Remembering Ukraine in Santa Clarita

Richard Wirthlin and his wife Joni stand in a field of yellow flowers under a blue sky in Ukraine. Sunflowers are part of the natural beauty of Ukraine. The Ukrainian flag symbolizes the beautiful blue skies above and the yellow of earths harvest of sunflowers, wheat and corn.

Richard Wirthlin remembers the two countries, and their people: 

“My heart aches for so many good Russians. My heart aches for so many good Ukrainians,” is how Wirthlin describes his feelings about the impacts of the war in Ukraine.  

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints, he and his wife were invited to serve a full-time voluntary, unpaid mission to Ukraine. He was appointed the mission’s president from 2018 to 2021. 

An attorney by profession, Wirthlin, and his wife, have called Santa Clarita home since 1986. “We’ve lived in Santa Clarita before it was Santa Clarita.”  

Wirthlin practiced corporate and business law with Latham and Watkins for about three decades, serving as the managing partner in the firm’s Moscow office. Wirthlin and his wife returned from Ukraine in June 2021. Since their return, they have been in close contact with their friends back in Ukraine, especially as the situation has escalated in recent months.  

“I remember Ukrainians as people with high integrity, honest and friendly. Like people everywhere, they want a better life for their children and grandchildren. They’re concerned about the bills because they don’t get paid if there’s no work.” 

Richard Wirthlin and his wife Joni host a youth group from the Dnipro Center congregation of the church in their apartment, which overlooks the Dnipro River in Ukraine.

The church, for the purpose of the mission, is divided into eastern and western halves – the eastern part is Dnipro, while the western part is Kyiv, where Wirthlin and his family were based. He remembers seeing war memorials all over the country during his travels, reminders of the country’s past turmoil. Since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, there has been an unspoken standoff, with no one able to predict a war of this scale. He recalls a Russian troop buildup in 2018 along the Dnipro-Donbass border during his stay.  

“What has not surprised me is the great faith and hope these people have. These are good people, largely a Christian nation.” 

Wirthlin recommends that residents of Santa Clarita Valley connect with local and international organizations to find avenues of support for the Ukrainian people.  

The church has multiple ongoing initiatives. Many of the projects are community-based, to encompass as many people as possible. 

“It’s an active humanitarian effort and the current mission president who replaced me served as my counselor for three years and he’s Ukrainian.” 

He believes that the answer to a conflict of this nature is rather simple. “As a religious leader, I believe that the answer to conflict of any kind, and particularly conflict like this that involves war, comes from faith in God. For me as a Christian with faith in Jesus Christ, and the tenets of love and forgiveness, as someone who prays daily, I believe that love and peace and forgiveness will take place.”  

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