Rose Berger is the senior editor at Sojourners magazine. She is a poet and a Catholic peace activist. She’s traveled to conflict zones around the world to be in fellowship with faith communities who are working toward peace.
We spoke about her recent trip to Ukraine, her belief in nonviolence and finding the courage to live an authentic life rooted in her faith.
Read more about her trip and why she went at this link.
“I’ve been involved in the last few years with the Catholic non-violence initiative, which is a group of Catholics around the world, trying to bring non-violence back to the heart of the Catholic church.
As most people know, I think it was February 21, Russian President Putin recognized the Eastern regions of Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, and that signaled some shifts in his approach to how he was going to work with the tensions in Ukraine. About three or four days later, he announced that he was launching a special military operation in those regions, which in the past had meant sort of militarily testing those borders, bringing his troops over the border or up to the border. But this time within about five minutes of that public news announcement, missiles were landing in Kharkiv, in Odessa. Basically in all corners of Ukraine, there were aerial bombings.
So that was the end of February. March 4th, the mayor of Kyiv, Mayor Klitschko, put out a worldwide plea for interfaith religious leaders around the world to come to Kyiv and make it—as he said—a city of humanity, spirituality and peace.
My guess is that he wanted Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew to come to Kyiv and stop the bombing. And so a group of us, some Polish based some here in the US and others in Europe were working very hard to put together an international interfaith delegation to respond to that call from the mayor.
As you can imagine, trying to plan anything in the middle of a war zone is very difficult and tricky, but we got a green light near the end of May. So I spent a week in Poland and in Kyiv. And really the purpose was to get this delegation in, to formally and publicly respond to the mayor’s invitation, and then to just be a presence there.
Our goal was really twofold. It was to show that it could be done. To show that a religious international interfaith delegation could indeed go logistically to Kyiv. And then the other was to hold public interfaith prayer services for peace. So we were able to accomplish both of those things. We had prayer services at the Holocaust Memorial center at Babi Yar in Kyiv. And we had a public prayer service at St. Sophia’s Cathedral, which is really the heart of Orthodox Christianity. It was truly an amazing trip. I learned lots of things.
As I spoke with my wife about discerning whether I would go on this, we kept going back and forth, because it was very inconvenient timing for us, which seemed a small sacrifice compared to the inconvenient timing of war for the Ukrainians. We talked through that a little bit.
It’s not particularly advantageous to have Americans go on these kinds of delegations, because it’s got other kinds of symbolic repercussions that are sometimes not helpful. And so I’m often glad to work on the preparation, but happy to step out if we’ve got a better mix of people.
In this case, I realized that they really needed people with good experience moving in conflict zones. We worked to get some high level religious leaders, but those religious leaders often don’t have skills moving in conflict zones. So it seemed to me that I had a set of skills, a set of relationships and just a basic working knowledge that would be useful for this first delegation to get people in and out safely.
I kept asking myself, ‘Is there someone better, more appropriate than me to go? Who has the set of skills?’ And there wasn’t, so that’s when it’s time for me to step up and move forward with it. And I was very glad and humbled to be able to do it.
I’ve been with various groups. Some of the most significant were in Bosnia during the war, visiting with various religious communities, particularly the Franciscans in central Bosnia during the middle of the war and then coming into Sarajevo after the city was opened and then also in Kosovo during some of those conflicts. [I’ve been] in Latin America, also in Columbia and Venezuela and in the early days in the middle east and in Northern Ireland when things were still a bit hot. So there’s some experience and quite frankly, living in DC for 35 years, these are situations where conflicts can explode easily. And there are a lot of people with guns. So while not being an expert or not having gone on a lot of trained unarmed civilian peacekeeping groups, I’ve got a set of skills that I think are helpful for these kinds of situations.
My experience has shown me that things look scarier the farther away they are. There are people who never would come to my neighborhood in DC, because it was just way too scary and they were sure they would be killed instantly. Well, I lived there for 35 years. So I think the more you get closer to a place and know what the dynamics of the conflict are, then you can make prudent decisions about safety. I just don’t think you can make prudent decisions about safety from 3000 miles away.
When you’re talking to people in the situation, then you get a very clear idea of, okay, these roads have been de-mined, this is the political situation. The air raid sirens are still in effect, but they’re not in effect for these regions. There’s a lot of civilian traffic going back and forth at this point or humanitarian aid traffic going back and forth. So you make decisions based on that kind of on the ground knowledge and things become clear.
The first night that we were [in Kyiv], we were staying in the hotel and I was exhausted. I fell asleep and about midnight, I realized that the air raid sirens were going off. It took me a few minutes [to remember] ‘Okay, wait, this is not a test. I’m in a war zone. I should pay attention.’ And so a few of us got up and we went to the night clerk at the front desk and she’s like, ‘Oh, you don’t need to worry about it.’ She pulls up her app and she shows on the app the marking of which sirens are going off. It has a red warning zone for the region that a missile might strike. And if you’re in that red zone, then you should take cover. And we were 10, 15 miles away from that red zone. So she [said], ‘I’ll show you where the bomb shelter is just so you know, but don’t worry about it. Not this time, not this time.’
I don’t think I’m simplistic in this, but if you’re going take your faith seriously, then you have to go where people are most vulnerable and those situations are sometimes chaotic. There’s no guarantee of safety and that’s why we have our faith. That’s why we have a model of Jesus who went where things weren’t particularly safe and ended up in a situation that led to his death. And while nobody seeks that—nobody wants that—that doesn’t mean that you avoid those situations. It means you step toward them, when you can.
He said, ‘Isn’t the risk of not going to Ukraine greater than the risk of going to Ukraine?’ He said this is a very dangerous situation we’re talking about, the concept of tactical nuclear weapons has been raised in this conflict and to not take steps for peace may end up being much more dangerous than sitting back and letting it all unfold.
And that really stuck with me in this particular situation. I think he’s right.
A core experience of Catholicism is this belief that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Not a symbol of it, but they actually become it. And there’s all kinds of liturgical action within Catholicism that is about transforming a particular situation into an actual interaction with Christ. So for me, being able to travel in these situations and meet with people is how Christ becomes incarnate in the world today. There are other ways. You could pray about Ukraine. You should. I believe all that has spiritual power. But the Christian community is really about embodiment and incarnation. And that means you gotta show up in the flesh, if you can.
Not everybody can. And if you can’t show up in the flesh, then you support in whatever way you can support people, however you can, whether that’s through humanitarian aid or finances or whatever, but the relationship and the flesh-to-flesh contact—if I can say that—is the basis of the miracle that is really important to me.
There are things that you just cannot understand…you cannot give encouragement to people at the level that they need…without being there in person. For me, it was important to hold Ukrainians—literally hold them—while they cried. And that’s not something you can do over Zoom.
I just can’t say enough about how grateful I am for the people that we met in Kyiv and in the humanitarian aid camps, and the priests and other ministers who are working tirelessly to help people at the worst moment in their lives.
Kyiv is a really modern European city and these are people who are not prepared for war. While they understand that there have been tensions on the borders, they are existentially undone by what’s happened to them. I just have a special heart for them.
The reality is Ukraine is the bread basket of much of the world. Some people are concerned that white Europeans and Americans are responding to the white Ukrainians, and doing much more for them than they are in Yemen or Somalia or any other critical places. And I think that’s a very legitimate criticism that needs to be looked into, and that I thought about a lot. But I also am conscious that with the Russian closing of the Ukrainian ports, with the holding hostage of grain, our African colleagues are telling us if we don’t get grain, that’s mass starvation for our countries. And the same with our middle east colleagues.
And so we have to understand that these wars are not separate. As Pope Francis says, this is World War III in piecemeal. And so we have to understand them as connected. And I believe that responding in one place, you’re responding in many places.
One of the things that we heard over and over again, particularly from the women that we met was, ‘I can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you actually came.’ And to the wife of the chief rabbi of Kyiv, I said, ‘I’m so sorry that we’re late, because it’s taken us eight weeks, 12 weeks to get this organized.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no, you’re not late. You arrived right on time because the world’s already starting to forget about Ukraine.’
And she meant that literally. The humanitarian aid shipments were dropping and she’s scrambling trying to get international help just through her personal networks to have funding and aid come to Ukraine.
And partly what we learned—and again, this is the stuff that you see when you’re on the ground—most of the Ukrainians that we visited around Kyiv had not seen internationals coming to visit them. The way that things are happening—at least around Kyiv—the humanitarian aid is coming to the Polish border and then Ukrainians go and pick it up at the border and take it to the distribution sites. So they aren’t seeing the Red Cross, the UN human rights workers. They’re not seeing any of those people. They’re just seeing their Ukrainian colleagues or neighbors bringing van loads of food that they’ve picked up at the border.
I just assumed that they were seeing lots of internationals from humanitarian aid organizations, but that’s not the case. The people running the humanitarian organizations that we visited are all Ukrainians and they’re just Ukrainian civilians who’ve stepped up.
This is a war against civilians. This is not a military engagement. So civilians are not only the targets, but they’re bearing—as usual—the brunt of the war itself and doing a lot of the unarmed civilian defense to try to push back Russian forces. And that’s just a lot on a completely unprepared population.
The mayor of Kyiv was very specific in what he asked for. So it was important for us to follow his lead in terms of him specifically asking for international and interfaith leadership. He could have just said, ‘We need European religious leaders to come down here.’ If his main goal was strengthening ties with Europe, then he could have shaped it that way. But again, what we learned once we were there, he sort of phrased it, ‘Come make Kyiv a city of humanity, spirituality, and peace. And when we got there, what we heard from the mayor’s office was Kyiv has a long history as a crossroad city, as a multicultural city, as a very diverse city with lots of different cultural influences on the border of the east and the west on the Dnieper River, which is a big trade route.
And so I guess I would rephrase it to defend the tradition of Ukrainians. Kyiv IS a city of spirituality, peace humanity and multicultural diversity. And I think it’s important, because in the U.S., we often hear this framed as democracy versus authoritarianism. Like the U.S. and the west have democracy and Russia has authoritarianism and that Ukraine just wants to be Western. And that serves all kinds of political purposes for Europe and for the United States. But it was important to me that we hear the self-determination of Ukrainians and the people in Kyiv to say, ‘No, no, we are preserving our own tradition. This is not about Western democracy or Russian authoritarianism. We have a unique tradition as Ukrainians that we are fighting to preserve as is our right as Ukrainians.’”
“It’s very hard to quantify the effectiveness of delegations like this, because most of their impact is spiritual. But as an interfaith delegation, we are the people who are supposedly experts in spiritual dynamics and spiritual power. And so we are going there to wield that spiritual power in the ways that we know best out of our Islamic traditions, Jewish traditions, Christian traditions.
So we were very conscious in the way that we crafted our public prayers, in the fact that we were an interfaith group to model and speak and be present in a way that reflected the way the Ukrainian society would like to be when the war is over. They want to be a multicultural, inter-religious community that is able to speak independently. So we tried to model that in our public prayers.
We could have met inside churches, inside synagogues and just knelt down or bowed down and had our prayers, but it was very important that it would be public, that it would be in public places, that it draw on the wells of each of our traditions so that the people of Ukraine could see and hear that we were speaking in one voice, we were unified in our approach and that they could feel that spirit of unity at a time when the messaging and the context that they’re in is so deeply divided.
There are layers of effectiveness that are hard to measure, and yet I feel are very real. When you take a trip like this, you have press releases and you try to get people to know about the story. You never hear the long tail of the story. You hear the big highlights, but you don’t hear the long tale of the story. So part of those relationships already, a month later…well, we’d barely gotten back to Warsaw after leaving Kyiv when our group was asked to help get 150 children who were being held on the Ukraine-Poland border, help get them through the border passage and on to the UK where they had been promised refuge. That was something that we wouldn’t have been asked before we’d gone there, but suddenly everybody had our contacts.
They knew who we were. They knew where we were. They saw that we were an international delegation. And so we had people from the UK with us and they reached out and said, ‘We need help. Can you help us negotiate this paperwork and problem at the border? Because we’ve got kids just sleeping on the floor and they need to be some place safe.’
We were able to do that long, complicated, boring process, but it was a very real, tangible result.”
“It’s very, very hard to go to these situations. Obviously it’s much harder on the people who are living through it and can’t turn around and leave. But nonetheless, you’re bearing the stories of people who are just in terrible situations and you feel a responsibility to those stories. I am very clear that this is part of my mission in my Christian faith, to be a bearer of those stories and to steward them as best I can. Just be faithful to that witness for peace for securing human life and upholding the dignity of human life in whatever the context is. If I hadn’t gone, I would’ve continued to work and offer support, but having gone, I feel like I’m in a good position to try to try to tell those stories.
It’s always hard to leave because the conversations are so intense and intimacy develops very quickly. But I think it’s also clear that the Ukrainians we met gave us a charge, and that charge was to leave. Go back to wherever you’re from and help us from there. Tell our story. Answer our emails and phone calls. When we say we have a specific need, help us do the things that we identify we need to do.
I didn’t have a sense from the people in Kyiv that we met, that they [thought we] should stay and help [them] more. I didn’t have that sense. They were like, ‘Thank you for coming. You’ve heard it. You’ve been here. You see the situation. You’ve heard our very specific plans for what we need right now, now go and do it.’ And so I think I left with a sense of a very clear charge.
We brought our hearing ear and our seeing eye, and this is what’s come of it.”
“On a very fundamental basis, I would say, get to know your neighbors. Do something that’s very achievable to find out who the people are within the block around you. If you live in a rural area, try to build some local community.
[I’ve] been in so many different situations where distance and isolation becomes weaponized by people who have an interest in gaining power. I think the only way we can mitigate against that is neighborliness. I saw that in Bosnia, how quickly the separation was manipulated by larger powers with a larger plan. And I see it painfully in the United States right now. And it certainly is the case in Ukraine where false separations between people become weaponized and become used by people who have a much different agenda.
I mean, in some ways it’s the root of Christianity. Love your neighbor. And that sounds trite, but I guess partly what I’m saying is having gone out of the neighborhood to different places around the world and come back, I understand the importance of practically getting to know your neighbors. Hosting outdoor dinners, inviting porch music, closing off your street to have a soccer game, whatever it happens to be. Get to know your neighbors and be there for them. Tell them that you’re there for them when something tragic happens—and something tragic will happen—and people need their neighbors.
That’s something that everyone can do. “
-Talk about your understanding of nonviolent movements.
-How does your faith tell you to address violence in the world?
-When have your convictions required courage to act?
-When have you put yourself at risk for what you believe?
-Rose says that “things look scarier the farther away they are.” When have you seen this to be true?
-What does it mean to “love your neighbor?”
-How have you been a good neighbor? What more can you do?