A grand surprise in Ukraine

In recent days, we have been inundated with news about the tragic events in Ukraine but little information about the Ukrainian people. Who are these folks? What do they think of the United States?

In the summer of 2010, I lived in San Diego and my church choir was invited to tour Eastern Europe and Russia. One of the cities where we spent a number of days performing in various cities was Kiev. It afforded us opportunities to interact with Ukrainians on numerous levels, and each encounter was positive, friendly and, in many cases, inspiring. Without enumerating the many situations, I shall report just one, our last concert on July 4.

As our buses arrived at the cathedral on a wet and rainy night, we were greeted by a large group of citizens who, with big smiles, shook our hands as we exited the buses and expressed warm greetings of welcome. We walked into the church, where a delegation of widows of World War II veterans embraced us, offered us bouquets of flowers and in English said, "Happy Birthday, America." Many said, "Thank you."

The concert began with the Ukrainian National Anthem, and when we took our places, we were greeted with "The Star Spangled Banner," played by the orchestra and sung by its chorus, and the entire audience rose. We felt as if we were home, surrounded by our own countrymen, and showered with genuine love and respect.

While we were aware we were to perform a joint concert with the Kiev Symphony and Chorus, singing by ourselves and joining them in some of the music, we were unaware that the entire concert was dedicated to "Happy Birthday, America!" and that all the songs played and sung by our Ukrainian counterparts would be American and sung in English. What a grand surprise.

I remember how choked up I became when they gave a stirring performance of "God Bless America" and how wet my face became as tears literally rolled down my cheeks. As I listen over and over again to the recording of that concert, I experience the same reaction each time.

The overwhelming friendliness and respect shown to us and for the United States is one of the great memories of my travels throughout the world. One woman attended every concert we performed in Kiev, twice having to travel on two and three buses from her home to the various venues. I spoke with her at some length at a reception after the last concert and thanked her for her support. She said she wanted to spend time with the people she felt had represented hope for her during difficult years for her and her country: Americans.

These are the people who are suffering once again as they see their country invaded and terrorized. These are the people we need to add to our prayer lists and support as friends of America.

Robert Stark lives in Medford.

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