Praying for peace while supporting soldiers

Reporting from Ukraine, Gregg Brekke shares how a group of Catholic sisters supports the Ukrainian resistance.

Dominican Sister Lydia Timkova has made three trips from the home she shares with another nun in Mukachevo to the front lines of the Ukrainian war. They deliver food, warm clothing and supplies to civilians and soldiers. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

This article is the second in a series of dispatches from Ukraine. Follow Presbyterian Outlook or sign up for email updates so you don’t miss a story.

Our journey to Ukraine takes a slight turn when we made contact with Sister Edita Vozarova, who was preparing to bring aid supplies from Slovakia to the Western Ukrainian town of Mukachevo.

The drive from Krakow, Poland, to Kosice, Slovakia, traverses a beautiful mountain and lakes region that reminded me of Vermont, complete with lake and ski resorts where Poles and Slovaks go for retreat and recreation. Both are part of the European Union so there is no checkpoint or passport control at the border crossing, similar to crossing state lines in the U.S.

Sister Edita Vozarova gets clearance from Ukrainian customs for relief goods that will be distributed to the war’s front lines by Dominican Sisters living in Mukachevo, Ukraine. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

In Slovakia, we contact Sister Edita and then leave for Ukraine in a large minivan stuffed to the ceiling with humanitarian supplies — warm clothing for soldiers, surgical gowns for army medics and other medical supplies destined for those near the front lines of the war. On the road, Sister Edita says Ukrainian women who are not in the military are like another front in the battle. Collecting and distributing humanitarian aid, providing for the needs of soldiers, and getting clothing and food to those who have not evacuated are integral to the war effort.

Because the van is filled with aid supplies, we are required to go through the commercial border crossing along with semi-trucks and other goods transports. We wait in line, and the sister – dressed in her nun’s habit – convinces a few truck drivers to let her go in front of them. We pass control points in Slovakia and Ukraine as the sun sets and the temperature drops. The wind picks up and light snowfall begins as we have our passports stamped — exiting from the European Union via Slovakia at one point and entering into Ukraine at the next. We’ve arrived in a country at war.

Sister Edita is nonplussed by the three hours it takes to cross the border. Much faster, she says, than other trips. Our translator, Natalya (last name withheld), is Ukrainian and evacuated to Slovakia with her two children and grandmother shortly after the 2022 invasion began. Her husband remains in Ukraine – as is required of all men – and works at a hydroelectric plant. He is exempt from conscription due to his young children and work — for now.

Natalya and her husband are from Eastern Ukraine and were forced out when the first Russian incursion happened in 2014. By that summer, Natalya and her family had relocated from Crimea to near Donetsk — completely starting over as everything they owned had been seized. And then in February 2022, they were forced to evacuate again as the Russians advanced further west from Crimea.

Oksana Zavadskyi teaches teen girls how to sew aprons at the home she and her husband, Volodymyr, run near Mukachevo, Ukraine. Many of the children in their care lost their parents during the siege of the southern city of Mariupol. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

For Natalya – and for nearly every Ukrainian we spoke to – the war did not begin on February 24, 2022. It began in the spring of 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea.

In Mukachevo, we purchase our train tickets to Lviv for later in the week before arriving at the Dominican guest house. The electricity is out – part of a rolling blackout system across Ukraine – so we eat a light dinner by battery-powered lights before heading to bed.

Over the next few days, we interview several nuns and employees of Caritas (a Catholic aid organization). There is a sense of purpose and urgency in their tone. Helping those displaced by the war, those who remain and those who fight are held equally in their prayers and as focus areas of their direct aid.

There is also trauma in the stories we hear: separated families, battlefield deaths and severe injuries, those who continue to fight through PTSD, winter’s bitter cold, and uncertainty for the future. And this trauma clearly extends to the sisters who deliver supplies to the front lines and civilians who remain in conflict zones. One sister describes their three-day round trip as three days of driving, praying and singing, and 20 minutes of distributing aid. Not wanting to linger in a warzone, they offer prayers with a few people and quickly turn back toward the west to prepare physically and spiritually for another trip.

Natalya, our translator in Mukachevo, lives with Dominican Sisters in Slovakia. She evacuated from Ukraine when the war began with her two children and grandmother. Her husband remains in Ukraine working at a hydroelectric plant. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

On Saturday afternoon, we visit a home in nearby Serednje for orphaned teens. Many of these young people lost their parents in the siege of the Southern city of Mariupol. Volodymyr and Oksana Zavadskyi established and operate this ministry, partnering with a local parish to build housing units for these orphans along with several single mothers with their own children.

As I reflect on this visit several days later, what stands out to me is the Ukrainians’ incredible resolve to win this war — it’s not an option. One sister spoke of praying for peace while knowing it will not come while there is an aggressor who doesn’t recognize Ukrainian independence. Her support of the military, she says, is to show love to those who are willing to sacrifice themselves in the battle against an unprovoked attack. Peace, she says, is not an academic or spiritual exercise “when evil is not satisfied.”

Another sister, Sister Lydia, understands the dangers of taking supplies to people in the war zones. “If I step on a mine and die, I’m ok,” she says. “I’ve made my confession and have confidence. I am at peace that I’ve done what God has asked of me.”

Responsive prayer

When evil is not satisfied

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers for people living in war zones, suffering unprovoked attacks from an evil unsatisfied.

Hear our prayers for Sister Edita, for Ukrainian women canvassing minefields for needs and delivering humanitarian aid, for reporters on the ground in pursuit of the truth and the humanity we can’t experience from afar.

Hear our prayers for evacuated wives, their children, and the husbands they had to leave behind. Hear our prayers for soldiers who never wanted to pick up a weapon.

Hear our prayers for those exhausted by the machinations of war, by the death, by the lack of necessary supplies, by the destruction of normalcy, by the absence of peace.

God of peace, resurrector of life, have mercy on your people, balance the scales of justice, weaken evil forces, and satisfy your world with an end to this warring madness.


Prayer by Outlook Editor Teri McDowell Ott