Entering Yale University’s St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel, Oksana Goroshchuk spotted sunflowers adorning a candlelit altar and thought of the fields full of her country’s national blossom near her grandmother’s home in Ukraine.
A mezzo-soprano launched into a traditional folk tune that Goroshchuk used to sing growing up, and the postdoctoral medical researcher broke down in tears of grief — and gratitude for the university community’s solidarity with her homeland.
“It’s people who support us and people who love us,” said Goroshchuk, 32, who was born in Kyiv and whose parents recently escaped the war-torn country.
Across the United States, campus ministries of different denominations are working to bring comfort to college students who, after two years of pandemic disruption and isolation, have been plunged deeper into feelings of crisis and helplessness by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
From Ivy League schools to public institutions to Catholic universities, they’re holding prayer vigils, organizing medical supply drives and staging emotional performances of sacred music. Chaplains say religious and nonreligious students alike, especially those with loved ones in war zones, urgently need a sense of community to help them cope.
“One of the best things we do in campus ministry is we foster community,” said Lisa Reiter, director of campus ministry at Loyola University Chicago.
At the Wednesday night peace concert and benefit at Yale, dozens of attendees gazed quietly at an image of a crucified Jesus Christ holding a dove, backlit by the blue and yellow of Ukraine’s flag. Cello suites, organ pieces, classical violin and piano melodies and a Ukrainian Orthodox chant echoed through the chapel.
“There’s this mass movement by Russia to take away lives of Ukrainians. But they can’t take away the culture, and they can’t take away the language or the song,” said Sofiya Bidochko, a 19-year-old Yale student from Lviv, Ukraine. “I feel the importance of preserving my Ukrainian-ness when I hear these songs.”
To the north at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the campus’ Hillel organization recently welcomed several Ukrainian students to a Shabbat dinner, where they supped on matzo ball soup and deli sandwiches. The Jewish group’s members listened to their guests talk about their homes and families and promised to support them.
“It was just nice to have this bit of community,” said Yevheniia, a 20-year-old student who came to the dinner even though she was baptized Orthodox Christian and considers herself agnostic.
She asked that her last name be withheld to protect her parents — they live in an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists and recently messaged her to say they were going to a bomb shelter.
Also this month, at the University of Rhode Island, an interfaith peace vigil drew people from Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other faiths together in prayer. A Buddhist chaplain struck a Tibetan singing bowl to mark a moment of silence for those suffering and killed in Ukraine.
Organizers stressed the importance of not only making divine appeals but carrying out concrete, earthly action, and provided resources for students to do so.
“Prayer alone is not enough,” said Amy Olson, chair of the university’s Chaplains Association and executive director of its Hillel group. “We really put an emphasis on ways that people could either make charitable donations or contribute funds to help the cause, how they could write to their politicians or offer support to the Ukrainian community locally.”
A similar solidarity vigil was held at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. And at Loyola University Chicago, the campus ministry partnered with the newly recreated Ukrainian student club to stage a drive that collected 60 tons of medical supplies for war relief.
Campus ministers at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, have been collecting money for humanitarian aid at religious services and say some $700 was put in collection baskets at Ash Wednesday Masses alone. A kiosk has also been set up with a scannable QR code for online donations.
The school is home to many Somali American students who attended a recent prayer for peace. As the children of refugees or refugees themselves, they have seen firsthand the horrors of war and “get shaken by” seeing them repeated in Ukraine, Muslim chaplain Sadaf Shier said.
Many chaplains said that remote education and a lack of socializing and shared rituals during the pandemic have frayed the social fabric that would normally help assuage the struggles and anxiety of students, some of whom worry the hostilities in Ukraine could spill beyond borders and ignite a World War III.
That means their mission has changed, becoming less focused on just worship and more on helping young adults re-engage with each other and the world. Often that entails channeling their concern into charitable action.
“Students have been trying to figure out what to do,” said Sister Jenn Schaaf, assistant Catholic chaplain at Yale.
The mezzo-soprano whose performance at Yale moved Goroshchuk to tears was Karolina Wojteczko, a native of Poland who recently graduated from the university and now serves as music director at St. Thomas More.
Wojteczko was inspired to organize the concert by the distress she has noticed among both Eastern European and American friends. That included Russians, who she said are being “shunned from the communities right now.” One student with family in both Ukraine and Russia confessed to feeling utterly lost.
The concert has helped people unite, cope and heal.
“After COVID everyone has been so separated,” Wojteczko said, “and this is … a way to just sit there and be, and participate, and feel that you are connected to people who need help in the world.”