Former LDS missionary returns to Ukraine, meets his hero President Zelenskyy

“We did a lot of crying” — Utah bishop returns to the place he preached a gospel of peace and finds a country devastated by war.

When Jonathan Freedman went to Ukraine in 1993 sporting a missionary name badge, he preached faith, repentance and baptism — and fell in love with the place and the people.

When he returned last week as Ukraine’s honorary consul in Utah, he preached trade, technology and free enterprise — and renewed his love for the place and the people.

But sorrow filled his soul in witnessing how the war with Russia has ravaged his beloved country.

Freedman snapped photos of bullet-punctured churches, bombed-out buildings and makeshift memorials. His phone would buzz, warning about incoming missiles and directing him and his companions to basement shelters. And strangers approached on the street, eager to talk.

“Everyone has a personal story of pain and trauma,” says Freedman, his voice repeatedly breaking with emotion. “We did a lot of crying with them.”

When the visiting Utahn told Ukrainians that he had lived for two years in Donetsk, in the southeast region and site of some of the bloodiest battles, their eyes would swell.

“They would pause and give me a nod as if to say ‘wow,’” Freedman says. “That’s the front line now, where most of the destruction has happened.”

As a young missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Freedman could not have imagined that, 30 years later, the neighborhoods where he once spread a gospel of peace have now been haunted by the ghosts of war.

Nor, he concedes, could he have foreseen that he would one day meet a heroic leader like President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

He did, though, dream of a Latter-day Saint temple taking root in Ukraine — a dream that did come true.

The trade and humanitarian mission

(Jonathan Freedman) Destroyed military vehicles are on display near St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv, Ukraine.

A few months ago, Freedman started talking with Bruce Roberts, CEO of August Mission, a Utah-based resettlement organization, about a possible trade and humanitarian visit to Ukraine.

The idea ignited a lot of interest and support among politicians, tech experts, defense officials and agronomists.

Ultimately, the weeklong trip, organized by World Trade Center Utah, included August Mission, To Ukraine With Love, The Stirling Foundation and the Malouf Foundation.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, led the 30-member delegation, whose goal was not only to render humanitarian aid, he told FOX 13, “but also to try to help Ukraine with economic development and give them sustainability and revenue to win the war.”

They arrived in Warsaw, Poland, at the end of April and then drove to Ukraine’s western border, where they spent the night.

Early the next morning, they ventured into Khmelnytskyi, a city relatively unscarred by the war.

Except, of course, that it has more than doubled in size due to tidal waves of refugees from the east.

In the city center, Freedman says, the visitors saw a line of about 350 people, waiting outside a big humanitarian center to pick up free clothing, toys, kitchenware and bedding.

Logan’s Malouf Foundation had donated some 18,000 mattresses, costing about $1.7 million, and Freedman, who proudly works for Malouf, says it was “a wonderful feeling” to spy many residents carting away the beds on their shoulders or stuffing them into cars.

Latter-day Saint Charities donated $150,000 in Visa credit cards to refugees in Khmelnytskyi, Freedman said, and millions more in aid to Ukraine in the past year.

One other sight startled him: the absence of men.

“This is a busy city,” says the ebullient businessman and Latter-day Saint bishop, “but find me a young man, someone between ages 18 to 60. They are not there.”

All they saw, he says, were women, children and the elderly.

Houses of Bucha

(Jonathan Freedman) A family opens the door to a new home financed by Zions Bank in Bucha, Ukraine.

Traveling in a small caravan with a bus and two passenger vans, the Utah delegation journeyed from the relative peace of western Ukraine along what is known as the “highway of death,” where Russian troops initially had lined up their tanks to attack the capital.

After Ukrainians blew up a bridge into Kyiv, the invaders diverted their tanks to small cities a half-hour away, Freedman says. “They unleashed their wrath on these defenseless neighboring towns.”

The Utahns first went to Bucha, northwest of the capital, where donations from the Beehive State built a few homes for families who lost theirs in the March assault on their town. The charity To Ukraine With Love gifted five homes; it plans to give a thousand.

Every third or fourth house was blown up, Freedman says. “It was heartbreaking. They had nowhere to go to hide safely.”

Nearly every corner in Bucha “is now a crime scene,” according to an April 2022 Human Rights Watch report, “and it felt like death was everywhere.”

The Utahns visited the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints, where authorities and volunteers had collected more than 150 bodies of those who perished during Russia’s occupation of the city.

“You could tell this was hallowed ground,” Freedman says, growing teary with the memory of those horrific sights.

The delegation drove by “a playground with colorful equipment,” he says. “It was behind a corrugated iron wall, riddled with hundreds of bullet holes.”

The Russians were shooting at this park, Freedman says. “What tactical value did that have?”

To thank the Utahns for their generosity, Bucha’s residents erected billboards featuring the state’s iconic Delicate Arch.

(Jonathan Freedman) A billboard showing Delicate Arch in Bucha, Ukraine. The text of the billboard thanks Utahns for helping to rebuild areas in and around Kyiv.

Going to the temple

Early one morning, some delegates left their hotel in Kyiv to drive to the Latter-day Saint temple, where they had arranged a private tour.

The gleaming single-spired, 22,000-square-foot edifice shut down in the immediate aftermath of the invasion in February 2022 before reopening on a limited basis in October.

Freedman had attended the dedication in 2010, and heard then-church President Thomas S. Monson pray that it would “provide a spirit of peace to all who observe its majesty.”

Walking through the empty rooms in “this peaceful sanctuary” was a “comfort,” Freedman says, “a real juxtaposition with all the destruction we had seen outside.”

(Jonathan Freedman) Jonathan Freedman poses for a photograph in front of the Kyiv Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Freedman was a missionary in Ukraine.

Like many Latter-day Saint temples, the site is on a “bit of a hill,” he says, but unlike most temples, the basement is stocked with huge reserves of food, water, art (“like a mini-hermitage”), and monitors to watch the faith’s General Conference.

“We spend a lot of time there,” locals told the visitors. “Everyone drops everything when the sirens go off.”

As they were leaving, the temple matron told the group that she was promised she would live to see miracles.

“I believe you coming here is a miracle,” she said. “It’s a dangerous part of the world. We are all so grateful to you for coming to show your support. We typically feel alone. We don’t get many international visitors here.”

Meeting the president

(Ukrainian Presidential Press Office) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy greets Ukraine honorary consul in Utah Jonathan Freedman at the presidential palace in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Their last stop, just before leaving, was to the presidential office to meet Zelenskyy.

On entering the heavily fortified compound, the Utahns had to relinquish all electronics including Apple watches, Freedman says. They passed through four checkpoints until they reached the palatial meeting room.

Sitting at an oblong table, the two sets of leaders discussed future exchanges and how Utahns and Ukrainians could work together.

And Zelenskyy?

“I could immediately sense his sincerity, determination and passion,” Freedman says. “He also was funny and, of course, exhausted” during the 75-minute meeting. “But he was focused and resolute and interested in us.”

He vowed over and over in English, “We will win this war,” and Freedman came away convinced.

Utah was the first U.S. state to send a formal delegation to Ukraine since the Russian assault, government officials told the visitors.

One minister declared: “I want you to know that when this conflict is over, I will be going to the United States, and my first stop will be Utah.”

Though deeply troubled by the devastation, Freedman was moved by the Latter-day Saints and by Ukrainians in general.

To see this “illegal and unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation,” he says, “their faith is put to the test continually.”

But their conviction and courage, Freedman says, “were palpable.”

He must now be a witness, he believes, by preaching this new noble cause.