When Ukrainian priest Rev. Benjamin Voloshchuk received a call in the city of Chernivtsi with an offer to serve at a Russian Orthodox Church in Hollywood, he thought it was a joke. As a leader at the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God Monastery in Chernivtsi, he saw the U.S. as a distant, foreign land.
Out of obedience to a “metropolitan,” a church leader who oversaw his parish, he accepted the invitation, packed his life in seven suitcases and moved across the world to join the Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church in Hollywood.
In early January he met his new flock and entered the wildly foreign world of Los Angeles. He felt overwhelmed taking public transit for the first time, trying to memorize the unfamiliar names of stations. Shopping at huge grocery stores and paying with dollars was another challenge.
“At first, I felt as if I was thrown from a parachute,” he recalled. “Everything around me was foreign.”
After the bloody war in Ukraine suddenly broke out in February, Voloshchuk criticized the controversial Russian Orthodox church leader Patriarch Kirill, who in April strongly backed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. The Hollywood church traditionally commemorated Patriarch Kirill at every service, but Voloshchuk openly condemned the war.
At his new church, he counseled couples who were divided over the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. But in early April, in the middle of Great Lent, his service came to an abrupt end. The church administration terminated his employment and asked him to vacate his Hollywood house and return to embattled Ukraine.
“I told them that I couldn’t go to Ukraine because there was a war,” Voloshchuk, 60, said in Russian, as he sat in a coffee shop a few blocks away from his house.
Messages sent to Metropolitan Meletius in late February show that a leader from the Hollywood church urged Meletius to “recall (Voloshchuk) back to his homeland within two weeks.”
But in a written statement, Olga Tseshkovskaya, president of Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church in Hollywood, said, “we have never insisted he should go back” to Ukraine. Church officials here have not responded to a query about why his employment was terminated.
Voloshchuk is trying to make sense of what happened in the days before he lost his new post in Hollywood. He feels stuck between two worlds as the war rages on, fearing he won’t see his monastery back home anytime soon.
In an email to SCNG, Tseshkovskaya, the president of the Hollywood church, insisted the priest “was not promised any length of time” in Los Angeles before he came to the U.S., and his role was “to temporarily help us. Now our church is looking for a permanent priest.”
She added that “the church did not speak directly to Father Benjamin about the length of his potential assignment. The church believes Father Benjamin’s superior informed him it was a temporary assignment.”
She also wrote that they did not sign an employment contract with Voloshchuk because “he is still a clergy of a diocese in Ukraine and a head of a monastery there.”
That’s not what a high-level priest in Ukraine, known as the Metropolitan Meletius of Chernivtsi and Bukovyna, wrote to a church leader in L.A., in emails SCNG obtained.
In his email back to the Hollywood church leader, Metropolitan Meletius, who oversees the monastery led by Voloshchuk in Ukraine, said, “You are asking to recall Father Benjamin back to Ukraine. … Given our current problems, where do I call him? Our sky is closed. No planes fly, there is a war, people are fleeing from here.”
Metropolitan Meletius wrote that he didn’t “understand what Father Benjamin did (in Los Angeles) that caused problems and you disliked him so much.”
In his emails, which continued into March, he describes the churches in Chernivtsi as dealing with a flood of refugees, funerals of soldiers, and people openly carrying weapons. He said he didn’t want to get involved in church disputes in “distant and happy America,” but noted that “your parishioners from the U.S. called me twice and thanked Father Benjamin for the services.”
He wrote that “it was not at all easy for me to let Father Benjamin go. We need him in the monastery. You have seen that he is a zealous and kind priest. It was I who begged him to hear your request for help.”
Metropolitan Meletius went on to say that he regretted he hadn’t gone to the top by dealing directly with Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco and Western America, the ruling bishop of the Western American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. That diocese oversees multiple parishes in the U.S., including Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church in Hollywood.
He wrote to the Hollywood leader that under church management rules, “I should not simply believe your words, assurances and promises. I should have decided everything with (San Francisco-based Kyrill) and acted at his request. What to say now? I hurried, trusted you, and it didn’t work out well. I’m sorry!”
Meletius added that he handed over “the issue of Father Benjamin’s ministry in the U.S. to the hands of (Archbishop Kyrill). He must decide what to do next.”
In a March email, Metropolitan Meletius warned the Hollywood leader that the situation in Chernivtsi was “serious and dangerous” and it was “risky” for Voloshchuk to return to his hometown.
Still, in early April, the Hollywood church administration handed a letter to Voloshchuk, signed by Archbishop Kyrill, saying the church council decided to “terminate the employment of (Voloshchuk) effective April 4.”
Archbishop Kyrill’s administration didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
The representative from Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church in Hollywood responded in her email to this newspaper that “we have never insisted he should go back.”
Voloshchuk never imagined himself in the middle of an international religious controversy. He grew up in the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi and began attending church in the eighth grade. That was in 1977, and although churches were open, the Soviet Union’s state policy embraced atheisim, and Voloshchuk said he quickly learned that attending church threatened his college and career prospects. His teacher advised him to keep attending church without telling anyone.
“There was always a KGB agent in the church, following the young parishioners,” he recalled.
Voloshchuk attended the church discretely and in the late 1980s finished college to become a math teacher.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, Voloshchuk for the first time openly stood in a crowded church celebrating Easter.
“I was looking at the people, candles and cried, realizing what I was deprived of all those years,” he said.
He remembers how easy his decision was to become a monk. He loved his career as a math teacher and then a university instructor, but “something was missing in my life.”
In 1991, then 30, Voloshchuk began serving at a monastery in Chernivtsi, “living the best years of my life” while observing the lives of monks. Three years later, he became a monk.
Last year, when Voloshchuk shared the news with his fellow brothers that he was moving to Los Angeles, “they all cried.”
When he arrived in January, Voloshchuk said the Hollywood church administration sponsored his visa to work in the U.S. for 2 1/2 years, health insurance, a place to live and a monthly salary of $1,500.
Documents obtained by SCNG show the Hollywood church sponsored a work visa for him good until mid-June in 2024. Voloshchuk said he expected to work in the church at least until then.
At first, Voloshchuk was joyful about getting to know his new parish, and he signed up for English classes at Hollywood High School to improve his English.
But then he said he began noticing a different attitude from the Hollywood church administration. When he expressed his frustration with Russian Patriarch Kirill, who heads the Moscow Patriarchate and is a close ally of Putin, Voloshchuk said, some of his colleagues complained to church superiors in Ukraine.
“(Patriarch Kirill) has been blessing Russian soldiers and the weapons in the war in with Ukraine and I don’t agree with it,” Voloshchuk told SCNG.
Patriarch Kirill is a highly controversial figure whose blessing of the Kremlin’s invasion of its eastern neighbor has divided the Orthodox Church across the world. Some are calling for an end to the tradition of commemorating Kirill during prayer services. Both the Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church in Hollywood and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Monastery of Chernivtsi in Ukraine are part of the Moscow Patriarchate.
At the Hollywood coffee shop, Voloshchuk’s blue eyes filled with tears every time he spoke about leaving his new parish. He said he was not given a reason for his firing on April 4.
“What breaks my heart is that they fired me in the middle of Great Lent,” he said. “They should have probably talked to me and told me that I was not suitable for them, so we could work it out.”
Rev. Nazari Polataiko from Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Silver Lake, who is also from Chernivtsi, said he was surprised when he found out that Voloshchuk was asked to leave his post.
“Here’s a perfect opportunity to keep him safe,” Polataiko said. “All you need is work and be patient with him and help him to adjust, but they ask him to leave.”
Polataiko, whose church is not part of the Moscow Patriarchate, said it’s not the first time he’s seen the Russian Orthodox Church treating “Ukrainians like second-class citizens. … It’s more like a syndrome that exists in the mind of those people.”
Now, Voloshchuk spends his days attending English classes at Hollywood High School and volunteering at Polataiko’s church while looking for a new place to work and live.
He cries easily, recalling the kindness of strangers in Los Angeles — a young man who paid for his coffee when a waiter declined to accept cash, a woman at the high school who allowed him to take the COVID-19 test for free, and a police officer he met in Hollywood who shared tips about where to find leather boots similar to the ones he had.
“That’s America,” he said. “America is all the small things like that.”
He tries to respond to every email he receives from his parishioners in Ukraine. “It’s important for people and it’s important for me to stay in touch,” he said. “If the war started earlier, I would never leave Ukraine.”
And he has new concerns beyond his own predicament. Voloshchuk said his younger brother and two nephews might be required to join the combat.
“I worry about them,” he says, “but I leave everything in God’s hands.”
Voloshchuk plans to continue to learn English and to adapt to this strange and unfamiliar country, and at some future date, he dreams of going home.
“I’m grateful for this chance to come to the U.S.,” he said. “There’s so much I need to learn: new language, new streets, new subway system. I’m also learning a lot about myself. I have so many stories to tell about America when I come back.”
Source: Orange County Register