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‘Tugged at My Heart’: California Priest Visits Ukraine

By Kirk Petersen

The Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees took a 14-day trip in August to war-torn Ukraine, to serve as a chaplain to women and children who had been raped by Russian soldiers.

The focus of the trip changed, and she didn’t meet with any rape victims. But the California priest talked with lots of Ukrainians from many walks of life, and came back with a changed perspective on the nature of war. She knew going in that Russia’s war was an existential threat to Ukraine. She came home believing it also represents a serious threat to the entire world.

(Longtime TLC readers may remember Voorhees as the priest who reopened St. James in Newport Beach, California, in 2018, after she and her congregation were locked out for three years in a dispute with Bishop J. Jon Bruno. St. James is thriving now.)

Defiant street art in Bucha helps give Voorhees hope

A few weeks after the war began in February, St. James posted a banner of Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag and the words “Pray for Ukraine.” That brought a steady trickle of Ukrainian expats to visit the church, one of whom asked Voorhees to consider being a chaplain. A new Ukrainian friend accompanied Voorhees as an interpreter. They spent most of the trip in Kyiv and Lviv, well away from the fighting.

Voorhees spoke with TLC for more than an hour over Zoom on October 7 — before the Crimea bridge explosion and the Russian reprisals that followed. These excerpts have been condensed and lightly edited for brevity and narrative flow.

Voorhees: The more I talked to people [about visiting Ukraine], they’re like, “No way.” But I kept getting tugged at my heart. I kept waking up in the middle of the night with this inner voice saying, “You know, you need to go.” So it was not like it was planned every step of the way. It was more like, go by faith.

One of the most rewarding times was when I met with the top psychologist for the military. And we sat for three hours, while she was bending my mind. She kept saying, “That’s your Western mind, that’s your Western mind. You need to understand the culture of Russia, you need to understand what’s going on since 2014. It’s an asymmetrical attack that is targeted for you as well. If we don’t win, it’s not going to be good for anyone.”

They’re at war. We have a Christian mindset: Love your neighbor. They say, “Great, but this is an unprovoked, unjust war.” And I said, “Well, there’s probably many people in Russia that are against it.” But the Ukrainians say, “You don’t understand the Russian mind. Russia has a cultural attitude that we are subhuman. They are superior. And they want world domination; they’ll do it by any means. [Ukrainians are] fighting for democracy and freedom, and if they lose, Russia will be empowered. And they will keep coming. This is not just, you know, restoring the USSR, this is world domination.

I guess I’m not as careless now about saying, “Love your neighbor.” It’s a deeper thought process when you’re sitting in front of a military psychologist who’s on the front line.

Would you go back?

I would if there was a purpose. I actually fell in love with the people and the culture.

Tell me about some of the people you met. You told your congregation about a family in the east who got up in the middle of the night and realized they had to leave immediately.

When [the mother] was speaking, I envisioned her running around the house like it’s on fire, and you don’t know what to take. You grab the kids, you got the pets, and then they were on a train, and they were being packed in like sardines. And they didn’t know where they were going. And it was for 24 hours.

I think the one that sticks out in my mind the most is in Lviv. I went to a home for women and children. And this woman wanted to speak to me. She had a 4-year-old little boy, very autistic, in diapers. She said he had a school [back home] that was very good for him, very regimented. And he is so traumatized, he’s regressed into diapers. He was definitely disturbed, sitting there while we were talking, and it broke my heart.

I haven’t told anyone this. When we left, I was on a train from Lviv to Poland, and my interpreter said, ‘What did you think of the trip?’ And I’m not a crier, but I said nothing, I just sat there and wept. I kept saying, “Give me a minute. Okay, give me a minute. I’m not a crier, give me a minute.” This went on for a little while, and she just touched my knee and she said, “Enough said.”

A presentation Voorhees gave at church has much more detail about the trip, on the St. James YouTube page.  

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