A war 5,000 miles away draws fierce response with prayers, support in Metro Detroit

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

With images of the turmoil in Ukraine amid the Russian invasion on their minds, Maureen Squires and her family this month carefully loaded up their shopping carts, intent on helping out.

Leaders at All Saints Catholic School in Canton Township, where Squires’ 13-year-old son attends, recently urged its students and community to donate to a collection drive several Archdiocese of Detroit parishes coordinated. The toiletries, medical supplies and other necessities gathered are slated for shipment to Ukrainians facing hunger, displacement and the constant drumbeat of war.

“We did feel passionate about giving to them,” said Squires, who lives in Plymouth. “They’re fighting for their country. What’s happening to them, we feel it’s so unfair, and we just wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to help.”

As the conflict escalates and stretches into another week, many in Metro Detroit are stepping up efforts to send aid and supplies for the frontlines and in neighboring countries absorbing refugees. 

From upcoming concerts and fundraisers to online pleas, even plans to head overseas, locals with Ukrainian ties or those without are steering a groundswell of support.

They view the work, which complements sizeable sums and assistance from the United States government as well as its allies, as a labor of love.

“This is not just some minor dispute in Europe. This is something that could potentially kick off World War III,” said Anthony Pate, a St. Clair Shores resident who has launched a group to help and trekked to Ukraine this month to facilitate distribution. 

Archdiocese of Detroit Priests Mario Amore, left, and John Owusu talk, Thursday morning, March 17, 2022, at Old St. Mary’s Church in Greektown about items collected for Ukraine in the last two weeks. Items include backpacks, medical supplies, toiletries, and more. Volunteers will load up the items and take them to a warehouse in Hamtramck later this week. Polish Airlines will fly them to Poland, and a volunteer will drive them over into Ukraine.

“The manner in which our countries respond, and other countries respond, is important. We can’t allow this to slip to the wayside, because this could be the beginning of something that could change the world.”

Initiatives emerged in southeast Michigan almost immediately after the invasion began in late February. Among the most visible efforts are those forged in the region's tight-knit community with Ukrainian ancestry or connections.

The Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan, a grassroots association comprising multiple groups and supporters, guides donors to virtual aid while promoting an drop-off at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Warren.

Volunteers continually sort the steady stream of goods at the Standard Trucking warehouse in Hamtramck, which serves as a hub before the items are transported abroad.

On weekends, “this place is packed with people moving around with new stuff that has come in from the week, and more people are interested in volunteering every day,” said Anya Nona, a relief coordinator at the response committee, from the site this week. “... Short of ending this war, we’re just trying to save lives by sending these things.”

Coordinators estimate thousands of pounds have shipped so far, headed to Poland then Ukrainians through multiple groups depending on the item, said Nazarii Semchyshyn, a representative for Standard Trucking.

They’re now focused on amassing tactical first aid, including trauma kits, occlusive dressing, sutures. 

In another sign of how dangerous events have turned, the items requested could grow to include potassium iodine pills, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes as a way to help protect the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine.

“People are seriously worrying about a nuclear bomb,” Semchyshyn said.

The war has spurred supporters such as Pate, a military veteran who runs a construction and restoration company. His wife, Ludmila, is Ukrainian.

What started as a collection in their garage mushroomed into his American Ukraine Support Foundation as he issues calls online for emergency items such as tourniquets, Kevlar helmets, pulse oxygen meters and more.

Pate teamed up with major support networks and escorted a load to Ukraine early this month for distribution. His journey included a stop at a hospital to supply catheters since the stock was so depleted staffers resorted to reusing them, he said.

The Archdiocese of Detroit priests Mario Amore and John Owusu talk at Old St. Mary's Church in Greektown about items collected for Ukraine. Volunteers will load them up and take them to a warehouse in Hamtramck. Later, Polish Airlines will fly the supplies to Poland, and a volunteer will drive them into Ukraine.

The enormity of the situation struck him as he watched mothers and their children fleeing to other countries, saying goodbye to the fathers staying behind. "It's absolutely gut-wrenching," he said.

Even with the risks, Pate plans to return soon to shepherd more cartons through checkpoints to those in need.

“It’s incredibly rewarding,” he said between sorting items. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life, and this is happening at the right time where I have the wherewithal and energy to make a difference.”

Following a member’s call to action, the family of parishes of Old St. Mary’s, St. Aloysius and the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit, implored others to give backpacks, medical supplies, toiletries and more. Catholic schools and other churches joined in, leading to hundreds of items, said the Rev. Mario Amore, who leads St. Aloysius.

“There’s a desire to want to help and kind of feeling helpless," Amore said. "… We’re praying for a swift end to this and the unnecessary violence and death.”

So much piled up within days of news spreading at All Saints school, Amy Roose, a religious teacher and student council staff adviser there, made two trips in her stuffed Ford Expedition to deliver the sleeping bags, wipes, vitamins, gauze, toothpaste, handwarmers and powdered electrolyte mix. 

The headlines and photos depicting blockades, bombed buildings, separated families and mass graves in Ukraine stirred them enough to give. Matthew, a seventh grader, hoped to buy toys to lift the children’s spirits.

“It was touching and sweet and thoughtful, but I also had to tell him: these people are in need of very basic things right now,” his mother said. “When the need is there, you have to satisfy the need first. ...You feel the need to help, and we have felt that since this started.”

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit recently announced that its emergency campaign sent nearly $1.5 million to help international relief organizations aiding Ukrainian Jews.

Meanwhile, some synagogues are dedicating special prayers for peace in Ukraine, said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director at JCRC/AJC, an advocacy group that represents regional Jews.

Temple Israel in West Bloomfield Township is fundraising to help a congregation in Germany resettle Ukrainian refugees.

The synagogue has a tie through the German congregation's vice president, Yevgen Bruckmann, who was born in Ukraine and lived with Temple Israel Rabbi Marla Hornsten as an exchange student about a decade ago. Hornsten notes the unfolding crisis in Ukraine strikes a chord for many Jews.

“It feels very close to home, even though it’s thousands of miles away,” she said. “Everybody felt that these refugees could be their family. It’s the same story of (our) people who have had to flee their country in the past.”

The weight of that exodus and the warfare sparking it has prompted other initiatives aimed at more spiritual arming.

Volunteer Chris Leach of West Bloomfield sorts through medications on Friday.

Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills has opened its sanctuary for an ongoing “Prayer Vigil for Peace” Saturdays through early April.  Anyone seeking a place to reflect and pray can light a candle amid the ornate pews.

The idea follows similar moves during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the vigil welcomes “anybody who feels anxiety right now, anybody who feels on edge and concerned,” said the Rev. Bill Danaher, the church’s longtime rector who has a doctorate in religious studies. “I think it’s critical because it allows people the space they need to feel safe and feel surrounded by God’s love.”

Christ Church has already worked with an agency to help settle Afghan refugees, he said, and the congregation has launched a fund to do the same for eventual Ukrainian arrivals.

The significance of unity was one reason why worshipers gathered on a recent weekend at Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Riverview to pray for an end to the war.

Catholic devotion to Our Lady of Fatima started in May 1917, when the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children in Portugal. Worshipers believe that launched several visits in which plans for pursuing global peace were revealed. The Vatican has reported some of those plans involved Russia.

“We are asking our members to pray their rosary every day for peace in Ukraine and conversion of all hearts. Despite feeling hopeless, helpless, we know that prayer can change the situation,” said Michelle St. Pierre, who along with her husband, Leonard, oversees the shrine and is a head volunteer through the World Apostolate of Fatima Detroit Archdiocesan Division.

“It’s vital that we continue to support our brothers and sisters in Ukraine through prayer. When I talk to local Ukrainians and have explained that members of Our Lady of Fatima are praying, they get teary-eyed and are so grateful that someone is thinking of their fellow people in their homeland.”

Religious leaders are planning another community-wide vigil, said Bob Bruttell, vice chair at the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

“Faith communities have always been a place where people can freely express their grief. When you feel so helpless, a faith community can give you a sense of hopefulness and a sense of strength and of possibility.”

Struck by the diverse crowds at Ukrainian rallies and how different denominations and religious have united in recent weeks, Jon Duff, an elder at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Birmingham, reached out to Bruttell’s group about exploring more ways to boost local interfaith response. 

His congregation already is collecting funds through Samaritan’s Purse, a humanitarian aid group, to help Ukrainians. A member donated some $5,000, and the church plans to match that amount. 

The more attention, the better during a crisis “that could affect all of us in a democracy and in our faith,” Duff said. “That’s a fear of mine — that this will be brushed aside. This is something that needs to be kept in the forefront.”