Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue Global Zion feature.
After ten years of living in the U.S., an inexplicable numbness came over me. My confidence plunged about my place professionally, spiritually, and geographically. I was living in Washington, D.C., and my job at a non-profit, which once had excited and inspired me, now felt rigidly routine. My religious life, too, had become merely a social habit for me, not nourishing and transformative. I decided that the best way for me to move forward was to first go back: I would return to live in my hometown of Kyiv, Ukraine.
Quitting my job meant giving up my U.S. visa, which meant I might never be able to come to the U.S. again. It also seemed to mean breaking up with my new boyfriend, Zach, a curious, rather unconventional kind of guy from St. George, Utah. But, surprisingly, he offered to come with me. He said he wanted to learn my language and culture so he could understand where I come from (at least that’s how he justified such a bold move). Leaving my American present and future behind terrified me, but I was desperate to find a source of renewal in my life. With two suitcases and no definite plans, we arrived in Kyiv on New Year’s Eve in 2010.
Warned repeatedly about Satan’s devious powers over unmarried couples, my parents insisted Zach and I live in different apartments. He moved into a tiny Soviet-era studio that we inherited from my grandmother, while I took over my parents’ spacious apartment across town, which was empty while they were on a lengthy work assignment in Moscow.
Coming back to my home country was like rediscovering a part of me that was dormant for years. Familiar parks and neighborhoods rekindled the memories of carefree hours strolling through the city after school. I marveled at the most mundane things I had started to forget—smooth, grey, granite public trash bins, the smell of hotdogs wrapped in fried dough, and ubiquitous kiosks with tiny square windows. Western-style malls, museums, and restaurants were sprouting everywhere. With the blend of the old and the new, the city was flourishing.
My home branch was now a ward and met on two floors of an office building across the street from a synagogue in the center of Kyiv. A few of the kids from my primary were still in the ward and some lived with their parents to save money. I didn’t find it shameful. To me it was admirable that they didn’t go to BYU or marry a former missionary from the U.S. Instead, many married young Mormons from other cities in the country and pioneered the first generation of Ukrainian Mormons born in the covenant.
Singing and listening to testimonies in Russian and Ukrainian helped me hear the same gospel teachings in a new way. Simple expressions of faith that often bored me in my singles ward now moved me with their deep sincerity and honesty. People’s thoughts about the gospel came from their hearts with their personalities vividly shining through.
During this time of spiritual seeking I was especially influenced by one sister in my ward. If you come visit on a Sunday, you’ll notice Katya, a beautiful woman in her 40s with high cheekbones and a blond bob leading the music. Ever since Katya’s baptism in 1996, she was deeply moved by teachings about our divine origins and how those origins help us to find our place in this world. She told me that after joining the church she couldn’t deny a persistent impression of the “voice of blood” urging her to learn about who she was as a Ukrainian. She embarked on a quest to learn about the history and the traditions of early Slavic people, their lifestyle and beliefs. She came to believe this knowledge was as important as knowing she was a daughter of God. Katya started incorporating elements of folk Ukrainian culture at church.
A small group of enthusiastic sisters, including an ethnographer, supported her efforts. They gradually gained the support of the stake and started regularly organizing cultural events. Every Christmas season the members gather in Kyiv’s metro and perform a blend of Mormon hymns and Ukrainian folk carols. In primary, kids sing traditional harvest songs. She has organized many cultural evenings. One such activity focused on reciting and celebrating Ukraine’s national poetry. Another was dedicated to playing old peasant games. She even learned to play the bandura, a Ukrainian folk instrument, and often performs at church.
Her passion for music led her to translate the hymns into Ukrainian. She was also one of the proofreaders of the Ukrainian scripture translation. Zach and I call her “the priestess of Ukraine.”
Everything Katya knows how to do she brings to the church. I’ve always been an active member, but looking back on my years in the church, my role in it was passive and my contributions few.
Our life in Ukraine gained momentum quickly. Zach started teaching English to eager young professionals. I got a job that suited me perfectly: working as a journalist at an English-language newspaper writing about arts and culture.
Zach and I also started talking about what kind of wedding we would have. Secretly, I really wanted to get married in Ukraine. I hoped that through the ceremony in the recently dedicated Kyiv temple I would seal a part of my identity to the place of my upbringing. But I didn’t think it would be possible since Zach’s friends and family would have a hard time making the trip, especially his ailing mom. To my surprise, Zach suggested the idea himself, assuring me in his typically optimistic way that it would all work out—and he was right. His friends and family were thrilled to come on an adventure, and even his two grandmothers booked tickets.
Our wedding would be a celebration of love, but also a reconciliation of the different stories that have shaped me. As a Ukrainian, I would weave in the traditions of my ancestors in my wedding ceremony, and as a Ukrainian Latter-day Saint, I would fulfill the ordinances and rituals of my faith in the Kyiv Temple. The temple, which took thirteen years to dedicate, was itself a monument to the journey of sacrifice and faith of the Ukrainian members. In a small way, I hoped to join my brothers and sisters in that journey, one that I had not been on for over a decade.
There was no guidebook for planning a Ukrainian Mormon wedding. We tried picking wedding traditions that didn’t involve getting drunk or inappropriate touching in public and had to figure out how to combine these with religious Latter-day Saint traditions and ordinances. We also needed a Master of Ceremonies who could also be a translator to switch between Ukrainian and English and who would be allowed into the temple to help with translating the ceremony. It was obvious that Katya was the perfect person.
On our wedding day Katya wore a white blouse with Ukrainian stitching and a bright red beaded necklace that stood out so dramatically it reminded me of the berries on a viburnum tree. In Ukrainian folk songs the bitter viburnum berries refer to the loss of the bride’s virginity and the subsequent blossoming of love. In our ceremony, our sealer, who was Ukraine’s first patriarch, spoke softly and carried an air of unquestionable gentleness about him. All I remember is a melody coming from his lips. Katya stood next to the sealer and translated his blessings.
Inside the temple the workers were pointing out to our American guests an image of “kolos,” a stylized ear of wheat, interspersed throughout the temple on windows, carpets, and along the wooden wall frames. The symbol ties the temple to its land.
That day in the temple I felt that I belonged to a church that wasn’t globally vast and impersonal, but was rooted in a place and a people—my place and my people. They were embracing the foundations of Christ’s teachings and building upon them according to the needs and culture of the Ukrainian Saints.
The reception was held in a small hut made of daub and wattle in a reconstructed 18th-century traditional Ukrainian village. At the reception, Zach and I sat in the center of an enormous U-shaped table. To my left were my Ukrainian relatives, who were beginning to loosen up, the clinking of wine goblets and vodka shots occasionally punctured with spontaneous shouts of “To the newlyweds!”, “To love!”, “To friendship!”, “To health!”
To the right Zach’s family and friends were more reticent, cautiously examining the plates of pickled cabbage, cow’s tongue, and other local delicacies. “There’s more?” Zach’s younger brother asked with a tinge of trepidation as new courses were brought out. But by the end of the night the table buzzed with laughter.
My eyes shifted from one side to the other, as if at a tennis match, anxious if the Ukrainians were having enough fun, and if the Mormons thought we should have excluded alcohol from the celebration. But in the awkwardness and messiness of these two opposite worlds coming together, I felt strangely alive. For the first time in a while, I really felt I knew who I was. I was a Ukrainian Mormon drawing inspiration and strength from both traditions, and responsible for carrying them forward. The sun set, the music ended, and Zach and I left the building and walked hand-in-hand into the future.
Mariya Manzhos is from Kyiv, Ukraine and currently lives in Somerville, MA. www.mariyamanzhos.com
(Photos from author)