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“I can’t change their whole lives; I emphasize that nothing is absolute or categorical.”

Still, the lack of familiarity makes for slow going, the priest says.

“They look at the church as functionary, to provide services like baptisms, to bury the dead,” he explains. “Then they leave, as if they’re delegating the task to me.”

To overcome this, he asks his parishioners to come early and stay after liturgy to tidy up, conduct choir practice and socialize while he teaches the catechism to children.

“I emphasize that the church isn’t chiefly to satisfy one’s personal needs — that it’s about developing spiritually, about building a community together,” Father Merimerin says. “Like Origen wrote: ‘Jesus, come even as a slave to me, pour water into your bowl, come and wash my feet.’

“We must practice the faith together.”

Sharing the sentiment of his brother priest in Bila Tserkva, the Rev. Petro Khudyk, 36, ventures beyond his tiny wooden chapel to reach out to the community in the district of Tarashcha. Weekly he speaks on the radio about the church, focusing on basics such as Christian ethics and holidays.

Seven years ago, fresh out of seminary, he thought he would serve as a fixed pillar, to build up a community from within. Instead, he now “comes to you,” he says.

“People call in the studio. It’s really interactive, and I use the feedback for the next show from listeners. I give the address of the church on air and leave my phone number with the radio station.”

When not preaching on the airwaves, Father Khudyk does so in person, through words and actions. He greets parents when he walks his child to kindergarten, and stays around to answer questions about the church and its basic tenets from locals. He invites choir groups from the surrounding region to give local performances free to the public. And on the feast of St. Nicholas in December, with the help of Caritas Ukraine, the priest arranges to provide gifts for children of active servicemen or veterans of the war that has raged since 2014 in the easternmost regions of the country.

“I do what I can within my capabilities. The rest I say in prayer and ask God for more ideas, inspiration and wisdom. I’m ready to stay here and continue building up the parish,” he says.

His prayers have been answered before — such as when CNEWA donated a 3,200-square-foot wooden chapel to his parish of some 15 to 30 faithful, half a year ago. The priest has seen his congregation grow four to five times larger since its construction.

Inside the chapel’s thick spruce walls stands a sanctuary screen (or iconostasis) bearing icons of St. Nicholas, the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus and Christ as Righteous Judge. Above the iconostasis hovers an icon of the Last Supper.

Before the structure was erected, Father Khudyk says people would express interest in his parish, tempered with confusion or concern over the parish meeting in a summer kitchen near his home, or a music school or even another parishioner’s apartment.

“They would listen, but would ask why we don’t have space and a regular church with a cupola and a cross on top,” he says.

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