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Some Ukrainian Americans cast doubt on their churches as a war abroad continues

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine may be strengthening the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Ukrainian Orthodox believers in the Chicago area are intentionally seeking out church services from their own culture rather than ones affiliated with Russian orthodoxy. From member station WBEZ, Adora Namigadde reports.

ADORA NAMIGADDE, BYLINE: On a busy Saturday morning at St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Church, girls and boys enrolled in a language class are dressed in traditionally embroidered outfits.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in non-English language).

NAMIGADDE: They're singing songs about the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken) Sorry.

NAMIGADDE: Down the hall, women in the church kitchen package pierogi. Parishioners gather in the hall, ready to purchase the little dumplings to support their church.

(CROSSTALK)

NAMIGADDE: One member, Oksana Lukinova, is a Ukrainian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 2007.

OKSANA LUKINOVA: We love this church. We help them, support them. And this is the best church in Illinois.

NAMIGADDE: Lukinova didn't always worship at this church in the western Chicago suburb of Bloomingdale. She used to go to Holy Virgin Protection Russian Orthodox Cathedral closer to her house. But when her father joined her in the U.S., he insisted that the family attend a Ukrainian Orthodox church, hence the move to St. Andrew.

LUKINOVA: This is our new home, and we stay with St. Andrew.

NAMIGADDE: Lukinova now sees more Ukrainian friends following suit as Russia invades their home country. Many Orthodox Ukrainians join Russian congregations simply because they're nearby and there are more of them, but a change is happening for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: In the long run, that church is going to get much larger.

NAMIGADDE: George Demacopoulos is co-director of Fordham University's Orthodox Christian Studies Center. He says at least 12 Russian Orthodox bishops in Ukraine are refusing to recognize the patriarch of Moscow as the head of the church. They've stopped commemorating him in their prayers.

DEMACOPOULOS: Because they believe that the patriarch Kirill of Moscow has effectively forfeited his pastoral responsibility, either because he is a willing accomplice of Putin's invasion or simply because he lacks the fortitude to stand up to Putin.

NAMIGADDE: Demacopoulos says the clergymen in Russia who speaks out against the war could be arrested and tried for treason. In the U.S., a priest who raises concerns could theoretically be removed from his parish, but Ukrainian Orthodox clergy and congregations in the U.S. are free of such concerns.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

NAMIGADDE: Back at St. Andrew in Bloomingdale, board president John Jaresko says there's a silver lining to the grim realities of this war. He sees it in the way Ukrainian Christians are discovering and, in some cases, rediscovering Ukrainian Orthodox congregations.

JOHN JARESKO: They utilize it for the first communion. They utilize it for the christening. But they don't come on a regular basis until tragedies like this happen. And it opens their eyes, and it opens their hearts.

NAMIGADDE: He says people come to churches like St. Andrew because it's a place of solidarity, both with Ukrainian Americans and those still living in their homeland.

JARESKO: And so these people are now understanding, their inner soul is telling them, I need to search out my Ukrainian church, my Ukrainian roots, and I need to be proud of that.

NAMIGADDE: Jaresko says that sense of purpose and resolve could usher in a period of growth for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in both the U.S. and abroad. For NPR News, I'm Adora Namigadde in Bloomingdale, Ill.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN SHIELDS' "IKEBANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.