The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in Ukraine in 1991, and since then it has been actively operating in our country. Since 2010, Kyiv has hosted the first Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Eastern Europe, serving about 31 000 members living in 9 neighboring countries. Kateryna Serdyuk, Deputy Communications Director of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ukraine, told us how the Church members got ready for emergencies, how the Church cares about its members and all those who need help, and how important it is not only to provide material assistance but also emotional and moral support.
We would like to thank you for sharing with us the details of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ activities in Ukraine! Fortunately, the database of the Religion on Fire project contains no damaged objects belonging to your religious community. But this does not mean that the life of the religious community has not changed at all since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Please tell us a little about yourself and your activities within the Church.
Thank you! I am the head of a women’s organization called the Relief Society in my Kharkivskyi parish of the Kyiv Ukrainian Stake (Kharkivskyi district of Kyiv – editor’s note). The Relief Society is the largest women’s organization in the world and is also an integral and very important part of the structure of our Church. The Society is managed by women and its activities are focused on women, as it helps women grow spiritually and emotionally, and, of course, provides material assistance and spiritual support to the members of the Church. First of all, it comes to women and their families.
How did the Relief Society operate before the war?
The COVID pandemic has made us well prepared for the new situation we are now facing. It made us ready to work in isolation, when members of the church cannot come together. We had a time when we met only online, then we were allowed to meet while keeping the distance, but even after that, meetings were still held both online and offline. This is exactly how the Church operated until the beginning of the large-scale invasion.
The Church has special programs called “Welfare” and “Self-reliance” that were developed to help members survive under any circumstances. These programs instruct participants that they need to have a supply of food, water, medicines, clothing, in particular, warm clothes and blankets, as well as fuel, flashlights, radios, etc. I mean, even before the war, the Church was actively engaged in social work among its members. These programs are useful for all parishes; they are not exclusively Ukrainian programs. For this reason, we had regular seminars, regular training, and regular lessons. For instance, we had a lesson on the 72-hour emergency kit, which explained what one should put in it, what to do if one cannot contact any member of the parish, and where one can seek help.
When the war started, it was almost impossible to buy food, bread was in limited supply, everything was in limited supply, but the Church made every effort to support its members: there was a food supply in the Meeting House. We found out about the needs of people, in particular the elderly people, low-income people, and single mothers. The Church provided assistance to all those in need, no matter whether they were members of the Church or not.
The Church provided generators and fuel, and the parish purchased 5-liter cylinders with burners. They were delivered to those who had electric stoves. Fortunately, almost no one needed them, but sisters asked us to keep them for this winter, because nobody knows what may happen with the electricity.
In other words, when other people were still thinking about whether or not to pack an emergency kit, the Church already had a program for self-reliance?
Yes, the Self-reliance program demonstrated its effectiveness: church members were well prepared for various situations. The leaders of the Church always said: “These are the last days of wars and rumors of wars”. I used to think that “rumors of wars” referred to people hearing stories about a war somewhere. However, it turns out that “rumors of wars” means the war is right next door, and the only question is whether it will start or not. This is the worst thing, this stress for everyone. And the war did start, although no one really believed it, but it did start. And the members of our church were prepared, especially those who followed the advice of the leaders.
As far as I know, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has communities in the East of Ukraine. Is that true?
Yes, it is, both in the East of Ukraine and in the occupied territories. When the war started, there was a large flow of refugees. They came from different regions of Ukraine, and at that time our Church, like all other churches, turned its Meeting Houses into shelters, where people could rest and eat. When our people moved to the West, they also stayed in the Meeting Houses of other parishes, especially in Lviv. Refugees who are not members of the Church still live in our Lviv Meeting House.
I heard that as soon as the full-scale invasion began, the missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were withdrawn from their ministry in Ukraine. Is that true?
Yes, it is true. Foreign missionaries were promptly withdrawn from Ukraine. Although, there are missionaries in Ukraine now, they are all Ukrainians, and all of them are in Uzhhorod. Experience has shown that it is possible to preach using telephones and other means of communication. There are conversions, baptisms, and work with less active members of the communities. Therefore, the missionary work goes on, and our missionaries serve not only there, but are also invited to the Baltic countries and Moldova. People keep going on the mission.
What is the situation with your parishes in the East of Ukraine?
The situation with religious freedom in the East, in the areas occupied since 2014, was very difficult even before the full-scale invasion. Our church members could not hold meetings; they secretly met in their apartments. They could not meet in public because the situation with freedom of religion was very adverse. I know some members of the Church who stayed in the East, but their children live here. They chose to stay there, even though the living conditions are very difficult. However, people there support each other as much as they can, and hold meetings. Unfortunately, we know very little about them, and the only way to find out anything about them is to have some personal communication with those who stayed in the occupied territories. In general, this situation is similar to the one in Russia…
Let’s talk a little more about migration. Did you stay in Kyiv or did you and your family move to a safer place?
We moved. My daughter has four children; the youngest one was not even a year old at the time. At first, I didn’t want to go. I planned to send my daughter and her children, but how would they have handled it? 2-3 days in the car with such a company: the older girl is 9 years old, and the younger one is 9 months old… When it became possible to travel by train, we sent them to our friends in Kolomyia. But when the air raid alerts appeared in Kolomyia, I decided that it was time to go abroad. We have American friends who have an apartment in Germany, and they invited us to go there. Maybe if it wasn’t for that apartment of our friends, we wouldn’t have gone anywhere. But having a place to go, we traveled by our own transport. However, it lasted only for 3 months. At the end of June, we came home, because… You know, it’s like a fish on the shore: there’s a lot of air, but there’s no air to breathe…
Nevertheless, I am very grateful for this experience, because if you have not been a refugee, you will never understand a refugee. Moreover, we did not live in a refugee camp or in tents. We lived under excellent conditions like on vacation: a resort area, all the facilities, wonderful people around us, financial assistance. But it was impossible to live there… We all wanted to go home. So we decided to return home.
Have many members of the Kyiv community left?
Many people left, especially those with children. At first, people went to the West of Ukraine, and then they moved on. There were those who went abroad at once, and there were those who stayed in the West for a while, returned to Kyiv, and then went abroad. There are many people who left, some of them returned, but mostly people stay abroad because everyone has their own mental state, not everyone can handle these air raid alarms.
Sometime in June, a fragment (of a missile – editor’s note) fell right on the ground in front of us. 10 meters away from us, the fire was burning so badly that firefighters spent the whole night putting it out. However, we have got through it and got through the winter. You know, it’s easier for a believer. The Lord gives us that inner peace that does not depend on any circumstances, it depends only on us and our mindset. Of course, there were times when it was not pleasant at all, but the Lord blesses me and gives me this inner peace that helps.
We are now talking more about material assistance, but emotional support is also crucial to the Self-reliance program. One cannot be self-reliant if he or she is emotionally unstable or depressed. Back before the war, COVID had aggravated problems with depression, anxiety, etc. The Church is also dealing with this. We have an online manual called Emotional Resilience. Professional psychologists trained the church members to teach classes using this manual. Everyone was welcome to attend, and people from many countries were involved. A 10-week seminar on emotional resilience is just about to end. People are divided into groups, each member of the group assumes certain responsibilities, they report to each other, so people are in constant contact, and it is quite effective.
This is extremely important, especially now, when there is a “shortage” of professional psychologists, since there is a great demand. Does the Church have any other psychological services in addition to Emotional Resilience?
Yes, it has. There are professional psychologists among the members of the Church. Also, if a person finds a psychologist but cannot pay for it, the Church provides assistance in paying for it. It’s just as much help as medicines or anything else. The Church provides assistance, and it is quite a significant amount of money. For example, when evacuation was needed, our members in America found sponsors who bought small minibuses and our brothers used them to bring members, associates, friends, and family members to the border. There were those who, due to their age or status, could cross the border, they could take people any further, but mostly they drove them to the border, and people crossed the border on foot. The system was well managed, everything was organized. We made a lot of runs.
How does the community live now? Do they hold Sunday services?
In fact, they have never stopped holding them. The service is held both online and offline. Because there are elderly sisters who walk heavily, who do not leave the house, who are sick, or who live abroad. There are those who live abroad, but they regularly join their parish church meetings. We register members of the Church. We call this a membership record, and when a person moves, he or she transfers his or her membership record to another location. Some people transferred them, some decided not to transfer them, and so they stay in our Kyiv parish. There are some who have transferred records to have official status in another parish, so they can get a call, etc.
Unlike many religious communities, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has quantitative indicators. In other words, do you know how many people are in different countries?
Yes, we know that. We are very serious about membership in the Church, and about keeping records of the Church history in general. Each parish has a parish historian who keeps a record of events in the life of the community.
Let me say a few more words about what we are doing now. At the start of the war, members of the Church and sisters, in particular, responded to the needs existing within the country. Sisters made trench candles, sewed small pillows under the neck or under the arm for the wounded, underwear for the wounded with fasteners and Velcro. We cooperate with other charitable organizations. Or, for example, we also provide assistance to orphanages. There are children who need clothes, and there is a whole batch of clothes that need to be repaired and restored. Therefore, this will be our next project.
Every Thursday, sisters visit the central hospital on Lesia Ukrainka Boulevard in Kyiv, talk to the wounded and bring them some tasty food. Sisters also weave camouflage nets in the Meeting Houses and dry vegetables at home for the project called “Borsch for the Armed Forces of Ukraine”.
Next, I’ll tell you about one more project of ours. Our church members have found a sponsor in America and make modular houses for those who lost their homes because of the war. It’s not for church members, just for people who have lost their homes. This is a house equipped with everything: a washing machine, bedclothing, and curtains. People can just walk in and live there.
There is also a need for emotional nourishment. For example, Kyiv parish has organized a trip to Shevchenko’s places: Kaniv, Moryntsi, Shevchenkove. We are planning a trip to the Zvirynets Monastery. It’s just an amazing place. Our entertainment programs also provide emotional nourishment. We visited Dobropark to enjoy the tulips. This is our land! It is also about love for our land. And the more we know about our country, the more we love it.
In other words, we are trying to balance our activities. Emotional support and nourishment are also a part of service. When you do something for someone else, you also get inspired by this.
By the way, patriotic education in the Church is another important aspect. From the very beginning of the Church’s existence, the pioneer believers who were in America were patriots, although they were persecuted. The Church has always promoted the development of patriotic feelings among its members. And I think this is really important! That’s why we also try to develop this feeling and cultivate patriotism through love for our land and understanding how beautiful it is.
In this context, it would be interesting to hear about the use of Ukrainian and Russian in the Church. What language did the Church use for services before the war?
In Kyiv, we were actively switching to Ukrainian. In the West of Ukraine, everything was in Ukrainian, even hymnbooks were exclusively in Ukrainian. In the East of Ukraine everything was in Russian. However, Kharkiv and Odesa are now being Ukrainianized very quickly. Everyone who couldn’t speak it or said they couldn’t speak it is starting to recall or learn the language, so Ukrainization is moving quite quickly. We have a sister who is 78 years old and she is Russian by birth, but she has been living in Kyiv for several decades. It is difficult for her to participate in the meetings now, but she keeps attending, and we support her.
We have been translating our literature into Ukrainian for a long time. There is the Book of Mormon in Ukrainian. It has already been filmed, and these videos are now being dubbed into Ukrainian. There are many films translated into Russian, and currently we are in the process of Ukrainian translation.
Another change that has taken place in our Church is the shift of the focus in education from the Church to the family. Previously, education was the responsibility of the Church, but now the study of the Gospel is focused within the home. All Sunday school curricula are now developed in such a way that the whole family studies the same Gospel passage. Previously, the Sunday school studied one thing, the Young Men’s Society studied something different, the Young Women’s Society studied something else, and the Primary Society had its own program. Today, everyone in all communities, in all church organizations, studies the same way. That is, the whole family, no matter what age the parents and children are, discusses the same chapter, the same episode from the Scriptures.
When the war started, we ceased to print our church monthly magazine Liahona. Today, however, church magazines are being printed again, so they are available not only in digital format but also in paper format.
Our activities meet the needs of Ukraine. The Church cannot live apart from the needs of the country. All ministry projects are aimed at the areas where ministry is needed. Last year, for example, we prepared an online Christmas performance that could be watched on Zoom. This year we also arranged traditional Christmas performance. One can watch it here.
By the way, before the reform, when did the Church celebrate Christmas? Was it December 25 or January 7?
The Church states: follow the traditions of the country. Basically, Christmas has always been celebrated twice: on January 7, on December 25 and on January 7, on December 25. The events were always held. The whole month was full of events. Now, Christmas is officially on December 25. People will probably continue to celebrate January 7 for some time, but I think that, just like November 7, it will one day fade into obscurity.
Then let’s talk about the future. When the war ends with our victory, how do you think the community of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ukraine will change?
The Church is constantly changing. We believe in continuous Revelation and we believe that the Church is led by a prophet who acts according to the inspiration he gets through the Holy Spirit coming from the Lord Jesus Christ, so we know that good will triumph over evil. That’s for sure! We believe that all things work for our benefit. We can see how many positive things have happened due to COVID and the war… People needed the war to remind them that they are Ukrainians, that they have a language they can speak, that they have their own beautiful land. They traveled abroad and saw how good Ukraine really is.
That’s why we look for the positive everywhere, we look for the good things. We try to do our best and believe that God keeps everything under control and nothing happens in vain. Of course, the war has touched people’s lives, and it has revealed and exacerbated problems, but it is not the war that created them. Basically, war does not create problems, it reveals them. And I think that for us, it revealed what we need to improve: our personal relationships, community life, or something else. We need to be more human! On the other hand, the war has revealed the potential of volunteering. Our country operates based on volunteer work, and state institutions and the state itself cannot reorganize and change the way the state apparatus works so quickly. Volunteering is a salvation for this country! This is our love for each other, our desire to sacrifice, our desire to help. People went abroad, but they help here.
The war revealed whether Jesus Christ would find love when He came. We still have it on Earth! We have this love, this mercy, this pure love of Christ. People just help each other without any benefit to themselves, and this inspires me and gives me strength to live. We meet the challenges and are grateful for all the opportunities that our state gives us, and we pray for our leaders as well, because the burden on them is huge. We understand that everything is complicated and that sometimes wrong decisions are made, but don’t judge, just do what you can and everything will be fine. This is your country too. We believe that they are doing what they can, so we do not idealize anyone, but we try to support them.
We know that there is no perfection in this world. We know that this world is not perfect, we are all human beings, even though we call them “Latter-day Saints” in our church, but they are still human beings. They were not made perfect, otherwise Jesus Christ would not have come and atoned for their sins. So if we all have flaws, then other people also have flaws, you just have to be patient in helping others, and then you grow yourself. Helping others fills you with love.
The interviewer: Anna Mariya Basauri Ziuzina
The interview was a part of the project “Religion on Fire: Documenting Russia’s War Crimes against Religious Communities in Ukraine”, implemented by the NGO “Workshop of Academic Religious Studies” with the support of “Documenting Ukraine”, a project of the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna.