Sylvia Cortez’s near-daily Facebook posts have been a source of education, news, and hope for many Point Loma Nazarene University faculty and professors amid the conflict in Ukraine. As a previous colleague and now steadfast friend to many staff, including Mary Paul, vice president of Student Life and Formation, the conflict in Ukraine has hit close to home given the connection to Cortez and others who are part of the global Nazarene church.
During her time at PLNU as the director of discipleship, Cortez led professors, including Michael Lodahl and William Wood, to teach abroad in Ukraine. She also helped establish the senior women’s retreat at PLNU alongside Professor Linda Beail. But what makes Cortez’s time at PLNU most remarkable, according to Paul, was her intentionality and care for the people she interacted with.
“One of the gifts that Sylvia had was her cross-faculty/staff deep relationships,” Paul said. “What’s interesting is how many people would claim her as a close friend. What I see often is people resharing her Facebook posts, and saying ‘my friend is saying this.’ The number of people who call her friend says something deep about who she is. That’s true across this campus for sure, but I think in a much larger way across all the places in which she’s lived, breathed, and done work.”
Paul delivered a communion sermon within Brown Chapel on March 23 and shared a bit about Cortez through an image originally from Cortez’s Facebook. The image depicts pastors, faculty, and the Rector of Ukraine Evangelical Theological Seminary (UETS) ministering the Eucharist in a destroyed region of Ukraine.
“That photo came from Sylvia and I think part of what is just a deep testimony to my life and I think for all our lives is when we hear and see the people of God continue to proclaim the good news of Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again,” said Paul. “If you can’t speak into the most horrendous moments of life, then what do you have to say? That’s when those images become very important.”
The Point reached out to Cortez who fled with her husband Volodymyr and his mother from Ukraine to Poland. She shared her experiences of loss but also her connection to the Polish people even amid the realities of war.
- How have you and your family dealt with the struggles and unknowns of fleeing to a different country?
Arriving in Poland has been both difficult and wonderful. The difficulty comes with all of the emotions connected to having to leave our home and Ukraine in general. It’s really difficult to be outside of Ukraine, especially when there are many ways we could be helping if we were there.
However, having to care for Volodymyr’s mom has meant needing to leave Ukraine and settle in a relatively safe space. This place has allowed us to continue to work on logistics for people inside Ukraine, as well as to help refugee families here in Poland. The Polish community has been so helpful and welcoming, and we have been deeply moved by their hospitality.
Another difficulty is not knowing how long this will last. It’s interesting to have to secure a new home, where the prices are much higher, and to not know for how long. Since we intend to return to Ukraine as soon as the war ends, it’s impossible to know for how long we will need a home here, but we are trusting that the Lord will continue to provide for us and so many during this time.
We are also grateful to our international Nazarene church for how everyone is pulling together to help meet needs. I even have an interesting story that might surprise you. In Kyiv, one of my roles is serving as a visiting preacher at Church of England in downtown Kyiv. Most of that congregation has also fled. One of my friends from that congregation is from Nigeria.
There are numerous students from all over the world studying medicine or other fields throughout Ukraine. My friend, Emmanuel, happened to be studying medicine. His experience of fleeing Ukraine, as a Nigerian, was difficult and traumatic.
It took Emmanuel many days to get out and return to his native country of Nigeria. When he arrived he was in temporary housing, and because he is single, he had no family to rely on. Because the Church of the Nazarene is all over the world, I quickly did some research and discovered that our church is, in fact, also in Abuja, where Emmanuel landed. After a few emails, over a period of only 2-3 days, a Nazarene pastor in Abuja was in contact with my friend, they had bought supplies and groceries for him, and even offered to help with housing if needed.
I was so deeply grateful. I am grateful that our global church was present in Nigeria and not at all surprised that they were so willing to help a stranger. When things like this occur, I am reminded that we follow the Jesus Way, who was continually offering hospitality to those others had rejected.
- [Cortez and her husband fled Ukraine along with 3 elderly women (including her mother-in-law).] What was it like helping them and supporting them as you also dealt with your fears and anxieties?
In terms of evacuating, there were so many factors. For one, there were thousands of cars on the road so at one point it took us 15 hours to drive 130 kilometers (80 miles). The delay was not only due to the number of vehicles, but also road checks, having to take different routes, sirens that caused everything to stop, and emergency and military gear that was trying to also get through going in the opposite direction. We also had to deal with curfew which occurs at different times in different cities. Technically, everyone is supposed to be indoors by curfew, otherwise, one can be mistaken for a saboteur. So, we had a limited number of hours to get to each day and we had to try to plan to be in a certain city by a certain time. This also meant arranging housing in that town, either with friends, strangers, or at a shelter. We are forever grateful to those strangers who took us in and welcomed us.
Our travel was slow since we couldn’t rush the elderly women. In the end, it took us 7 days to travel from Kyiv to the border, and then on to Warsaw, where we dropped off Nelya.
The three grandmothers we fled with are all connected to Kyiv First church. Alexandra (85) is Volodymyr’s mother…so, my mother-in-law. Nelya (81) is a long-time member of Kyiv First Church. Nelya is now in Ghana with her daughter. And finally Ina (88), traveled with her son, Vladimir, who has been a long-time member of our church. Because Vladimir is under 60, he was not able to cross the border so he and Ina returned to Ukraine and are staying in Western Ukraine, where it is still relatively safe.
All three elderly women were so brave and strong during this time. They all remember World War II, and so they had all gone through this kind of war and evacuation before. In that sense, they were more experienced than we were. Of course they grieved for all that was happening, but we were also so busy just trying to move forward that we didn’t have too much time to process all that was happening. Processing the trauma will, of course, come later. In terms of helping them, it was a bit tricky. Alexandra cannot walk very well or fast. So it was important to find housing where they didn’t have to climb stairs, which is tricky almost anywhere in Europe, but especially Ukraine. And Ina is blind. She is taken care of so well by her son, Vladimir, and she was a joy to be with. She is a very positive and grateful person. And Nelya had a stroke about a year ago that affected her speech, so she is difficult to understand, but she was often seen helping the other two. I think that the fact that we were all traveling together was a great comfort to them. Amidst the underlying fear we all had, these women kept us busy and also made us smile along the way.
- There is a video you posted on March 21 that starts with the beauty of Ukraine and unveils the horrors of war. It was really powerful imagery that I had not seen before. What emotions did it bring up as you watched and also lived some of those experiences?
So much has happened since then, I had to watch it again just to remember. It was difficult to watch again all the way through.
For one, the beginning of the video has many images of Kyiv, of neighborhoods I frequently roam, churches I visit, and locations where I meet friends for coffee. It is truly a beautiful country, and I think many people outside of Ukraine were completely unaware of just how beautiful, ancient, and developed Ukraine is.
And then the video shifts.
I feel so many emotions watching this video. I feel deep grief but also anger. This war did not have to happen. In fact, many people thought Russia would not go so far. And many others are not surprised.
I know many in relief work who are not at all surprised by what is occurring in Mariupol, the hardest hit area. They saw Russia completely destroy towns in the exact same way in other parts of the world. The attacks in Ukraine are all based on years of propaganda against the Ukrainian nation by a mad man who’s power continues to go unchecked by the Russian people.
It is a difficult video to watch but we must watch it. We can’t ignore the atrocities. We have to tell the truth. We have to counter the false narratives. We have to tell our stories.
- Also on March 21, you shared images of a mall that was destroyed, one that your community was planning to use for the next teams that were coming to Ukraine. You wrote on that post, “I am not yet numb to the images. You?” How can we deconstruct the bubble or numbness that Americans are living in and understand the reality of this situation?
I think many Americans do realize what is happening are responding. I hear from people all the time, both friends and strangers, pleading with me, “What more can I do?”
I wish I had a great answer to that beyond donating funds. Many are responding and volunteering.
I think I asked that question because I know that at some point, people will begin to feel a sense of compassion fatigue, or they will move on to the next big story (was that the Will Smith incident?).
I know how easily we can focus on a tragedy for a bit before returning to normal life and routines. I’m thinking here of Katrina, Syria, etc. There are so many tragedies in the world and I am so grateful that the world seems to be supporting Ukraine in a unified way. That support will continue to morph and change. But for now, it seems there is a global awareness of the situation.
If anything, people feel they want to do more. I’ve actually been surprised by how many people do feel connected to this tragedy. Many Americans have traveled to Ukraine, or know people personally, and that really changes things. PLNU, for instance, has been sending LoveWorks teams to Ukraine for many years (since 1992)! So there are many alumni who feel a personal connection since they came and served here. And other alumni and strangers have also contacted me just to express their support.
Again, that personal connection to Ukraine or someone they know in Ukraine is key. Ukraine has received a lot of attention and aid because Ukrainians are quite savvy with social media, not to mention the fact that Volodymyr Zelensky, the president, is well-acquainted with the camera. So, there are many factors that have impacted awareness efforts.
- In another one of your posts, you wrote about conservative media and misleading propaganda. How do you cope with emotions of frustration and confusion about people who are diminishing the severity of the conflict?
Having lived in Ukraine now for 10 years, I am quite aware of the false narratives that have existed long before my time here. The propaganda is strong, and this war has certainly opened my eyes to how many people it influences, even within the church.
I have never lived in a dictatorial country with limited free speech, so it is difficult for me to understand why we’ve not seen more mass protests in Russia that make a difference. In our minds, the lives of Russians will get significantly worse under these new sanctions, but they simply have not yet been felt. Many people in Russia have been arrested and police there are now making it more difficult to protest the war. Friends tell me that even a small group of 3 or 4 are not allowed to gather in public places, such as Red Square.
I know that many people in Russia are scared, and are against the war, but they feel they cannot do anything. If they have families, they fear getting arrested, and then who will care for their children? I cannot claim to understand their fear. I can only imagine. But it is enraging to see innocent people being killed in Ukraine because one man cannot be stopped.
There is a sense in which what is occurring in Ukraine is a microcosm of what occurs throughout the world. There are always false narratives about events in our world, and we must be vigilant about unveiling the truth wherever we are, or we will continue to see deadly consequences. There will always be people who promote false narratives for their own benefit, and often at the expense of others’ lives.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to be a people who seek justice, who care for and defend the poor and vulnerable. Ukraine has long sought to be an independent nation, and to distance itself from Russia and Russian oppression. As in many parts of the world, we are now seeing the consequences of what happens when those narratives are allowed to exist.
- What sort of impact are you hoping these images and posts will have on viewers? How do you think these images shift the perspective of viewers and offer insights that the international news is missing?
On the day I wrote about conservative media painting a different narrative, I had been receiving messages from strangers even, asking me to not stop posting because my stories were different than what they were seeing. Some people flat out said that a new narrative was starting to emerge, painting Ukraine in a bad light. Many people have written to me over the last month asking that I continue posting because they are either not seeing the same images or are hearing a different narrative.
So the images and posts are there to show the truth of what is happening. They are meant to wake people up to the reality and injustice occurring on the other side of the world. It is a drop in the bucket because I don’t have time to post that frequently. But I also know there are many news media reporting this same truth and even more graphic stories – Radio Liberty, BBC, Associated Press, etc. I know people are suspicious of news these days but what I see on these media sites, is what is occurring in Ukraine.
- What has brought you comfort during this time, if anything?
So many things have brought me comfort and hope during this time:
The hospitality of people within and outside of Ukraine.
The faith and determination that people have that Ukraine will win this war
The Christian faith people possess, and the courage to act out their faith by helping others and offering hope in whatever ways possible.
The world is now witnessing the resilience of Ukrainians. I already knew about it (I’m writing about it for my dissertation) but now to see others witnessing it comforts me because their story is being heard, and people are learning more about Ukraine, both their difficult history and resilience.
- You mention that prayer is a significant way to support Ukraine from afar. Are there certain verses or guided prayers the community of PLNU can go through alongside you?
I, and others, have leaned especially on the Psalms of Ascent during this time. The Psalms are so important because they teach us how to pray and be honest before God. The Psalms allow us to not gloss over pain and injustice, but to bring our desires and cries before the Holy One.
I have long loved Walter Brueggeman’s tiny book, Praying the Psalms, but now I am living it in a drastically different way. At the beginning, back in January, I was also reading through Proverbs, which had an equally comforting effect.
- How can individual citizens across the world help in ways that government officials aren’t?
One of the many ways people can help is by giving to local organizations who are trying to get food and supplies to people. Within our own church, that would be Nazarene Compassionate Ministries. Funds donated are already reaching the field and our pastors and ministry leaders inside Ukraine are using them to buy much needed supplies.
Those funds will also be greatly needed in the future to help refugees resettle in other countries, or settle back in Ukraine. An enormous amount will be needed to rebuild Ukraine, including the church, education efforts, and trauma-informed care.
Another way to help is to express hospitality to those settling in your countries. There is a lot of vulnerability in becoming a refugee. There is so much they leave behind, and often, a whole new language and culture to navigate. Give to families personally by helping to supply them with goods, clothes, food, etc. as they are settling to a new life.
- I just want to give you space in this final question to take the time to talk about anything I may have missed that you feel is important to share.
I want to also say thank you, especially to the PLNU community, who have and are praying, and expressing continued support for Ukraine. I know and trust that important conversations will continue to take place and be facilitated by Loma’s brilliant scholars who care deeply about the world. Thanks to my dear friends in the history/poli-sci and sociology department as you navigate conversations about the complexity of this situation and what we can all do to help support Ukraine now and in the future.
Written By: Lainie Alfaro