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Newport Beach resident told herself to ‘just go’ to Ukraine

The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, St. James Episcopal Church, Newport Beach, in front of destroyed cars in Ukraine.
The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, St. James Episcopal Church, Newport Beach, stands in front of destroyed cars in war-torn Irpin, Ukraine on Aug. 13.
(Courtesy of the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees)

Imagine seeing a procession of Russian military tanks randomly blowing up buildings as it travels along Newport Boulevard toward the harbor.

That was the image that struck the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees when she first set foot on Ukraine soil amid the devastation.

“I was waking up at 3 in the morning, worrying about the innocent people being slaughtered in Ukraine,” Voorhees told the Daily Pilot. “I just wanted to be a neutral eyewitness — not a reporter or politician — and see where I could help as one person.”

In March, Voorhees’ house of worship, St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, had attached a large blue and yellow flag banner in support of Ukraine weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion there in late February. The banner drew the attention of Ukrainians living in Orange County who not only sought assistance but brought native baked goods to share with the Newport Beach congregation.

A banner bearing the Ukraine flag.
One of two large banners bearing the Ukraine flag’s blue and yellow colors is attached to walls outside St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach last spring.
(Susan Hoffman)

“It’s amazing what one banner [that proclaimed] ‘Pray for Ukraine’ will do,” Voorhees said. “We were the only church from Santa Barbara to San Clemente to 29 Palms who had any Ukrainians, according to the 25 priests who attended a recent diocese meeting.”

Two Ukrainian young women arrived at St. James first, sharing a Ukrainian cake. They later asked for baby formula and military first aid to be sent to their homeland.

Then a Ukrainian music producer, Oleksii Fedosov, sought to create a music video inside the church to be shown in Ukraine.

A Taiwanese American woman told Voorhees she was compelled by the church’s outreach to travel to the front line to drive a truck for supplies.

Then there was a request for assistance from a missionary in Ukraine working the front lines with women who had been raped.

“She said they need female chaplains over there and asked me to come and work with women and children who had been raped by Russian military,” said Voorhees, who had begun opening the St. James parish hall to meetings with 50 to 60 Ukrainian refugees.

“I was very torn while going through the discernment process, asking myself, ‘Why me?’” Voorhees recalled. “And then the answer came by way of an NPR interview question to an American who had just returned, who said, ‘If you have something to offer … go!’”

Three weeks later, she went on her own to see the conditions on the ground. “Once I was there, I knew I was supposed to be there,” Voorhees said.

A row of damaged housing units in Irpin, Ukraine on Aug. 13.
A row of damaged housing units in Irpin, Ukraine, on Aug. 13.
(Courtesy of the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees)

She was accompanied by a Ukrainian friend who served as an interpreter during the 14-day journey. They first landed in Caux, Switzerland, where they connected with Initiatives of Change, a network for religious and traditional peacemakers. The organization, which was housing 25 refugees in its home at the time, was an integral part of facilitating the transition into Ukraine.

“A few days later we arrived at the civilian airport at the Polish border and saw U.S. military everywhere,” Voorhees said. “It was definitely sobering.”

They took an overnight train ride to Kyiv in 80-degree heat and with four people to a room sleeping in bunks. Their luggage didn’t make it onto the train with them, an annoyance that was put into perspective after they witnessed refugees fleeing with only the clothes on their back. The train station they disembarked at was a madhouse, Voorhees said.

The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, right, helps in soup kitchen in Kyiv earlier this month.
The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, St. James Episcopal Church, Newport Beach, right, helps in a soup kitchen in Kyiv during her August trip to Ukraine.
(Courtesy of the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees)

“I didn’t have appointments set up but went on faith and on the spur of the moment because of the connections that opened doors ... people want to be heard and not just by news media,” Voorhees said.

One who approached her was Ukrainian opera singer Alex Luna, who also works for a member of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament.

“He asked what we needed and then connected us to the member of parliament, Tetiana Tsyba,” Voorhees said. “I met with dignitaries and refugees and Archpriest Mykolaiv Danilevich of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for international relations. It was wonderful going on my own to let people know they’re being supported and not alone.

“I served food in the soup kitchen that had been set up by a local businessman who felt he had to do something, I had the same feeling about how could you not not help.”

Voorhees said the people accepting food in the soup kitchen did not want to talk. She observed that they appeared dispirited by having to seek a handout.

Luna drove Voorhees to Irpin and Bucha, where many atrocities took place. The Newport Beach woman saw for herself the bombed-out buildings, which she said was a hard thing to wrap her head around.

“I spoke to a man who pointed to a house with the side open who said, ‘That used to be my home, the Russians came through so fast I hardly had time to move, my neighbors died.’”

“They definitely wanted to talk to a pastor,” said Voorhees who said she wasn’t there to give sermons but instead to provide a nonanxious presence that would allow people to tell their story and feel that they were being heard.

When Voorhees met with Tsyba, her message was, ‘Please do not forget that we are at war defending democracy.’

“There was no question, everyone in Ukraine believes they will win the war,” Voorhees said.

The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, left, with Tetiana Tsyba in Kyiv on Aug. 16.
The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, St. James Episcopal Church, Newport Beach, left, with Tetiana Tsyba, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, in Kyiv on Aug. 16.
(Courtesy of the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees)

One of the most significant meetings occurred toward the end of the trip when Voorhees spent three hours with military psychologist Dr. Natalya Zaretska, during which they discussed the psychological effects of occupation and isolation.

The feelings expressed by Zaretska, according to Voorhees, were that the world needs to know Russia is a global existential threat to democracy and that its radical ideology since 2014 is that “Ukrainians are not considered human.”

Zaretska told Voorhees that psychological help is of value and there is a need for female chaplains to serve in the affected communities because they are trained in listening techniques and spiritual values.

Voorhees met with civilians serving alongside the Ukrainian army such as movie production people, contractors and accountants. They were being trained to take on the fight and also cleaning guns, digging trenches and creating makeshift weapons.

Destroyed buildings in war-torn Irpin, Ukraine.
(Courtesy of the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees)

“Genius thinking. Unbelievable dedication to their country,” said Voorhees. “I visited a women’s shelter, so heartbreaking to see damage being done, and [the experience] gave me the feeling we need to do more.

“Sometimes it only takes one person to make a difference,” she said.

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