The following text was delivered at The Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University on March 18, 2019 during Matins. This version of the text is revised and expanded.
In my youth, I was fortunate to have a close relationship with my maternal grandparents. My grandfather was the pastor of a small Ukrainian Orthodox parish in St. Paul, a community of post-World War II immigrants. Along with most of his parish, he and my grandmother were born and raised in Ukraine after the revolution and lived in Ukraine as a republic of the Soviet Union under Lenin’s and Stalin’s regimes, and also during the Nazi occupancy of Ukraine. When the Soviet army routed the Germans in 1944-5, my grandparents fled Soviet Ukraine. After a few years in displaced person camps in Germany, they eventually moved to Chicago for many years and eventually settled in St. Paul in 1974.
My brother and I spent many weekends at the rectory of my grandfather’s parish, the recipients of an informal education on their experiences. A key point in all of this is that it is almost impossible to understand the violent and dangerous conditions they endured in their upbringing. While my great-great-grandfather tried to pass on the Orthodox Church tradition to my grandfather in Soviet times, most of the functioning parishes had been coercively closed by the Soviet regime in my grandfather’s youth. His life was one of oppression and fear, as the local plenipotentiaries arrested his father as an “enemy of the people.” His father was not a counter-revolutionary, but a school teacher, making him a threat to the ruling elite because he was educated.
My grandfather learned how to pray, but his experience of Church life awakened during the German occupation of Ukraine when bishops and clergy tried to pick up the pieces of the terror that prevented any semblance of normal Church life from 1920 until 1941.
[Let the reader note that the German occupiers proved to be just as tyrannical as their Soviet predecessors and successors, though they encouraged the resumption of Church life from 1941-44].
His immersion in Church life really took flight in the displaced person camps. The immigrants established a makeshift theological school, and he learned pastoral ministry from priests trained in the Kyivan academy. The communities met for liturgical services in whatever rooms they had available to them. They were survivors of severe Soviet oppression and World War II, their dreams of removing the chains of Soviet domination and building a nation and state dissolved by the annexation of all of Ukraine to the Soviet Union in 1945. There was nothing “normal” about their lives. They had scraped to survive and had only gained the freedom to resume Church life in 1941.
Having had everything taken from them in the name of political ideology, they survived. The time of suffering and oppression was a different kind of fast, real desert journey of enduring beatings form the evil one. Every day was Lent, fasting from the devil.
They exchanged a totalitarian regime for the opportunity America once offered immigrants, and lived just above the poverty line. They did not dine out, and shopping for groceries was an adventure in thriftiness, to buy enough to feed a family while remaining in the “black.”
As they assimilated to American life, they found themselves grateful to be alive. They had risen from the oppression of the desert. It was time for a feast – a modest and simple one, but still, a feast.
Part of the feast was the tradition of my privilege of hearing the eyewitness accounts of their encounter with the devil in the desert. This is where I learned the true meaning of fasting and feasting on the basis of eyewitness accounts, real, lived experiences.
One of my warmer memories from my upbringing was our tradition of family feasting. My mother and maternal grandparents set a high bar for eating. We were expected to take seconds at dinner, and they secretly hoped that we would take thirds. The three of them would pester me to eat more and more, even as a young adult, even though I was far north of 220: “you’re not eating enough! You’re going to get sick if you keep depriving yourself of food.” They had an unofficial minimum of two meats for family meals, and there seemed to be an endless supply of savory food.
I didn’t really understand why food was so important, so I asked my grandfather, “why is it so important to you that we eat?” He responded, “because the day may come when there is no food.” He said that because the fast from the devil that, along with all my grandparents, almost claimed his life via starvation. They survived a grievous famine in Ukraine in 1932-33. This famine is called the Holodomor: murder by starvation, part of Stalin’s plot to enforce collectivization of Ukrainian landowners on fertile soil, and kill the spirit of independence.
The local plenipotentiaries did not only arrest “enemies of the people” on trumped-up charges. They also came to the people’s homes and took away all the food, exporting the grain to Moscow. Disease spread quickly and local uprisings were snuffed out with violent ferocity. The Holodomor claimed 3-5 million lives – by starvation. When I asked my grandfather what he ate for two years, he responded, “you don’t want to know.”
Anne Applebaum’s recent book Red Famine narrates the story of Stalin’s genocide in Ukraine – her stories are true. No, they’re not invented by the US State dept. or some conspiracy theorist. I know because my grandparents and many others of their community were eyewitnesses to and survivors of this travesty. They shared their stories with people like me, and it changed my life forever.
I can’t fathom going without food for even one day – I’ve tried it, and find it impossible. I also confess that I struggle to observe the letter of the daily Lenten fast in Orthodoxy because of a weak stomach. Not only does my digestive system protest, but I end up devoting more time and money to prepare foods and meals that are not part of my regular rotation. But I find wisdom in the simple approach taught me by my grandparents. They had no choice but to prepare meals on a budget. They weren’t fancy, but simple, and plenty healthy. They observed that kind of dietary fast because it was all they could afford (no, we never had seafood). The story of the life they lived handed on to me at table taught me the real meaning of the fast: to reject evil, as Jesus did when the Holy Spirit led him into the desert, and as they did.
What strikes me from their story is how their experience of fasting from the devil made them so grateful for the freedom to live, and to gather in their communities to worship God. Their joy of feasting is paradoxical because as immigrants they lived in poverty – everything they owned was second hand and simple, and I won’t even tell you what my grandfather was paid as a pastor because he was essentially doing it pro bono.
Their everyday humility is what added that little extra in making them credible eyewitnesses to me. In recent years, liturgical commemoration of the Holodomor centered on the theme of “fasting from the devil,” which I have mentioned several times. One particular story shared by my grandfather brings this to light. During the Holodomor, schoolteachers in Soviet Ukraine instructed children to pray “Our Father” before an icon of Christ. When they finished the prayer, they waited for a while and asked the children why God had not answered their request for bread.
The teachers then instructed the children to ask Stalin for bread (before a portrait of Stalin). Of course, bread arrived immediately. Those who starved or survived in the midst of such ideological manipulation explained their suffering as fasting from the devil, just like Jesus did in the desert.
I continue to pass on the eyewitness account I received from my grandparents because Christians, as the body of Christ, are responsible for building up the life of the world. This responsibility requires us to condemn violence and coercion while demanding and striving for feeding the hungry throughout the world. No one should starve from a famine caused by totalitarian policies, and our eyes must cross national borders to see the hungry, the orphan, and the widow in the world.
I want to add that I aspire to be as faithful as my grandparents and their community. Against all odds, they built churches with every penny they had because they finally had the freedom to worship and offer thanks to God. The privilege of freedom to worship is something we occasionally take for granted in America; we should embrace the opportunity to exercise that freedom.
And finally, we live in a post-truth epoch where it can be hard to distinguish fake from real news. There are people all too happy to tell you that wars in Ukraine or Syria are not real, and that even 9/11 is an orchestrated conspiracy. Trustworthy eyewitness accounts are more valuable than ever. And we should know, because our faith traditions depend on trustworthy eyewitness accounts. We need not doubt them – to do so is to succumb to the temptation that Jesus resisted in the desert. Witnessing to the truth – even if it hurts – honors the human dignity of those whose stories should be heard. I can’t think of a better reason to honor eyewitness accounts: they contribute to Christ’s ministry for the life of the world.