Ukraine’s Independence Day – Bread & Salt

Today is the 32nd anniversary of Ukrainian Independence. It is also day 546 since Russia began its war in Ukraine. On August 24, 1991, Ukraine regained its independence from the Soviet Union. The day is a powerful reminder of Ukrainian democracy and self-rule, and we celebrate the courage and bravery of the Ukrainian people.

Last week, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I participated in a ritual performance that featured goddesses from around the world offering messages to the audience, each one wearing a beautiful mask hand-made by artist Lauren Raine.

Each of us was tasked with writing something that spoke to the challenges we see around the planet: pollution, starvation, inequality, war.

It was my honor to wear a mask of the goddess Lada, as well as my embroidered folk costume from Ukraine. I carried bread and salt on top of an embroidered rushnyk, in a traditional greeting.

In Ukraine, bread and salt are offered as a sacred tradition, incorporated into celebrations that include weddings, funerals, and holidays. I asked my aunt Katia Hrynewycz, who is a baker and the owner of Chicago Cake Art, to bake a special circular bread (korovai) that could be used in the performance and then shared with the audience.

There are so many ancient ideas and stories tied to bread in Ukrainian culture: The grain is symbolic of prosperity and fertility, the circle a symbol of eternity and community, the salt exemplifies wealth and also protection. The bread may be adorned with trees, braids, birds, and more, depending on the occasion. As is the case with Ukrainian pysanky and embroidery, every object that adorns Ukrainian bread is symbolic of a blessing or intention for the people who will receive it.

On Ukrainian Independence Day, I wanted to share Lada’s message:

Lada’s Message

We come to the threshold with bread and salt,
our greeting since before maps and borders.
We say Vitayemo to welcome guests
and offer communion with treasures of
the rich black soil we call chornozem:
grains we grind to bake this holiness,
salt precious and pulled from the ground,
to preserve, to give life flavor.
Everything we have loved and grown
and lost and buried, is in that black earth.

When we say Vitayemo, we are inviting you
into our home and into our story,
with wheat grown from the heart of our Mother,
and salt from her seas and stones,
We are sharing a part of ourselves,
a part of our ancestors, our roots deep in that fertile soil.

When we say Vitayemo, we are telling you that we see you.
and we will remember the way you receive our gifts:
Will you show gratitude?
Will you take nothing more than what was offered?
Will you share something of yourself?
Will you leave the space better than when you entered?

We are living the legacy of betrayal—
what happens to bread and salt
when all is blood and butchering?

When we say Vitayemo, we enter into relationship—
I am saying that I am open to you.
Can you feel the opening of my heart?
Do you see the ripping open of my heart?
Will you watch the bleeding of all who are held in my heart?
How will you cross the threshold?

Слава Україні!  Героям слава!

The Parliament of the World’s Religions Returns to Chicago

World’s first Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Image from public domain, via Princeton Theological Seminary Library.

The first time I heard about the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I was attending college at DePaul. It was 1993, and one of my professors, Dr. Jeffrey Carlson, was actively involved in that Parliament in Chicago, the first to be held in 100 years. (The very first convening of the World’s Parliament of Religions was held during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.)

A facilitator of “interfaith encounter, dialogue, and cooperative common action,” the Parliament was created to “cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.”

I almost went down the path of Divinity School because of how much I loved those comparative religion classes and interfaith dialog. They got me thinking about how communities seek to understand life’s mysteries and find meaning in the stories and practices of their faith traditions. Instead I chose the path of storytelling. They are not so different, and myth and spirituality are still a part of my life and work.

In 2004, we were living in Frankfurt, Germany, and the Parliament was in Barcelona, so we brought our one-year-old to mingle with priests, teachers, monks, and mystics. It was pretty amazing. One of my fondest memories was watching her dance in the middle of a circle of participants from all over the world. There were many moving and transformational moments.

I didn’t anticipate that it would be 19 years before I had another opportunity.

Next week, the Parliament returns to Chicago, and I am excited to be attending. I will be participating in a morning observance, as well as a ritual performance, “Goddess Speaks: Our Earth Has a Voice” on Tuesday afternoon, August 15, 3-4:30pm in room E353c (which will feature the culinary artistry of my aunt Katia Hrynewycz). I will write more about that next week.

I also wanted to share a link to a segment NPR did about the upcoming gathering. It will be attended by 10,000 participants from more than 80 countries and 200 religious traditions. This year’s theme is the “A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom & Human Rights.” I will also include a link to the Parliament website if anyone wants to learn more:

“When people come to the Parliament they get to experience something that everybody longs for. They get to experience the world as we all long for it to be: peaceful, curious, open-hearted, and not just tolerant but grateful for our diversity.”

–Rev. HPs. Phyllis Curott, Program Chair for the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions,