‘We’re not panicking’ — How Ukrainian Latter-day Saints are fighting fear with faith and food storage

Members of the Utah-based church are banding together, helping one another, and receiving support from former missionaries and other Latter-day Saints across the world.

(Emilio Morenatti | AP) People rest in the Kyiv subway, using it as a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Russia has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, unleashing airstrikes on cities and military bases and sending troops and tanks from multiple directions in a move that could rewrite the world's geopolitical landscape. As many as 11,000 Latter-day Saints in Ukraine are caught in the crosshairs.

Katia Serdyuk rose before dawn Feb. 24, just as she had every morning, squeezing in a few hours of work as a translator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while the world was still quiet.

Soon, she knew, the house would buzz with her daughter and son-in-law and their four children, whom she shared a house with in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv. But for a few pre-dawn hours, she was free to devote her attention entirely to verb conjugations and sentence structures.

Except it wasn’t her grandchildren who broke her concentration that morning. The family was still asleep when, around 5 a.m., bombs exploded overhead.

“It was frightening,” she said. “It was so loud and early in the morning.”

In the hours and days that have followed Russia’s invasion, Serdyuk, who was baptized into the LDS Church in 1996, said Ukrainian Latter-day Saints have banded together, tapping their close ties and preexisting support structures to help strengthen one another amid the escalating violence.

(Alexandra Vyshneva) Katia Serdyuk poses in front of the Kyiv Temple. Baptized in 1996, she says despite concern for their families, local Latter-day Saints have turned to one another for support and comfort.

“We call each other and try to find out who needs help,” she said, “especially the elderly and those with young children.”

Interviews with eight Ukrainian Latter-day Saints suggest Serdyuk and her congregation are far from the anomaly. Again and again, these members from the besieged nation cited their church community as playing a pivotal role as nightly raids topple buildings and Russian troops encroach on their towns and neighborhoods.

[Listen to ‘Mormon Land’: Hear from Latter-day Saints in Ukraine as they face bombs and bullets amid faith and fellowship]

‘We’re not panicking’

Marina and Bogdan Pryshcheupchuk live with their 16-year-old son in Bila Tserkva, a city 50 miles southwest of Kyiv. Since the invasion began, they said their Latter-day Saint congregation has been communicating “constantly” through a group chat, sharing news, inquiring after one another, and pooling resources — including food, medicine, money and underground shelter.

“We’re not panicking,” said Bogdan, adding that the congregation had gone so far as to create a turn-based system of prayer. That way, an hour never goes by without someone in the congregation supplicating on behalf of the others and the country.

Both agreed that contributing to this sense of calm was the fact that their congregation had received and followed instruction from local leaders two months prior to store up critical supplies as a congregation. At the same time, each family was told to create an emergency suitcase with vital documents in addition to enough food and water to hold their household over for at least 72 hours.

“We were preparing at full speed,” Marina said.

Marina and Bogdan Pryshcheupchuk in Bila Tserkva. The photo was taken on her birthday, Feb. 23, 2022. The bombing began the next morning.

Rostyslav Lukach and his wife, Maryna, live with their dog and cat in a suburb of Kyiv. Until the moment the bombing began, the former business school professor had remained skeptical that Russian President Vladimir Putin would follow through on his threats to invade. Waking up to the explosions Thursday morning, he felt surprised and “very nervous.”

The next day, local Latter-day Saint leaders sent a text asking all the men in the congregation to reach out to the individuals they were assigned to minister to and determine who needed help with meals and shopping.

When Lukach contacted the two widows assigned to him, he said he found them in a good mood. “We laughed and joked and supported each other. Actually,” he chuckled. “They tried to support me.”

Church support from abroad

Support from fellow Latter-day Saints has not been limited to area congregations.

“All the missionaries that served in Ukraine keep sending support and prayers,” Bogdan Pryshcheupchuk said. Then, speaking to the church’s general membership, he added: “Your prayers and fasts are really helpful now.”

Sergei and Ludmila, who asked that their last names not be used out of concern for their safety, have been particularly grateful for the support they have received from Latter-day Saints living in Utah.

Fearing war, the couple left their home in the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr in January for California, their three children in tow. They quickly realized, however, that they could not afford the cost of rent and accepted an offer from the parents of the missionary who, in 2016, had taught and baptized Sergei to stay in their home in Kaysville.

Since they arrived, they said they have received support from local Latter-day Saints ranging from basics like food and furniture to money while Sergei applies for political asylum and secures the documentation needed to work in the United States.

“We want to thank the LDS community in Utah for their support and their love,” Ludmila said. “It would have been much harder without this support.”

For Serdyuk, perhaps the most meaningful outreach has come from Russian Latter-day Saints. As a volunteer administrator for an educational program designed for college-age members, known as BYU–Pathway Worldwide, she said she is regularly in contact with Latter-day Saint students from Moscow and Siberia. The day after the bombing began, she found herself in a meeting with many of them.

“I just couldn’t look at them like my enemies,” she said.

The feeling was mutual. Almost right away, the younger Russian attendees began to express concern and apologize for the conditions now facing Serdyuk and her people.

“And they were sincere,” she said. “I could feel that.”

‘Why should I go?’

Mariya Manzhos grew up in Kyiv but left Ukraine in 2002 to attend Brigham Young University. She now lives in Boston with her husband and three children, though her parents and other family remain in Kyiv.

“I’ve been shaking,” she said. “I wake up with sweaty palms, scared to look at my phone.”

She, too, expressed gratitude for the “outpouring of support” from international members of the faith, especially former missionaries to Ukraine.

Mariya Manzhos, second from right, and her husband, Zachary Davis, pose with her parents on their wedding day in front of the Kyiv Temple. The couple now live in Boston with their three children, but Manzhos has remained in constant communication since the start of the invasion with her parents, who remain in Kyiv.

“My parents were just telling me,” she said, “how moved they were with just how many people are offering shelter and inviting them to come to the United States.”

Unlike the Pryshcheupchuks, however, her parents don’t plan to go anywhere.

“Part of me is heartbroken,” she said, “but part of me is like, I get it. There’s something powerful about staying in your home and with your people during turbulent times.”

Now all that’s left, she said, is to hope and trust.

“My parents have said several times that they’re trying to rely on faith and prayer, to think of Christ and be strong,” she said. “I think in moments like this, when things are out of your control, that’s when you really rely on faith.”

Rosytslav Lukach does not see himself packing up either — no matter how dangerous things get.

“It’s my country,” he said. “It’s my land. Why should I go?”

In the meantime, he said, he feels hopeful, a feeling he attributed to his faith.

“Knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ’s holy plan is and was and always will be very important to my wife’s and my optimism,” he said. “That’s the core.”

The church’s response

The Utah-based church confirmed Monday that it “does not have any foreign full-time missionaries in Russia,” explaining that as of mid-February, roughly 50 “volunteers” had taken assignments elsewhere.

The church moved its full-time missionaries out of Ukraine in January due to the rising tensions, temporarily reassigning them to other parts of Europe.

The faith’s governing First Presidency issued a statement the day after the invasion began calling for peace.

“We pray that this armed conflict will end quickly, that the controversies will end peacefully and that peace will prevail among nations and within our own hearts,” the release read. “We plead with world leaders to seek for such resolutions and peace.”

Church spokesperson Sam Penrod confirmed that the Latter-day Saint temple in Kyiv had closed.

More than 11,000 Latter-day Saints live in Ukraine, according to the church’s website. The church does not list its statistics for Russia, though it reportedly had about 23,000 members there in 2018 scattered among nearly 100 congregations.