Monday, April 23, 2007

A Sad and Difficult Journey

Baba Vera completed her life's journey two days ago. Today she was buried. We were requested to attend the funeral and provide transportation for several others. For the past month Baba Vera had been tenderly cared for in the small nursing home run by the Kutuzovka church and also partially supported by FOMCU. Then last week she had a stroke and as mentioned previously, was admitted to our Respite Room at the hospital.

As we came into her village, about 25 km. to the north, and approached the little house, we saw a few mourners gathered outdoors around a simple coffin. Baba Vera had no immediate family.
Only a month ago her son died; drank himself to death. To support his addiction, he had gradually sold off the furniture, toward the last even the bed of his mother. When she was found, she had been sleeping on two chairs, covering herself with a jacket. There was nothing else but trash in the little sod floor house.

Our pastor, Jacob Thiessen, conducted a short service; church members sang and then, led by someone carrying the Orthodox cross, we followed the procession to the cemetery - the
casket following on the back of a dump truck. At the graveside the wailing started and after the casket had been lowered into position (the hole was actually dug too short- someone had to jump down and do more digging) people one by one threw three handfuls of dirt onto the coffin, another Orthodox custom.

Baba Vera was buried next to her son. Yesterday it had been difficult to find village men sober enough to dig the grave, and even today the graveside attendants were intoxicated.

Alcohol wreaks havoc in this country. It is a particular scourge in the villages. Every little store has shelves of liquor. Unemployment often leads to depression leads to drink. In our town, to make some money, many men and even some women leave their families for months on end to go to Russia where they find work. These are the enterprising people. For many, even this, isn't an option. Village life, which used to be so idyllic in simpler times, may eventually be a thing of the past. Today many young people go the cities and don't come back. There are still over 60 villages in existence in the former Molotschna colony.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Aging and Death

Our town has a population of 7000 - over half of them pensioners. What would I as a babuschka face, growing older in Molochansk? We see the many little white-washed houses, some of them crumbling badly. Looking behind the scenes we find that many don't have running water - they may have a tap in their summer kitchen, but often not in the house. Therefore no means of showering or bathing. Personal hygiene is a problem.

Traversing the streets we see yellow pipes elevated about ten feet off the ground. Digging is happening below, indicating the long-awaited arrival of natural gas. The yellow pipes become a status symbol because not everyone can afford to connect - it is very expensive and it's mainly the elderly population that will continue to heat with coal. The gap between haves and have-nots widens.

If I were ill, how would I fare with medical care? A recent example: A resident in a small nursing home, partially funded by our organization, had a stroke. The ambulance was called. First question - "How old is this woman?" When told she was 71, they refused to come saying, "She is old, she will die anyway" - apparently the standard response for anyone over 65. Fortunately a Christian doctor advocated on her behalf and she was admitted the next day. FOMCU (Friends of the Mennonite Centre Ukraine) has renovated a Respite Room at the hospital which is warm, bright and comfortable; meals are brought in. Another woman was admitted to the Respite Room about the same time. She was brought in from one of the outlying villages and obviously hadn't bathed for a very long time; the odor was overwhelming. The Molochansk hospital was built 22 years ago and hasn't had hot running water for 21 years. What to do without warm water? We hope to address this issue shortly. The state provides doctor's salaries, but nothing beyond that. Any renovations at the hospital are funded by staff. We are told that people unable to pay for their needed medication, will also not be admitted to hospital, so many people suffer and die at home. FOMCU has medical emergency funds in 8 districts to aid in these and other medical situations. In addition we pay two doctors to hold weekly clinics at the Centre, so that people can come for free consultations.

Even so, death comes prematurely to many. One
week after Easter is another Orthodox celebration, commemorating the dead. We notice volumes of bright plastic flowers appearing at every storefront. Families visit the cemetery bringing these flowers to adorn gravesites of their loved ones. People crowd in with food and drink; vodka flows freely. We are told that many deaths are tragically alcohol related. This problem is huge, related largely to unemployment. With the coming of natural gas, it is hoped that an increase in industrial activity might aid in alleviating this situation.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Resurrection, Renewal and Hope

ХРИСТОС ВОСКРЕС! ВО ИСТИНОУ ВОСКРЕС! Christus ist auferstanden, Christus ist wahrhaftig auferstanden! Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed! Just as this message was joyfully spread from disciple to disciple on that first Easter morning, so the good news continues to reverberate around the world. Here, Easter is the highpoint of the church year. Interestingly, this year, for the first time in 500 years, Orthodox Easter coincides with the Western calendar. Orthodox believers spend the Saturday before Easter in thoughtful reverie - no work is done and it is said that on this day even the birds stop building their nests.

Sunday morning just after midnight we attended the Orthodox service. As we stood shoulder to shoulder with local townspeople, we tried to enter into the spirit of worship with its unfamiliar liturgy. Candles, incense, icons, vestments and banners engaged our senses as well as the chanting and singing. At a certain juncture we joined the flow as all processed around the exterior of the cathedral. We were told that this occurs three times during the course of the four-hour service - perhaps paying tribute to the triune God. Since our church had scheduled a 7 a.m. breakfast service, we left to catch a few winks before heading to Kutuzovka. There we were greeted again and again with the above joyful message, culminating in "Alleluya". Despite lack of sleep we felt refreshed in our inner being.

Spring - a season of renewal and regeneration. We look around us and see the earth reawakening. Birds are building their nests. Apricot trees are in bloom everywhere. People are hoping for a good crop - late spring frosts did a lot of damage the last two years. Tree trunks and walkway edges have been newly whitewashed. Everywhere, people are out in their "kitchen gardens", which are kept meticulously weedfree. For many in our town, these are the means of survival. Enough potatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions are produced and stored in their root cellars to see them through the year. The month of August is spent canning - delicious combinations of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant and onion mixes. We've been the fortunate recipients of many a jarful. That, and several laying hens, plus the means to buy bread, keep these people alive.

We were privileged to deliver Easter food hampers to several families with disabled children. One case was particularly heartrending - a 17 year old boy suffering from cerebral palsy, bedridden, legs horribly twisted, parents alcoholic, living in abject poverty. Mennonite Centre has started a support group for parents of disabled children; other than internat care there is little state support for these families. What hope can we bring? There seems so little we can do. Poverty feeds resignation which is so often drowned with alcohol.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Of Wind and Water

We're experiencing a windstorm, the air is thick with dust and debris. No electricity, no water, no internet! Imagine a grove of trees, branches festooned with plastic bags of every size and color, blown there by the wind. A little bit of magic in this otherwise dreary landscape - made more dreary because people dump their garbage on roadsides.

Rudy and I sit by candlelight playing Scrabble. We're lucky to have a propane stove so we've had a warm meal. We also have water stored away and can manage without for awhile. We are told when Peggy and Al were here, that Molochansk had no running water for six months. For people here life goes on - it just takes an adjustment.

Last week we visited Udarnik, the village of Neukirch in Mennonite times. We think living without water for three days is an ordeal; try eleven years. We visited with the director of the village school who told us of a plan afoot to bring water to this village of 600 people by leading pipes for 8 kms from a neighboring village. They are hoping that sometime this year they, too, will have water.

Not much farther down the road, standing alone like a sentinel on the steppeland, we come upon the last known Mennonite windmill in the former Mennonite colonies. It is an example of a Dutch- model windmill and was built by the mill builder Konrad - ancestor of our friend Abe Konrad. Wind, with such devastating potential, can also be harnessed for good.
We look at situations in our work in Ukraine and hope for a brighter future. Can we recognize and harness potential? Can we forge ahead undeterred by blustery setbacks? Can we catch the wind?