Monmouth ecumenical ‘sponsor circle’ ready to welcome Ukrainian refugees

Members of the ecumenical Sponsor Circle in Monmouth preparing to welcome and support a refugee married couple from Ukraine are pictured with a Ukrainian flag on the porch of the parsonage of the First Lutheran Church of Monmouth, where the couple will temporarily reside. From left are Tom Sienkewicz, Teresa Prien, Pam Van Kirk, Tom Prien, and Leslie Freeman. Not pictured is Allison Buccalo. (Provided photo)

MONMOUTH — When a refugee couple from war-ravaged Ukraine arrives in this Warren County community on July 13 with all their belongings tucked in a pair of knapsacks, they will be warmly welcomed into a growing ecumenical circle of support.

“They will need a lot of help from us in terms of resources and aid, and we’re all very eager to give that help to them,” said Tom Sienkewicz, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Monmouth. He is one of a core group of five individuals — three from the parish, and one each from local Lutheran and Methodist churches — who have committed to assist the married couple for up to two years through a community-led resettlement initiative called Sponsor Circles.

TO HELP OR LEARN MORE — Those wishing to assist the Ukrainian refugees coming to Monmouth, or to learn more about the Sponsor Circles program, are invited to email Tom Sienkewicz at tjsienkewicz@gmail.com. “When the family comes we’ll know what they need help with the most and we can respond to those inquiries then,” he said. Those wishing to begin a Sponsor Circle in their community are invited to visit sponsorcircles.org.

The refugee couple, whose names or images are not yet being shared for privacy reasons, are originally from Crimea but fled to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv when Russia seized that area in 2014. This February, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the pair again had to relocate, this time — like millions of other refugees — to neighboring Poland.

While Poland is safe, there are too many refugees there to be supported long-term, said Sienkewicz. The couple agreed to come to the United States, and the Monmouth Sponsor Circle — as well as dozens of other individuals in the community — were ready to assist.

WILL STAY IN LUTHERAN PARSONAGE

A fully furnished two-bedroom apartment has been prepared in the vacant parsonage of the First Lutheran Church in Monmouth. The church council agreed to allow the guests to live there rent-free for at least three months.

Securing that space for refugees either from Afghanistan or Ukraine was the task of core team member Pam Van Kirk, a member of the Lutheran congregation.

“It was an easy ask,” she told The Catholic Post. The First Lutheran Church Council, she said, was eager to help, and also approved the storing of other donations for the refugees in the parsonage.

“I greatly appreciate the ecumenical diversity of our Sponsor Circle,” said Van Kirk. “It is refreshing to engage with so many generous and caring people.”

One of those caring people is Father Timothy Hepner, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish. While not on the Sponsor Circle core team, “we kind of consider him to be a member,” said Sienkewicz, adding Father Hepner “has been very much a part of the group.”

“CONSISTENTLY PRO-LIFE”

Father Timothy Hepner

In a message to his parish last weekend celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade — which he called “a momentous for life’ — Father Hepner said the support of the Ukrainian refugees “is another way we can be consistently pro-life.”

“While the right to life is preeminent and foundational,” he wrote, “being pro-life means being attentive to the needs of other vulnerable people, including migrants.”

Father Hepner said he has been praying for the couple and, as their arrival nears, “we will offer a novena for them as a parish.”

The refugee pair know only a few words of English. Translation help will be provided both through technology and people from the community who speak Polish or Russian.

What does Father Hepner wish to first communicate to them?

“I simply want them to see our support as a sign of Christ’s love, and I want to accompany them in whatever way I can,” he said. “I’d like to learn about their own experiences, and I’m curious to know more about the faith in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, some members of the core group have already befriended the couple on Facebook.

MOTIVATED BY FAITH

“I feel like I already know them a little bit and can’t wait to meet them in person,” said Leslie Freeman, another core group member from Immaculate Conception.

“I feel a kinship with the couple and am further motivated to help them in whatever way I can,” agreed Van Kirk.

“I simply want them to see our support as a sign of Christ’s love, and I want to accompany them in whatever way I can.” — Father Timothy Hepner

That motivation, however, began long before a refugee family was identified.

Sienkewicz, who moved to Monmouth with his family in 1984 and is a retired Latin and Greek teacher at Monmouth College, learned about the Sponsor Circles program via an email from his daughter. He spoke with Father Hepner about the opportunity, and the parish hosted a public meeting in late January to gauge interest. More than 30 people attended.

“I looked at it as part of a Christian commitment to help people in need,” said Sienkewicz, citing a passage from the Gospel of Matthew — “I was a stranger, and you invited me in” — as a motivation. “I think that’s pretty much the way most of the people in the community have responded as well.”

“I got involved because of my faith,” said Freeman, “but also a feeling of ‘I can actually do something instead of just saying ‘they need help.’”

Collections in March at each church, boosted by other community donations, have raised about $9,000 to support the couple. Furniture and other supplies have been donated to support the family.

Other members of the core team include Allison Buccalo from Immaculate Conception Parish and Teresa Prien from First United Methodist Church.

 

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