As the conflict in Ukraine intensified on the fourth day of Russia’s attack, a group of Ukrainians gathered in a sanctuary and prayed.
Outside the brick-walled and white-steepled building, the rubble and carnage of war was half a world away as members of Chattanooga’s Ukraine Gospel Church pleaded with the God of the Bibles they held in their hands to bring peace to not just the country some of them once called home but also to the neighboring nation and the aggressor in the conflict.
“It does not matter to us if someone is Ukrainian or Russian; we want peace,” says Pastor Stephan Garasimchuk, 64, in Ukrainian two days later. A young man and member of his congregation translates his words into English.
“We want God to humble the Ukrainian and Russian leaders. This is very painful for us because we have brothers who are Ukrainian and brothers who are Russian. And we are all brothers in Christ.”
Garasimchuk summoned the members of the Bonny Oaks Drive church to discuss ways in which they could materially help the people in Ukraine. Media coverage of the war, including videos of people fleeing the embattled country, as well as harrowing firsthand accounts from family members and friends who live there, had made them acutely aware of the need and they wanted to help.
“They need money and basic necessities like food and blankets and other items,” Garasimchuk notes. “So, we are going to try to send shipping containers to Poland and have them taken from there to Ukraine.”
Garasimchuk is seated in the front row of the sanctuary where he delivers sermons Sunday mornings. To a casual observer, the space would likely look like many other Southern U.S. churches, with chairs placed in neat rows on gray carpet facing a platform where a grand piano flanks a podium. More chairs line the back wall, where the choir sits.
A closer look reveals a few differences. The church’s dictum – “We preach Christ crucified” – is printed in large Ukrainian letters on the front of the podium. More Ukrainian can be found on the covers of the hymnals placed on some of the chairs on the floor. The translator, Vitaly Skotsen, says the covers read “Songs of Praise.”
Within the pages of song books are traditional Ukrainian hymns as well as American hymns that have been translated into Ukrainian. The church’s congregation sings one of the latter, “How Great Thou Art,” about once a month. At 11 verses, it’s longer than the original.
“The translator got creative,” Skotsen laughs.
Garasimchuk says there are differences between Ukrainian and American worship services, but they both point to the same God. The freedom to worship this God brought him to the U.S. in 1999.
Garasimchuk was raised in southwestern Ukraine. His father and mother became Christians while serving time in a Russian gulag in Siberia in the 1950s for speaking against the communist government, he says, and later passed their faith on to him.
Garasimchuk was 42 when he and his wife and four children emigrated to the U.S. and settled in the town of Cortland, New York. While there, he began to serve as a deacon in a Ukrainian church.
He also clung to his roots. Even today, his family continues to speak Ukrainian in their home, to prepare and eat the food of their culture (Garasimchuk says he’s especially fond of his wife’s borscht) and to observe the various traditions of their people.
Even so, Garasimchuk says America is now his home. “When I first moved to the U.S., I missed Ukraine, but now I am accustomed to this country and it is mine.”
In 2008, a group of about 30 Ukrainian Christians in Chattanooga asked him to move to the city and pastor them.
Fourteen years later, as many as 250 worshippers attend the church on any given Sunday. On the evening Garasimchuk met with his congregation to discuss aid to Ukraine, the property’s spacious parking lot was nearly full.
He says this lightened his heart, even as his grief was heavy.
“We are not politicians. We do not dig deep into politics. But we are saddened to see two nations and two people who are like brothers enter into a conflict where blood is being spilled.
“We have families here that have relatives in both Ukraine and Russia. We are very sad that such a conflict is happening and we are praying for peace.”