It was the first time Veronica Clark attended the Russian-speaking Latter-day Saint branch in Salt Lake City.
“I had to be with my people,” Clark, a Ukrainian student at Utah Valley University, said about commuting 40 minutes to a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Sunday.
The congregation includes Ukrainians, Russians, immigrants from former East bloc countries, returned missionaries from Slavic-speaking nations and American spouses. The branch, which is smaller than a typical Latter-day Saint ward, has roughly 100 members who regularly attend.
Amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Clark said she felt prompted to worship with other Ukrainian Latter-day Saints in a language spoken back home. She wanted to surround herself with fellow Ukrainians as they collectively worry about and pray for safety in their country.
Clark was hardly alone.
Some congregants reverently sat in the chapel at 142 W. 200 North, kitty-corner from the Conference Center, with a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag painted on their faces. Others wore vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian shirt, as a sign of solidarity for what the people of Ukraine are enduring. Menacing bombs. Crowded shelters. Mass migrations. And weepy goodbyes as families send loved ones off to battle.
Many of the members were sleep-deprived from clinging to their phones day and night, awaiting the latest update as tensions escalated.
The church’s stance
During the last worship service in the chapel before moving to a different building several blocks away at 225 W. 500 North, branch President Gregory Brinton called for unity among the members. He encouraged all to leave their personal feelings about the Russia-Ukraine conflict outside the meetinghouse, stating that the church is “a place where everyone is welcome.”
“We need to be full of love and kindness,” Brinton preached from the pulpit, “no matter where we are from or where we fall politically.”
The church’s governing First Presidency has been guarded in its comments as well.
Church President Russell M. Nelson and his two counselors issued a news release calling for peace but stopped short of naming Russia or Ukraine.
“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 stated. “We plead with world leaders to seek for such resolutions and peace.”
Directly after Brinton’s remarks, however, the benediction at the branch’s services centered on Ukraine. The man who prayed was clear about his plea — asking God to help Ukraine and to “please keep them safe from [Vladimir] Putin’s regime.”
For Russian member Sasha Pachev, the request from their lay leader to refrain from discussing the attacks felt nearly impossible.
“We all knew we weren’t supposed to talk about it,” said Pachev, who reared in Moscow and moved to Utah in 1993, “but emotions were too strong.”
‘There should not be contention’
Those words rang true to Vasil Osipenko, a branch member who was raised in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and moved to Utah 15 years ago.
“I knew that there should not be contention,” he said, “at least from my side.”
Since the first bomb hit his homeland last week, Osipenko hadn’t stopped thinking about his family and the unfolding events. He, along with other members, spent Sunday fasting with a running prayer for Ukraine on their mind.
“My brother quit smoking,” Osipenko said, with a slight smile on his face, “only because he’s in a shelter in Kyiv and there’s no access to cigarettes.” Still, Osipenko viewed it as a mild victory in the wake of the destruction.
Osipenko said tensions rose a bit during the all-male priesthood meeting, where he felt as if some of the men were misrepresenting the severity of the crisis by suggesting they knew more about life in Ukraine than him.
“People are dying and being killed. Innocent people and citizens,” Osipenko emphasized, “so when people start being arrogant and making silly faces, it’s very disrespectful.”
Nonetheless, Osipenko said, he will continue to defend his country and provide unconditional love to his brothers and sisters.
“The people and the relationships with them,” he said, referring to a sermon from the late church President Thomas S. Monson, “are more valuable to me than the problem we’re trying to solve.”
“I love them,” Osipenko said. “That’s the first thing.”
For his part, Pachev said there should be no political disagreement about what’s happening to Ukraine, stating that a sovereign country is defending its freedom and “exposing Putin’s true colors.”
Indeed, Pachev believes Russians should thank Ukraine.
“Since the attacks,” he said, “Ukraine has done more to bring freedom to Russia than the entire West has done in 20 years.”