JONES, Okla. — At a little country church 20 miles east of Oklahoma City, Ukrainian and U.S. flags fly outside.

Inside, the Rev. Stepan Bilogan preaches and prays in his native language as a choir member translates his Ukrainian words into English.

Perspective: God bless the Ukrainian people. Their fight must inspire a new era of global engagement
A prayer for Ukraine

Immigrants founded St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church — the only Ukrainian Orthodox congregation for hundreds of miles — more than a century ago.

These days, believers from Belarus, the Republic of Georgia, Romania, Russia and Serbia as well as Ukraine make up the Orthodox body of roughly 35 members.

“We’re like a little United Nations,” said Robby Lee Wall, 52, a subdeacon who has attended St. Mary all his life.

A year ago, the Rev. Bilogan, 46, came to America to serve spiritual needs in this small Oklahoma town, where miles of farmland give way to wood-frame houses and an old-fashioned Main Street.

His mother, his brother and countless other loved ones remain in Ukraine.

“Every day I talk to them,” the priest said in an interview. “We are very worried about the news that is coming out of Ukraine.”

A woman and child kiss a cross held by the Rev. Stepan Bilogan, rector of St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Jones, Oklahoma. | Bobby Ross Jr.

As Russian troops and tanks drove deeper into Bilogan’s homeland Sunday, he and his fellow Christians asked God to bring peace.

The Rev. Bilogan characterizes prayer as the believers’ “greatest weapon.”

“Ukrainians everywhere would only like peace and happiness. And even in the Holy Scriptures, it does say that those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” he told the congregation, referring to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew. “Every war has its beginning and its end, and we pray that this end will come very quickly.”

St. Mary member Olena Nesin and her husband, Vasyl, immigrated from Ukraine 11 years ago.

After worship, they became emotional as they discussed Russian President Vladimir Putin and the attack he has unleashed on Ukraine.

“Everybody should understand what’s going on,” Olena Nesin said. “It’s not only about Ukraine. It’s about the safety of the civilian world.

“I’ve talked to my friends, my family,” she added. “For now they are all safe. But the situation is just horrible.”

The world needs to know the truth about Russia’s aggression, said Vitalii Sorochynskyi, another St. Mary member from Ukraine.

“It just, unfortunately, reminds me of the invasion of Poland” in 1939, he said, recalling the German advance that initiated World War II. “And if there are some people that think this is just a Ukrainian problem, they’re foolish. Unfortunately, it’s a global crisis.”

Sorochynskyi said he has lost communication with a few friends in Ukraine.

“I have family that are, unfortunately, fighting,” he said. “And so I came here (to church) to pray for them, to pray for the whole country.”

St. Mary choir member Mikita Dzialendzik, 20, serves as the priest’s translator.

Dzialendzik moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 2 months old. He speaks English and Russian and understands Ukrainian. He has friends of differing backgrounds — including Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian.

The University of Oklahoma student struggles to understand the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

“The languages are similar. The cultures are similar. The faith is similar,” Dzialendzik said. “They’re not the same. There are important differences, and they’re two different people. 

“But they are sibling nations — they are brother peoples — and they should be cooperating,” he added. “They should be friendly, and to see stuff like this, it’s awful.”

St. Mary is affiliated with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA. The church originally formed in 1919 in the nearby community of Harrah, Oklahoma. A Memorial Day 1949 fire claimed a previous building, and the congregation relocated to Jones in 1950. Its cemetery remains in Harrah.

At the end of Sunday’s service, the church sang “Memory Eternal” — “Vichnaya Pamyat” in Ukrainian — and rang its bells in recognition of the Ukrainian soldiers and civilians killed in the fighting. That’s the hymn normally sung at funerals and memorials. 

Afterward, despite concerns over the Eastern European conflict, the congregation enjoyed a bit of normality: a potluck on Meatfare Sunday, the last day of meat consumption before Pascha, the Orthodox Easter, on April 24.

The Rev. Bilogan is from Lviv, in Ukraine’s westernmost corner about 45 miles from the Polish border. Airstrikes are the main threat for his relatives, he said.

“There’s nothing worse than war,” he said after the Divine Liturgy. “But I hope, with God’s help, we will overcome this. My country didn’t attack anybody, and our soldiers never stepped foot on another country’s territory.”

This article was originally published by Religion Unplugged. Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle.