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Ukrainians Helping Ukrainians in Western Pennsylvania by Robert Semonsen

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Interview

Ukrainians Helping Ukrainians in Western Pennsylvania

In America, as in Europe, people on the ground are eager to help alleviate the suffering caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in whatever way they can. Ukrainian priest, Rev. Timothy Tomson at Saint Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who also serves as the vice president of the Ukrainian Orthodox Community in Western Pennsylvania, has been leading regional efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the people living in war-torn Ukraine. Some weeks ago, Rev. Tomson was kind enough to sit down with The European Conservative to discuss his background, the Orthodox and Ukrainian communities in western Pennsylvania, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, and some of the work he’s been doing to ease the suffering of Ukrainians abroad.


INTERVIEW

Rev. Tomson, thanks for taking the time. Can you tell us about your Ukrainian roots? Do you feel connected to your Ukrainian heritage, and what steps along the way have led you to this moment?

I am Ukrainian, as well as American. My grandmother and grandfather on my dad’s side came from Ukraine at the turn of the twentieth century. They were both from Western Ukraine, in fact, from the same oblast. My grandfather’s village is about an hour’s drive from Lviv. I visited once when my daughter Sophia was living there. We went to my grandfather’s village—it was very stirring to be walking the land where my grandfather grew up. 

I presided over a memorial service at my great grandparents’ and their family’s graves, and later said Mass in the village’s orthodox monastery. It was quite emotional, you know, going back to where my life on my father’s side began.

I am here in McKees Rocks [near Philadelphia] because it is where I was sent! I entered the seminary when I was twenty-nine, and got married two years later. My wife is Svetlana is also from Ukraine, near Mukachevo (Munkács in Hungarian). Soon after I was ordained, when I was thirty-three, I was given my first parish in Lyndora, a suburb of Butler, Pennsylvania. I was there for nine years before I was sent to McKees Rocks in October of 2001. This May I will be celebrating thirty years of God blessing me to stand at his holy altar as a priest. 

You are the vice president of the Ukrainian Orthodox Community in western Pennsylvania. Can you tell us a little about that? 

The Ukrainian Community of Western Pennsylvania was founded by my wife, myself, and some other people. She was the first president and later, vice-president. Our initial goal was to unite all Ukrainians in western Pennsylvania in fellowship and to share our ethnic identity, culture, and roots with Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians. It’s an excellent organization, it has several events throughout the year, and it’s a wonderful thing to be involved in. However, and this is not to negate my religious beliefs, our organization is more secular than religious. We have Ukrainian Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholics, we have some Jewish people, some Ukrainian Pentecostals, and some people who are not even of Ukrainian descent, but just want to support it. So, it’s a very diverse organization.

On the heels of the Russian invasion, you spoke at a Ukrainian solidarity rally in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Can you tell us about that?

Yes. The rally was held on the Sunday which followed the Russian invasion [February 27th], and the church helped us get the word out. I contacted a friend of mine in the executive’s office, who, I believe, persuaded the mayor of Pittsburgh to come. I, along with several others, spoke and led the community in prayer. People were there from Ukraine, people of Ukrainian descent spoke. There were people from all over, with different ethnic identities. 

I saw one man with a Latvian flag, and I said to him, if Ukraine doesn’t stop him, your country is next. And he said yes, I know. There were people with Polish flags, Georgian flags, German flags, and there was even a lady there with a Russian flag that said stop war—she wrote on the flag. People from many different countries attended.

You know, Pittsburgh, western Pennsylvania, is an ethnic melting pot. I always say you can visit the world, even eat every country’s food, and never leave Pittsburgh. It’s an ethnically diverse community. Most of the people came to work in the steel mills and in the coal mines—heavy industry—at the turn of the twentieth century; now it’s high-tech, healthcare, and education. The region has transformed from rustbelt to high-tech, but still, people are very proud of their ethnic identities in Pittsburgh. You have fifth-generation immigrants who know their ethnic roots and are proud of them, and they celebrate their traditions, which is a powerful message. But on that day, everyone was Ukrainian.

At this Ukrainian rally, what was the overall mood like? 

Well, it was festive considering the circumstances, festive but somber, if that makes sense. People were serious, that’s probably the best way to put it, happy to see everybody there, but serious, not forgetting why we were all there in the first place. Sunday after church (I had divine liturgy at 9:30 a.m.), at noon I had a Molebion service intercession of the Blessed to the mother of God of Pochaev, I have a replica of an icon there. It is a monastery in Western Ukraine, in Pochayiv. 

There are legends attached to this icon, famous for working miracles. I can’t remember the date, but I believe it surfaced around the 1400s. What I remember of the story, Ukraine was under attack by the Tartars. They wanted to overrun the monastery, and everybody was told to pray to the Blessed Mother to intercede on Ukraine’s behalf. There was an apparition in the sky: the Blessed Mother, the patron of Pochayiv, and in the background, an army of angels. Legend and sacred tradition tell us that the Tartars were firing arrows because they thought there were troops coming, but the arrows turned back and fell upon the people who were doing the shooting, killing many Turkish Muslims. Many were also captured, and a lot of them converted to Orthodoxy because they witnessed the power of Christ. 

We took a little collection at the rally and raised about three thousand dollars that we are going to send to my archdiocese, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S., and that money in turn will be sent to Ukraine for humanitarian aid.

You mentioned that you have friends and family in Ukraine right now. What are you hearing about the situation on the ground?

Well, a friend of mine is archbishop Igor Izashenko, he is in Kharkiv, and he has been sending me some pictures of the bombing there. Bombs are falling everywhere. You know, in Kyiv, a missile hit the children’s cancer hospital the other day, and I saw a picture of a tank, a Russian tank, driving over a car with people in it. As an American citizen, I can’t wrap my mind around this, how people who share the same faith—because Russia is predominantly Orthodox, and Ukraine is predominantly Orthodox—could be so evil to each other. But then, we have to think about Cain and Abel, he killed his brother, so, nothing new under the sun, unfortunately.

As a part of an emergency aid package, the Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), has granted one million euros to support the Catholic Church in Ukraine. Are you aware of anything similar being done for the Ukrainian Orthodox community?

Yes, my archdiocese, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S., started a fund drive when the invasion began. It’s uocofusa.org, you can donate online, and that money is being collected, and then it would be either sent there, or Archbishop Daniel, who is from Ukraine, will take it there. Our diocese has been very instrumental in supporting orphanages there, in Ukraine, for a long time.

It’s wonderful that the Catholic charities are doing the same, because we could say pray, pray, pray! While prayer is powerful, very powerful, there has to be action connected to that prayer.

Tell us about some of the other work you’ve been doing to ease the suffering of Ukrainians? 

We’re constantly collecting supplies with the help of many wonderful people. Volunteers help sort the supplies, pack them into boxes, load them into trucks which take them to New Jersey where they’re then shipped to Ukraine. This is only possible because of all the good people who have been enormously generous with their time and money. Today, for example, we filled up a 53-foot trailer with boxes of goods. One of my parishioners will drive this load to New Jersey sometime today.

As someone who has family and friends throughout Ukraine, I assume you’re well aware of the divide between the Russian-speaking east and the western part of the country. In your estimation, how stark is the divide?

I have a lady who is a parishioner of mine, she is from Crimea, and came to the States in 2010. She has been coming to my church since she arrived here. She speaks Russian; she also speaks Ukrainian, but she considers herself Ukrainian. She was at this rally, and she says, “Crimea is Ukraine! Yes, maybe my great-grandfather came from Russia, but I am Ukrainian, I was born in Ukraine.”

You know, Crimea was a part of Ukraine. I am not against Russians, I am against Russian imperialism. Russia is for Russia; Ukraine is for Ukraine; Poland is for Poland; Hungary is for Hungary. I mean, be proud of your ethnic identity. Respect others. I personally don’t have anything against any Russian other than Mr. Putin and the minions following his direction, you know. 

Do you have any thoughts on the foreign soldiers who’ve come to fight for Ukraine? 

Well, they are coming there voluntarily, out of goodwill, and because they want to stop Russia from coming to their country. That is why they are there. Nobody wants to see war, innocent people being killed, and they definitely don’t want war in their countries. We need to pray for the people in Ukraine, but we also need to assist them. Financially, or with men on the ground, fighting, because this could turn into a third world war.

Any final thoughts Rev. Tomson?

Just pray for Ukraine, pray for her people, pray for her military, pray that God softens the hearts of Mr. Putin and his followers. Have you ever watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof? It was about the Jewish community in Russia, and one of the people in it asks the rabbi, “Rabbi, is there a prayer for the tsar? Is there a prayer to keep the tsar?” And the rabbi said, “Yes, may God keep the tsar far from us.” So may God keep Mr. Putin far from Ukraine! I always chuckle about that line, because it gets back, again, to the oppression of other people who are different from us. 

No country is immune. I mean, you look in America with the civil rights movement, and how blacks were treated. There, even my own grandfather felt compelled to change our family name from ‘Chaikolsky’ to Tomson when he became an American citizen, because he didn’t want his children and grandchildren to suffer ethnic discrimination. So, you know, this is nothing new unfortunately. 

Robert Semonsen is a political journalist based in Central Europe. His work has been featured in various English-language news outlets in Europe and the Americas. He has an educational background in biological and medical science. His Twitter handle is @R_Semonsen.

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