Holodomor and Thanksgiving

Post Author: Rev. Katharine L. Steele

Every November, as many in the United States prepare their Thanksgiving turkeys and make plans to gather around the table with friends, family and perhaps too much food, the world also commemorates Holodomor, the devastating forced famine imposed on the Ukrainian people by Joseph Stalin’s regime in the early 1930s. This dark chapter in history serves as a solemn reminder of the resilience of the Ukrainian people and the enduring trauma they have faced throughout generations. Holodomor is observed on the fourth Saturday of November every year.

I had a firm grasp of World War II; yet I must admit that I had never heard of the Holodomor until the year I spent in L’viv, Ukraine. I served with Molod do Isusa, which translates to “Youth to Jesus,” a Campus Ministry while I was a Young Adult Missionary of the United Methodist Church. This ministry both nurtured the spiritual lives of young people and planted a small United Methodist congregation in the city.

Rev. Katie Steele and her Ukrainian friends, on the left in a coffeeshop in L’viv about 10 years ago.

Rev. Katie Steele and her Ukrainian friends, on the left in a coffeeshop in L’viv about 10 years ago.

A natural builder of bridges between people and cultures, I nevertheless felt quite lonely during my first weeks in Ukraine. My new Ukrainian contacts had high walls, thick exteriors and seemed extremely hesitant to form friendships with anyone new or different. It was an abrupt shift from the feast of friendship and faith that gave me the courage to leave home for this very foreign land. But a few years before my arrival, the lead American missionaries of the ministry planned and publicized a large Thanksgiving Day event at the Student Center. They were surprised that few students signed up to attend this feast. The couple was crestfallen until one of the students in leadership gently explained that they had scheduled the celebration of food and community on Ukraine’s national Holodomor Remembrance Day. To juxtapose an American feast on the day Ukrainians relive the trauma of when millions died of starvation – well, it was the height of a cross-cultural misunderstanding. When we are faced with terrible realities such as famine or war, loneliness or rejection, we humans withdraw, build walls within ourselves, and attempt to close off the rest of the world.

With perseverance and commitment to building relationships, I began to form small groups of friends throughout the ministry. Many of those friendships have remained to this day, despite the years and the miles that now often separate us. Olya, an immigration lawyer, helped me, as well as several other missionaries, navigate the bureaucratic hurdles and procure the necessary documents to legally continue our work and ministry in Ukraine. Her dedication to our shared cause demonstrated the depth of her character and her commitment to helping others. Nastia, a university professor and church attendee, became a bridge between our international team of missionaries and the local community. She provided crucial translation assistance, allowing us to effectively communicate with the Ukrainian youth and carry out our ministry. Her passion for education and faith was inspiring, and her support was instrumental in our efforts. All three of us share a deep love of travel and have found ourselves gallivanting across the world together on more than one occasion. Including actually celebrating Thanksgiving together this year.

Rev. Katie Steele and her friends’ driveway as the Thanksgiving weekend festivities came to a conclusion.

Rev. Katie Steele and her friends’ driveway as the Thanksgiving weekend festivities came to a conclusion.

Our unique connection, spanning continents and cultures, is a testament to the power of Campus Ministry and shared table fellowship in creating lasting bonds. These women have brought such abundance to my life, but in many ways our friendship was forged through a kind of famine, through those first days and weeks of my near-crippling loneliness. And later in that year our bonds were deepened as both women stood by the ministry and supported me after an accident necessitated the emergency evacuation of our lead missionary team. Never has my faith been so rattled as by the events of that missionary year, and these dear friends, despite the rocky start we had, were my rock through those days.

Olya, despite the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, continues to work as an immigration lawyer and also supports the Ukrainian military in various capacities. She remains in L’viv, even as the city has become a war zone, choosing to stay to support her brother, who is unable to leave due to martial law. Nastia and Oleg now reside in Canada, and they invited Olya and I to join them for Canadian Thanksgiving. Our reunion was a beautiful blend of celebration and reflection on the trials that Ukraine and the world continue to face. It was during our time together that news of the conflict in Israel/Palestine broke, particularly the harrowing events in the Gaza strip. It was a sobering reminder that while some experience abundance, there remains so much scarcity in this world. We are faced with so much pain and hurt, so many scars, in so many places. Yet there is healing in eating and laughing together, and in seeking each other’s faces after too long apart.

Nastia, Oleg, Olya, and our friendship are beacons of goodness and joy in the world, offering steadfast support in uncertain times. Every time I reunite with them, I am fed within an inch of my life, amazed at the abundance of our shared table, and leave feeling grateful for the opportunity to have spent time in the company of such amazing friends who were once strangers. As we celebrate the various holidays of the season despite ongoing turmoil across the globe, I wonder where you find your own abundant tables of grace and love. Where are you building bridges and friendships that fly in the face of oppression and injustice?

May your holiday tables be heavy with the weight of gratitude and grace this season.

Rev. Katie Steele is an Elder in the United Methodist Church currently serving in extension as the Associate Director at the Wesley Foundation Campus Ministry in Cincinnati, OH. When not writing, traveling internationally, or pondering existentially, she enjoys time with her cats, time with her niece, and taking her Girl Scout troop on adventures.

Image by: Rev. Katie Steele
Used with permission
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