In a small room thick with incense, a woman in a white headscarf takes communion — a piece of bread dipped in red wine. The man standing next to her holds a red cloth under her chin.
She’s from Russia; he’s from Ukraine. And this sacramental ritual came near the end of a Russian Orthodox Church service in Taichung. As happens nearly every month on the third floor of this nondescript office building, Ukrainians, Russians and others come together for communal prayer.
“I don’t even know who’s Russian and who’s Ukrainian,” congregation member Paul Wollos said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Photo courtesy of Julia Startchenko
Aside from a brief prayer for peace, the topic of war and the lives lost doesn’t come up. The services are completely the same, said Wollos, who grew up Catholic in his native Poland, but later converted to Russian Orthodoxy with its traditional, centuries-old practices.
Wollos said while he misses the beauty of the grand European cathedrals and the echoing voices of the choir within, he’s grateful that Russian Orthodox services are even held in Taiwan.
PRAY FOR THOSE SUFFERING
Photo courtesy of Julia Startchenko
Wearing an ornately embroidered purple robe, symbolic of Lent’s repentance, Father Kirill Shkarbul stood tall before the dozen or so adults and children gathered for Sunday evening liturgy in a space that doubles as a Russian-language classroom.
“We pray for the end of the war in Ukraine and we pray for all of those who are suffering,” said Shkarbul in a deep but softly-spoken tone.
Shkarbul, a 39-year-old Russian Orthodox priest who grew up in and around Moscow, alternates between Chinese, English, Russian and the liturgical language of Church Slavonic during his 90 minute service.
Photo courtesy of Julia Startchenko
Nearly four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war has resulted in the deaths of thousands and the displacement of millions. And while the initial shock may have waned, any lingering thoughts of anger or despair simply are not talked about — at least in public.
Instead, the focus of the sermon is on Christ’s compassion and the importance of repentance and daily prayer. Speak less and listen more, Shkarbul implores his congregation, suggesting good deeds such as visiting elderly loved ones or volunteering at hospitals or for church events.
“I try to keep the service focused on the gospel,” Shkarbul said. “We need to keep our personal demons at bay because they deprive us of our peace and freedom.”
Shkarbul recalled the summers he spent as a youth relaxing near the Sea of Azov in Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. The region, known for its historical sites and huge hydroelectric plant, is now the scene of fierce fighting as it finds itself on the front lines of the war.
“There’s just so much hatred now on both sides,” Shkarbul said. For this reason, he added, keeping the politics of the conflict out of his sermons is what’s best for everyone. Personal feelings can be saved for private conversations, he said.
As the only priest serving the Russian Orthodox Church in Taiwan, Shkarbul travels around the island, holding Sunday services in Taipei, Hsinchu, Taichung, Kaohsiung and occasionally Hualien.
Services in Taipei typically attract upwards of 40 people with smaller crowds in other cities. In Taiwan, roughly 1,000 people consider themselves to be Russian Orthodox, Shkarbul estimates.
Following the liturgy, tea and cookies are customarily served. In these relaxed settings, the topics move freely from family and jobs to friendships and the weather.
“We don’t care where we’re from,” said Julia Startchenko, the Russian woman in the white headscarf who took communion.
Startchenko said the Russians and Ukrainians who attend the church services are respectful of each other’s differences and opinions. But it’s their commonalities — religious faith and a desire for peace — that really hold the congregation together.
“We’re all sad,” said Startchenko, who moved to Taichung 22 years ago from the western Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. “Life will never be the same, but we have to learn to live with it.”
Like many other Russians, Startchenko has cousins fighting on both sides of the conflict. Thousands of kilometers away from her family, she has taken it upon herself to promote peace from abroad.
TAIWAN RUSSIAN CLUB
As president of the Taiwan Russian Club, which highlights Slavic culture through activities such as community picnics and dances, Startchenko is an active member of Russia’s expat community.
“I think if you create peace around you it will spread,” Startchenko said.
Singing and dancing to old Russian folk songs — typically about love, family and the joy of life — highlighted a recent picnic hosted by a Russian Orthodox Sunday school. The picnic took place in a rural Taipei park and brought together about 40 people, including both Russians and Ukrainians.
And even at a public event such as this, the topic of war doesn’t arise.
“There’s a time to talk about it, a time to cry and a time not to talk about it,” Startchenko said.
For Elena Nazarova, the time to talk about it is in private conversations with her pastor, Father Kirill, as he’s known to his parishioners. With friends on both sides of the war, she is worried about their safety, especially the ones that live in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.
But at the same time, Nazarova, who grew up near St. Petersburg, supports her native country of Russia. These complicated feelings need to be expressed, she said, adding that she feels better after speaking to someone from the church with a similar cultural background.
Whether they talk about the war with family members or their clergy, both Ukrainians and Russians expressed a need to stop the conflict and needless suffering.
“I can only pray for peace,” said Wollos, the Polish man who converted to Russian Orthodoxy. “We all hope it will be over, but how and when I don’t know.”
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