‘Welcome the Stranger’ From Ukraine: How US Catholic Dioceses Have Answered Christ’s Call
Refugees, finding warm welcome, reflect on Christian charity upon the first anniversary of war.
As Russia continues to wage war on Ukraine, the solidarity of Catholics both abroad and in the U.S. offers a tangible model for loving one’s neighbor.
Parishioners in dioceses across the United States have heeded the call of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) to support refugees. MRS particularly recommends the forming of “Welcome Circles,” which are small communities of individuals that come together — often in the context of a parish — to support Ukrainian families, who, through the Uniting for Ukraine sponsorship, are able to come to the United States for two years on humanitarian parole.
In the Archdiocese of Seattle, Welcome Circles have been formed within 12 different parishes, four of which are actively working with a Ukrainian family. Chris Koehler, archdiocesan director of Immigrant and Refugee Ministry, has worked in immigration for 30 years but attested to the Register to the “incredible outpouring of care and love” the Ukrainian refugees have elicited. It is not only the tangibility of the care that Welcome Circle members are giving — like food, housing, help finding medical care and job resources — but the community that is being built within parish families around caring for a refugee family.
Koehler said that this is what the Church was made for — ministry that encompasses not only the parish, but the wider community: “When Catholics talk about the parish being for the entire local community, this is a real living way in which the entire community can really be involved in what is a parish ministry.”
Since the first Ukrainian families arrived in the archdiocese in September 2022, Koehler shared that the effects of Welcome Circles have been “life-changing,” not only for the Ukrainian families but for parishioners themselves.
For Carmen Zullo, a member of Holy Family parish in Seattle, sponsoring a Ukrainian family and being a part of a Welcome Circle has shaped his faith: “It’s like what Bishop [Robert] Barron calls the ‘loop of grace’: God gives you a gift, you give it to someone else, and everyone enjoys it a hundredfold. … If not me, then who? God asked us to do this, and we just do what we can. We got so much support from the community. I’ve come close to the ‘Circle.’”
Zullo’s expression of gratitude for the community formed around the Welcome Circle — which includes both people within and outside of his parish — is echoed by the Ukrainian family he helps support.
Shota Chakvetadze, who arrived with his family in the archdiocese in fall 2022, told the Register, “We were incredibly touched and humbled by the kindness of total strangers from Holy Family parish who took us in as refugees. God put together very different people like puzzle pieces into a caring team to support us.”
Chakvetadze, who comes from a Protestant background, notes being especially moved by the openness of the Catholic community in Seattle to help resettle his family: “We already had faith before coming to the U.S.A. What has changed was our opinion of the Catholic Church. When we told our sponsor that we followed [the] Protestant faith, we were certain we’d never hear back from them. We were pleasantly surprised that it didn’t matter to our sponsors that we weren’t members of the Catholic faith. It was nice to see how Christians came together for us, regardless of denomination.”
Zullo noted the beautiful exchange that has taken place between himself and Chakvetadze — they have attended each other’s church services, and at a welcome Mass for Chakvetadze’s family, the whole parish joined in praying for them.
In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Roman Catholics have made an effort to support the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. Marta Rubel, filling a newly created position of social outreach director in the archeparchy, told the Register that the news of Russia’s war on Ukraine last February changed her life.
She had been working as director of manufacturing and production for TV Guide, but her priorities shifted once the war broke out: “Devastated doesn’t begin to describe it. Since that second, I needed to be tuned in; I needed to be connected with news and information.”
A first-generation Ukrainian, Rubel grew up in Philadelphia among a vibrant Eastern Catholic Ukrainian community. She had learned from her mother the sufferings Ukrainians had endured in the past, and this helps her in her work of helping resettle Ukrainians coming into the area in coordination with the local Catholic Charities and the USCCB.
Though Rubel hasn’t experienced the sufferings of her countrymen and women firsthand, she feels she can imagine what they are going through. She noted that, for many, the move to the United States is “a temporary state of mind. They want to return home to Ukraine eventually.”
With Europe being saturated with refugees, for many Ukrainians, the United States offers hope for timely resettlement. The fact that Ukrainian community is already present in the Philadelphia area is an added gift for newcomers, she said: “It’s intrinsic in Ukrainians: Wherever we go, we get excited to see a Ukrainian church.” In her own parish community of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, she has seen Sunday Mass attendance nearly double with the arrival of refugees.
Rubel noted that the experience of helping resettle Ukrainians has strengthened bonds between Western and Eastern Catholics.
She recalls the outpouring of monetary support that came to the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy at the onset of the war. “Most of these unsolicited funds came from the Roman Catholic community,” she said. There has also been an “overwhelming response from non-Ukrainians” who have rushed in to volunteer or help sponsor a family.
And this is something that all those who contributed to this article noted: the abundance of support for Ukrainian refugees.
Heath Rosenberger, director of Migration and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Cleveland, told the Register that his office has been part of an early pilot of the Welcome Circle program, which began in the diocese in fall 2022 with a goal to “recruit 20 parishes in the diocese to help with the resettlement program.” So far, one parish has welcomed a family in January, two others are ready to do so, and 13 others have shown interest or are in the process of forming a Welcome Circle and applying to sponsor a family.
Of his diocese’s efforts, Rosenberger explained, “This is the true mission of the Church and the diocese. … I have been really impressed by parishes and parishioners who have stepped up to do a lot for individuals they don’t really know.”
To this point, though the Welcome Circle has allowed for the formation of many “Circles” in the U.S., the need is still great. Michele Bulatovic, USCCB Welcome Circle program manager, explained to the Register that “so many more [‘Circles’] are needed to help the forcibly displaced Ukrainian people find refuge and reestablish themselves.”
Bill Canny, executive director of USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services, told the Register, “We have a limited window of opportunity to support Ukrainians, and so we hope in the next couple of months to see every diocese across the country step up to create at least once ‘Circle.’”
Bulatovic and Canny encourage any interested dioceses to sign up for a USCCB “Information Session.” For more information, visit USCCB.org/welcomecircles or email: [email protected]. As refugee Shota Chakvetadze said, the most impactful way for U.S. Catholics to support Ukraine is “to bring more Ukrainian families to the U.S. The Welcome Circle program is an opportunity for U.S. Catholics to personally walk the journey of immigration and integration into American society for Ukrainian refugees. What we found most useful is people actually taking time to help us navigate the customs and way of life in the U.S.”
Tetiana Safonik, a refugee who arrived in the Archdiocese of Seattle in October 2022 with her husband and four children, asks U.S. Catholics to consider sponsoring families with multiple children like her own.
“I truly believe that coming here was God’s plan and that God is working through all of the people who have been helping us,” she told the Register. “The people who are helping are serving God not only through their words, but through their actions.”
This is what living out the corporal works of mercy entails, as Erica de Klerk of St. James Cathedral and the leader of Safonik’s Welcome Circle, told the Register: “It is a gift to be able to witness the broader Church community doing what Jesus calls us to do: loving our neighbor, welcoming the newcomer.”
Karl Leist, a member of St. Joseph parish in Issaquah, Washington, and a Welcome Circle leader explained: “Our Ukrainian support efforts are an incredible opportunity to put our ‘faith in action.’ When Pope Francis said: ‘Ask yourselves: What are you doing for the people of Ukraine?’ we listened, then acted! After fundraising, finding discounted housing, and completing paperwork, our parish Welcome Circle recently welcomed a delightful family of four who fled to Poland in March 2022. Jesus was pretty clear about helping your neighbor. We are trying to be ‘his boots on the ground.’”
Register correspondent Lindsey Weishar writes from Kansas City, Kansas.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
On this one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, may we keep Ukrainians and all refugees in our prayers. And may we consider if we are called to answer Jesus’ call to “welcome the stranger” in a more tangible way. As the stories above attest, if you are so called, the stranger has the potential to become a friend, the Welcome Circle a family, and the Church e a true home for all. USCCB.org/welcomecircles