Gainesville church’s donations make their way to Ukraine

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The Ivano-Frankivsk Church of Christ in western Ukraine was asking for help. Fellow Ukrainians and churchgoers in Gaineville wanted to help but didn’t have the resources.

The stories of human suffering vary. A disabled boy can’t move because his wheelchair is too large to fit in a car. A woman is dying without her diabetes medication.

The University City Church of Christ in Gainesville is among the area churches mobilizing to send material goods and money to the war-torn country. It prepared five-gallon buckets filled with antiseptic supplies and snacks that are being shipped with the help of Healing Hands International. The ministry raised $30,000 in one Sunday alone to put together 2,500 buckets.

Lyuba Wharton, a leading member of the Ukraine ministry in Gainesville, said members of the church are more than willing to help the country.

“We talk with people at church, and they always say, ‘Let’s help them,’” Wharton said.

The University City Church of Christ is one of many churches throughout Florida that is making its prayers felt in Ukraine. Churches have collected materials and money to donate.

The tension between Ukraine and Russia has been growing for decades, but spiked in 2014, said Zachary Selden, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. Since the summer of 2021, the crisis has been reaching a peak, Selden said. While Russia has a clear advantage over the weaker Ukraine, it has not completely taken over the country.

“Ukraine has stunned Russia, and I think many other observers, with its ability to put up a very fierce defense,” he said.

Even though the U.S. does not have a security agreement with Ukraine, the country has great interest in the outcome of this crisis, Selden said. America wants to keep war out of Europe, especially out of its fellow NATO members.

Getting into the country is not the difficult part in helping out Ukrainians, Selden said. The difficult part is getting to the eastern part of the country, where need is the greatest.

Vasyl Lushchyk, a member of St. Mary Protectress Ukrainian Catholic Church in Apopka, Florida, said that much of his church’s donations make it to the western part of Ukraine because of the difficulty in reaching the east.

“It’s usually going to the western part of Ukraine because all those hospitals and shelters on the front line are completely destroyed,” Lushchyk said.

The only help going to the front lines would be ambulances, he said. The church is sending medical supplies, non-perishable food and even military items. The money it is collecting is being used to provide rehabilitation of wounded soldiers and other military and medical issues.

Lyuba and William Wharton, of the University City Church of Christ, have spearheaded the church’s ministry efforts in Ukraine. William said the church supports the ministry year-round, even before the crisis. But the congregation has been especially supportive in light of the recent developments.

He said they have been doing ministry work there since 1991 and have been associated with this church for four years. With Lyuba being from Ukraine, the pair has a lot of connections in the country.

William and Lyuba Wharton talk about their Ukrainian ministry work over a Ukrainian breakfast. The couple has been with the University City Church of Christ for four years. (Courtesy to WUFT)

Over the years, they have seen food shortages and a struggling economy, but before the recent battles tore the country apart, it had started to thrive.

“The country has achieved a good balance between having a Slavic influence, a Slavic identity, but also a desire to be a lot like the West,” he said.

In past visits, they had witnessed Soviet-era statues being torn down by steamrollers and forklifts in an attempt to make a statement to the Russians.

“That was in order to demonstrate that they no longer were Russian,” he said. “They were Ukraine.”

Lyuba is from eastern Ukraine, and much of her family and friends are in Mariupol, a city which has been devastated by Russian forces. Loved ones back in Ukraine have to hide for weeks on end to ensure their safety. She said they never know when they might be able to escape and make it out of the country, but it could be at any time.

“Definitely we are very concerned about several other friends who were over a month in the cellar hiding, and now they thought maybe this is the day,” she said.

There was a night when she slept only two hours because she was on the phone with her friends who thought they might be able to escape. She said she understood there was a ceasefire, but her family is unsure if they can trust the Russians.

In the meantime, they will continue to help the country as are other churches throughout the state. Short-term needs, like food and shelter, are important, but more long-term needs are needed, Selden said. He wonders if refugees will be able to return to their country any time soon. And if they can’t, countries will have to take them in.

“Even if they want to go back and they can go back, it could be months, if not, a year before they can,” he said. “They may have to stay for a while.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect figure about local aid to Ukraine. The University City Church of Christ and Healing Hands International shipped 2,500 buckets filled with antiseptic supplies and snacks to Ukraine as of March 31, 2022. Healing Hands International has shipped 9,000 buckets with supplies as of April 19.

About Kyle Bumpers

Kyle is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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