RUSSIA’s invasion of Ukraine presents a spiritual challenge, not just a material one, the Revd Solomon Ekiyor, a refugee from Ukraine, told worshippers at St Margaret’s Anglican Chaplaincy, on Sunday, in the Józsefváros Lutheran Church, Budapest. “The war profoundly disrupts our lives and plans,” he said, but “our faith also gives us resources to meet these questions.”
In his sermon, he referred to “the long history of disruptions that are part of the life of the people of God, from the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, in today’s reading, to Mary’s finding she was with child by the Holy Ghost.
“God did not cause the evil in Putin’s act, but God has a way of working with it, improvising and weaving it into the tapestry of his purpose in the world. . . It is for each of us to now ask his guidance on what new purpose he has for us in this situation. I am asking that for myself, too.”
Fr Ekiyor was formerly Archdeacon and Residentiary Canon of St Matthew’s Cathedral, Patani, in Western Izon diocese, Nigeria. He moved to Ukraine in 2017 to be a pastor for Nigerian students, and to pursue missionary activity among both them and the wider Anglophone international student community. His work was undertaken under the auspices of his diocese’s missionary directorate.
In Ukraine, Fr Ekiyor served as head of the Fellowship of Christian Students (with centres in Chernivtsi and Ternopil).
“Before the war, there were approximately 80,000 foreign students in Ukraine, 12,000 of whom were Nigerian — though my ministry was much wider than the Nigerian community,” he said. “There was much work to do, and I baptised 69 people in that time.” He reports having recently been in communication with the diocese in Europe about how he might be helpful to the small Anglican chaplaincy of Christ Church, Kyiv, which lacked a resident priest.
“It was a hard decision to go,” he told me in Budapest, on Tuesday. “I felt a responsibility to stay while I knew there were still students there who needed my help. However, relatives in Nigeria begged me to leave, if not for my own sake then for my wife and children.”
Leaving, however, was perhaps harder for other family members. “My wife, Pamela, a medical doctor, had been in the country far longer — she was a student there herself. Our three children were all born in the country.” In the days preceding his departure, he was busy supporting Nigerian students who had found themselves turned away en bloc at the Polish frontier: he acted as communicator between them and Nigerian embassy officials in Warsaw.
Initially headed for Slovakia, the family’s plans changed once they found the single crossing into the neighbouring country clogged with vehicles that were having to queue for many hours. Instead, they decided to head for Hungary, which has five crossing points with Ukraine.
“Once in the country, I contacted the Ven. Leslie Nathaniel [Archdeacon of East Germany and Northern Europe]. He then put me in touch with St Margaret’s Anglican Chaplaincy in Budapest, led by Fr Frank Hegedus; it was the Anglican Communion working in a really practical and immediate way,” he says.
“Fr Frank’s kindness, and that of the whole congregation, has been overwhelming,” Fr Ekiyor says. “They opened not only their hearts, but also their doors and even their wallets. They have found accommodation for me, my family, and the Nigerian students we brought with us. There are nine of us in this flat, which they have rented for a month; the generosity of this small congregation is amazing.
“I’d like to continue my ministry in the UK somehow, but, for now, I am trying to pastor to other Nigerians who are displaced here and contemplating their future. St Margaret’s is giving me a platform from which to do that.”
Concern with the spiritual dimension of the crisis has emerged as a common theme in ecumenical responses to the refugee influx.
On 27 February, the Sant’Egidio Community in Budapest, a Roman Catholic lay fellowship with strong ecumenical orientation, organised an ecumenical service in the University Church, Budapest, praying for Ukraine. Senior Hungarian RC and Protestant Church leaders and the country’s Chief Rabbi participated.
Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church was officially represented by Fr Damjan Haborij. A a statement from the Metropolitan of Austria and Exarch of Hungary and Central Europe (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Dr Arsenios Kardamakis, was read.
“The Sant’Egidio community is also in Moscow, and they also feel in their bodies and hearts the pain and shame of the war, and anxiety about the fate of their Ukrainian friends,” the leader of Sant’Egidio, Budapest, Péter Szoke, said, as reported by the news service of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Magyar Kurir.
Spiritual care of people leaving Ukraine is beginning to feature in the consciousness of the Churches. The RC Church in Hungary is offering services in the Ukrainian language according to the Eastern Rite, in various locations. Most of the approximately 200,000 Ukrainians who have crossed the border in the past two weeks are, however, Orthodox faithful belonging to a complex mix of jurisdictions.
“Five Orthodox Churches in Hungary are members of our council. They have a long history here, but are small in numbers, and we face big challenges. For now, they are supporting the relief efforts through the council,” Dr Vilmos Fischl, a Lutheran pastor and general secretary of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary, told the Church Times. “We do not yet know how many Orthodox faithful will stay in Hungary in the longer term.”
Hungary’s ecumenical council was the first Christian body to cross the border to Transcarpathia, in Ukraine, delivering first-aid supplies to the (mainly Reformed) ethnic-Hungarian community on the other side. Deliveries of flour, for baking bread, supplied by the Hungarian government, have followed.
“Hungarians are responding generously,” Dr Fischl said, but he was concerned about the future. “It is hard for individuals and congregations to sustain this level of support in the medium to long term; we are going to need financial support from partner Churches and ecumenical bodies in the whole of Europe in the months ahead.”