Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Mennonite Connection

As we tread the streets of Molochansk we often feel that we are caught in a time warp. There are many reminders of our ancestral past. In fact almost everything looks of that vintage. Our town, fomerly Halbstadt, was settled in 1804 by Mennonites migrating from Prussia in pursuit of freedoms of faith and conscience. Over the next century Halbstadt grew and prospered, becoming the industrial, commercial and administrative hub of the Molotschna colony. Today people live in poverty, with little knowledge of their historical past. Interest is piquing, however. Last week we spent an afternoon with two students who were gathering information for a class assignment. Natasha and Tanya were particulary interested in finding what they could on the building next door to our apartment. Looking out of our kitchen window we see what remains of the Heinrich Willms mansion. This grand residence belonged to the owner of the local flour mill. Built in 1908 at the cost of 100,00 rubles, it was referred to then as a "palace". The gardens surrounding it are now the town park; a tall statue of Lenin holds pride of place. The girls were also fascinated to discover that their "Palace of Culture" in the centre of Molochansk was once a Mennonite secondary school for boys.

1895 ....................................................................2007

Recently the town gave this building a facelift by painting the exterior to resemble the brick color of the past. It looks great from a distance but the facade is definitely only skin deep.

Visitors often drop in at the Mennonite Centre looking for information. Recently a group of Holdeman people arrived from Arkansas. Their ancestors had left this area for America in the 1870's. They particularly enjoyed our historical photo display.

Last week it was also our privilege to bring good news to "farmer George". Our organization has agreed to provide a loan so that he can purchase a tractor and begin farming on a bigger scale. It is intriguing to realize that this man's land is adjacent to the former village of Rueckenau, the location of the very first Mennonite Brethren church. This man, not an ethnic Mennonite, is a member of the Bolkovo Mennonite Church. In a small way, history is repeating itself - in the first part of the 20th century, MCC provided tractors for Ukraine, now almost a century later we have the joy of doing so again.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Musings Along the Road

Thinking a lot about roads lately ---roads taken and not taken; about getting on a road that leads in the right direction; about being able to navigate without getting stuck; questioning the advisability of taking shortcuts as the best way to a destination.

Literally this is our experience as we travel the highways and byways in this land of our forefathers and mothers. Here and there we come across stretches of cobblestone, laid down by our ancestors those many years ago, still standing the test of time. No need to circumvent huge potholes whose depth one can only guess at especially after a rain. But such are the exception. More often we just have to go for it, or through it, or around it, hoping to come out safely at the other side.

Looking at the bigger picture, our experiences this week lead us believe that Ukraine is on a slow road to recovery. Is this road leading to better health care? A small example. As the pensioners were having lunch at the Mennonite Centre a van stopped by. Women were given the opportunity to come along to a clinic for a free mammogram. Only three responded on the spur of the moment. Others were told that there would be another opportunity next week.
Is this road leading to better employment opportunities? The Mennonite Centre has been providing scholarships, giving some capable young people the opportunity of higher education. Three aspiring social workers are about to graduate, preparing to assist people in dealing with the many social problems existing here. Two are already working with our Mom's Group and with seniors.
Does this road have room for entrepreneurs? A farmer in one of the former Mennonite villages tells of his struggle over the years to efficiently work his land. Ingenuoulsy, he has built a tractor and other implements by welding scraps together, but now dreams of something better. In order get ahead he is asking for assistance - not a handout, but a loan. He has visions and goals all mapped out.
Does this road lead to greater ethical responsibility? Twice this week we were given quotes for prospective purchases, both times given the "official price" and the other, much lower, the "under-the-table price". The shadow economy is alive and doing well. We realize that there aren't always easy answers. If a household income is $300 a month, and often even less, and illness strikes or other expenses loom, what road will be taken? Last week the Kutuzovka Mennonite church had a series of seminars on biblical ethical living. We attended three of these. A guest speaker from Stuttgart Germany had been invited and spoke dynamically on issues of money, marriage, relationships etc. People are coming and listening.
Modelling a straight and narrow way; exploring and granting opportunities for betterment - those are some of our challenges here.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Return to Molochansk

We're back - day three!
Winter appears to be over but spring has not yet arrived. It's this in-between season of bleakness accentuating the drab surroundings; no blanket of snow or carpet of grass to camouflage the greys and the litter on the roadsides. Nothing appears to have changed much - perhaps only the bigger potholes. We had to take the long way around to Molochansk because the usual route was virtually impassible. But this is the cursory glance. Coming to the entry of the Mennonite Centre we look down to see some exquisite yellow flowers poking their heads through last year's dry and crumpled leaves. I had to think of our dear friend Dianne's appreciation for "small wonders".

The big wonder though was the warm welcome we received when we entered the doors. Many hugs and exclamations - not all understood! An invitation to supper and also breakfast. Then hugs from the "cookie lady" when we went shopping. What more can we ask for?

Our hearts are touched by many needs. At breakfast this morning we watched across the street as a Babushka went through a small roadside dumpster and walked away with numerous packages. Yesterday a father and mother with their nine year-old son came to the Centre asking for assistance. Sasha had been badly burned in an explosion several years ago. The little fellow has had numerous surgeries. What was obvious was his neck - a patchwork of criss-crossing skin pulling in different directions. He is growing and the skin isn't able to stretch. Apparently there is medical/surgical help available in Dnepropetrovsk, but is costly. Friends and neighbors are contributing as well as the parents taking out a loan. Would we be willing to help? Yesterday 80 pensioners came for a hot meal. Our capable cook, Ira, had made chicken and kasha. She told us that the pensioners had all wrapped up their chicken bones to "take home and give to their dogs". Not only is Ira a wonderful cook, she has also started a group for Moms with kids with disabilities. They had a meeting at the Centre today where they celebrated the "Moms", in keeping with International Women's Day this week. Much is made of this celebration including school closure for two days and women everywhere being presented with flowers. I was photographer for the event.

These few words are an attempt at answering the question "what are you going to be doing there?" We don't know for sure what each day brings as we continue our presence here.