Planting Seeds, Nurturing Faith

text by Mark Raczkiewycz with photographs by Ivan Chernichkin

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The black soil of central Ukraine is the stuff of agronomists’ dreams. Forming a massive geological band stretching across Eurasia, chernozem (literally “black earth” in Ukrainian) contains high concentrations of humus and other nutrients, reinforcing the region's reputation as a breadbasket. In these rich lands, among fields of corn, sunflower and barley, even a church can grow.

As with the early Christians before them, Greek Catholics in central Ukraine pray without the benefit of traditional churches or chapels, structures roofed with gilded cupolas and topped with crosses. Parishioners — from as few as five people to two or three dozen — often meet in homes of the faithful or the residence of the pastor. Others utilize facilities ill equipped for community building, such as social gatherings, plays, movie screenings, catechism instruction and Bible study.

Nevertheless, the faith of Ukrainian Greek Catholics, once driven underground, has reemerged in the light of post-Soviet Ukraine. It is putting down roots and showing new growth.

In a converted automobile garage in Bila Tserkva, a city 55 miles south of the nation’s ancient capital of Kiev, a parish gathers to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Some 30 faithful enter the 400-square-foot space, led by Rev. Yevhen Merimerin, 38, a lifelong local, father of four children and a former lawyer and official of the Cabinet of Ministers.

“We’re developing the parish, but slowly,” Father Merimerin says.

“People are not yet accustomed to the church. Seventy years of the U.S.S.R. had a profound effect on people’s spiritual development and that is still felt today, 26 years after independence,” he says.

“Most people have a superficial or superstitious attitude toward traditions,” he says, adding that in some cases, the attitude is superficial in a more literal sense. “They question why I don’t have a beard, yet am a priest. They ask, ‘How can that be?’ ”

Father Merimerin is no stranger to such perceptions of the Christian faith in central Ukraine; unlike the majority of Greek Catholic priests, some 90 percent of whom hail from western Ukraine, Father Merimerin is a native son of the city of 220,000. He answered the call to priesthood at the age of 34 and understands the attitudes and perspectives of local residents well.

Not wanting to discourage his burgeoning flock, Father Merimerin describes his approach to pastoral work: “Go step-by-step and feed people based on what their individual appetites can take.” This often means hour-long discussions with new church visitors, explaining the church’s principles.

To one frequently asked question — “will you bless my car?” — he answers, “sure, but you still have to drive safely.”

Such small matters often serve as the entry point for discussion. Blessing an Easter basket of eggs, cheese, ham and bread but containing a bottle of vodka leads to a talk about moderation. A Memorial Day outing to a cemetery stirs a discussion of reverence and dignity in celebration. A funeral prompts a conversation about the importance of building community beyond a few thoughtful donations and a short ceremony.

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