," he replied. I had already experienced his wry humor during our first telephone conversation. And there he was waiting for me in the parking lot in the cool drizzle, a one-person rescue party.
The church is an architectural masterpiece set in a wooded enclave that must feel both safe and welcoming to its parishioners, about one hundred in all, more on holidays when relatives and friends attend services. When the war in Ukraine started, the community mobilized. Many still have family in Ukraine, or family and friends escaping Ukraine, or family and friends who are fighting in the resistance. Stacked in the corner of the undercroft are cardboard boxes and donated medical supplies to be packed up and shipped to Poland. It is a continuous operation, almost military in its intensity and precision. "And after the war is over, there will be reconstruction," Fr. Ivan said as I commented on the floor-to-ceiling boxes. Parents and children work together tirelessly in the relief effort based at the church. They hope to eventually host up to fifty refugee families.
The Rev. Dr. Ivan Kaszczak is an historian and within minutes we were discussing the history of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, before, during and after Stalin, its persecution under communism, its long and proud history of resistance, and the first wave of refugees that arrived in America in the 1950's. Fr. Ivan still speaks Ukrainian to his parents. He has served the church in Kerhonkson for eleven years now; before that he was an Air Force chaplain.
"I saw how the military works," he told me. "Professional soldiers don't want to fight; they want to retire." In other words, they don't want to come home maimed or in body bags. I thought of the volunteer Ukrainian freedom fighters, the Russian soldiers—cannon fodder—our own war of independence, my family's flight from Europe. I still have days when I don't think I am meant to be an American, then I stop myself and ask, Unless we are indigenous, survivors of colonial genocide, what is an American anyway? We are either descendants of immigrants, refugees, brutal enslavement, or brutal wars. This one feels like the Thirty Years War, back to the Dark Ages or, in more recent history, the atrocity of Bosnia.
Fr. Ivan took me up to the chapel, a repository of shared memory and preserved ancestral culture. A local artist, Jacques Hnizdovsky, who died in 1985, used parishioners as models and, according to Halyna Shepko, one of the parishioners, a few were a bit uncomfortable when they saw their features rendered in the icons—the hands, a nose, the expression in the eyes—a bit of wry trivia, it made me smile. In my experience, like many persecuted peoples, Ukrainians have a highly evolved sense of humor. "Think of Billy Crystal," Fr. Ivan reminds me. One of Crystal's grandmothers was from Kyiv, the other from Odesa. As I write, the runway at that port city's airport has been destroyed. And there is more to come, alas, before Ukraine is at peace.
Donations of medical supplies are accepted at the church drop off box. Monetary donations may be sent to the Ukrainian American Youth Association PO Box 35, Napanoch NY 12458 or at the following Go Fund Me link: Donations for Ukraine The UAYA have already raised $100,000 worth of supplies.