Saturday, April 25, 2009


When we first came to Molochansk in the fall of 2005 we met a group of women who gathered at the Centre every week and then went into the community to visit and encourage shut-ins. We were pleased to support this Mercy Group. Even though the need is as great as ever the group has had to disband for several reasons. Sadly very little organized care is available to those who are no longer able to care for themselves. If family and neighbors don't step in these people are marginalized and almost forgotten.

Last fall the church where we worship started a nursing home on a very small scale. What had been an apartment at one end of the church was renovated and now accomodates three elderly women. Some former members of the Mercy Group have taken over the care of these residents. Admission is open to anyone, the only requisite being that they have no one to look after them. Families are often reluctant to allow their needy elders to go into residential care. It means forfeiting the elderly person's pension which, in many cases, has now become the family's livelihood. It all gets very complicated.

When renovations were completed last fall, the opening had to be delayed because the village had no water. Kutuzovka is often without water and this was the dilemma when the Mennonite Heritage Cruise visited in October. Passengers became aware of the issue and before the day was over collected enough money to pay for a well. A miracle, an act of mercy! Since then this has become known as "Jacob's Well" - Jacob Thiessen is the pastor.

Last week food hampers were distributed to shut-ins who are no longer able to attend our Senior's lunches. We also brought hampers to four homes where families are caring for disabled children. If children are mentally alert they qualify for home tutoring and teachers will visit in the afternoon. There is, however, almost no integration into "normal" society. Appropriate equipment such as wheelchairs or walkers are difficult to obtain and transporation is a problem. There is still a stigma and often these children remain hidden. One mother wiped tears from her eyes, she was so touched that we had bothered to come. She said nobody comes. Another case was particularly sad. A twenty-one year old non-verbal, severely disabled son is being cared for by his mother. This year the father also became bedridden. They live in extreme poverty and all three occupy a small bedroom. The son lies on a narrow fold-down couch. His legs are permanently crossed and he hasn't been out of the room for three years. The mother says he has pressure sores. She raised him up and spoke to him so lovingly. Not a complaining word was spoken. We would love to do something to ease the burden for this family.
By law medical care is free in Ukraine, but in practice this isn't the case. We receive frequent requests for medical aid and have been able to provide assistance to fund critical surgeries and to help people in desperate need of medications. Our deeds of mercy are made possible by our generous donors.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Spring is here and there are signs of new life everywhere. The first evidence appeared at the market where we noticed huge sacks of radishes - such a welcome addition to the rather sad and forlorn-looking cabbages, carrots and potatoes that have been hibernating in someone's root cellar all winter. It's amazing how the sight and taste of these little red globes can bring so much pleasure. We realize again how spoiled we've become back home with all the choices and abundance. Here we're rediscovering the joy of doing "more with less." This is exactly what our people do - serving delicious meals using whatever is availalbe, decorating with a minimum of materials, creating interesting and imaginative programs with few resources.

Easter Sunday was an example. 130 people crowded our worship space, not a chair to spare. The children and youth were all involved in recreating the resurrection story, moving from a contemporary scene of questioning to the historical narrative itself. The joyful Easter greeting Христос воскрес! воистено воскрес! - repeated three times, rang out again and again, Christ is risen, Christ is risen ideed.

Earlier in the week Ira, our cook, Oksana and I baked paska for our Mom's group. When they came to the Centre on Wednesday we made the cottage cheese spread together and then had tea. We kept hearing murmurs of "вкусно", phonetically pronounced fcoosna, the "oo-o" long drawn out. This is Russian for "delicious".

Of all religious holidays in Ukraine Easter is the most important. We shared family traditions. Our Moms all come from Russian Orthodox backgrounds and over time they have let go of some of the strict traditional observances. The season of Lent was 40 days of deprivation, giving up eating meat, eggs, butter and leavened bread. It was meant to be a time of soul cleansing and penitence. Paska had great symbolic significance. The one who baked the bread must keep her thoughts pure and remain quiet while the bread is being baked. It is not eaten until Easter Sunday after it has been taken to the cathedral at midnight and blessed by the priest. They talked of how their mothers had cleaned their house, washed the curtains and white-washed the tree trunks all in preparation for this great event.

The yard at the Centre was also given a spring make-over. Our tree trunks were given a fresh coat of white-wash. We joined the staff in clearing the lawn of rocks and debris in preparation for the first mowing. Then the highlight of the day - we introduced the staff to a wiener roast. The debri was lit in our fire-pit, sausages were bought, Rudy created wiener sticks and we had a feast.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Common to every household in the towns and villages of southeastern
Ukraine are fences and gates. These gates are necessary and functional. First of all they provide a degree of security. Then they also protect the pedestrian from the fierce-sounding, ever-present yappers on the other side of the gate.

Gates also make a statement. Some appear welcoming, others seem to say "keep out". As each little house has it's unique character, so rarely are two gates alike. Many are colorful and creatively designed, some are whimsical - Ukrainian folk art. And there are those that appear to be status symbols and can only be described as "grand entrances".

We are reminded of elaborate gates leading to manor homes of some
of our ancestors. We identify a few as we travel along the country-side. Some are white-washed and kept in good repair. Others, such as the example above, situated close to where we live, are falling into ruin.

And we can't forget the gate-keepers. These intrepid babushkas can be seen sitting on their benches outside their gates. A Ukrainian describes them this way:

Proper Ukrainian traditions are carefully watched by our “Vice Squad”. Our babushkas spend the better part of their day sitting out on their benches. They are active, pushy, know everybody and everything. Don’t argue with them if they say you aren’t behaving properly – it would be best just to disappear.

I can't take credit for this picture. So far I haven't had the courage to stop and take a photo for fear of being slighted, because sadly I don't have the language to ask for permission.

At the Mennonite Centre our gate is open seven days a week. All are welcome to come in. Some come just to sit on our benches and soak up the sun. Some come as tourists, having heard about the Centre and wanting to see for themselves. Some come with medical needs and visit our doctors, others come with more critical medical issues and we try to help if we can. Some days the Centre rings with song as groups rehearse for Sunday services. Some days we hear the laughter of children as the Mom's group gathers. Again we express our gratitude to all those who are helping to make this happen.

Today we heard of another gate. It is Palm Sunday in Ukraine. In our church service this morning we were encouraged to open the gate of our heart to Him who welcomes all without discrimination. We want to do the same.

Friday, April 3, 2009


There's a stark beauty to the landscape in early spring. Last Sunday afternoon was warm and sunny. We took a long walk west of town following the river. Fish are plentiful due to the spring runoff and fishermen were pulling in their catches. Right now fresh fish can also be bought very reasonably - we're told, 3-5 grievna per kilo. Not bad - and a great way to supplement the usual diet. Dema, our manager is salting and drying them on his closed-in balcony much to the dismay of his wife who now has to hang her laundry everywhere throughout the house -and never mind the smell.

Nights are still frosty but that doesn't deter people from tilling the soil and planting their gardens. As we walk along we think again of our forefathers and mothers coming to this land, working the soil and reaping the harvests, and over time developing a thriving culture. The land is still very productive and we ponder - what has changed, why so much poverty? We know there are many reasons, mostly beyong the control of people we meet day to day.

We had visitors this week - Florence Driedger from Regina, former Social Work professor with a specialty in Restorative Justice, and Lucy Alexievna, Social Work professor in Zaporozhye plus one of her students. Over a number of years Florence has been a Social Development Consultant in Zaporozhye. She and her husband Otto have gained highly-respected reputations in Ukraine, in fact an organization has been named after her. The Florence Centre is involved in many projects - with elderly, families and students as well as working with the poor and disabled. It also provides practicum opportunities for students at the University which had been an unknown concept here. Our organization has provided scholarships for several social work students who have had part of their training at the Florence Centre. They mentioned that Lida and Oksana were among their best students. These are now employed in our region. We updated each other on various projects. It was an interesting morning.

Delegation from Zaporozhye

There are many social issues that make life more complicated here. Domestic abuse is a big problem, primarily verbal abuse, wives against husbands, possibly a consequence of huge unemployment numbers. Another form of abuse is that of taking advantage of vulnerable people. An example - told to us by the pastor of our church. Last year when credit became available people owning a passport needed only to show this document and they were able to take a loan from the bank. Most of them had no idea what a trap this could be, and they weren’t given any information or warnings. Several months ago a woman from Molochansk came to the this pastor and said, “either you help me or I will commit suicide." This is what had happened. In fall this woman had bought a fridge on credit valued at 1000 grievna with the agreement that she would make monthly payments of 100 grievna. This carried on until she became ill and missed two payments. When she was able, she resumed paying again and then was notified that she now owed 3000 grievna and was threatened that her house could be seized. In her utter desperation she approached the pastor who began to advocate for her but got nowhere. As further time elapsed the sum became 4000 grievna. The pastor and another missionary were able to put up the money and the woman is now repaying them the 4000 grievna, 100 grievna per month, interest free. She is one of the lucky ones.
So our days continue, we hear many sad stories. However, looking out of kitchen window we see the earth renewing itself. We look out on a soccer field. Each day we see many young people exercising and having a thorougly good time. We hope and pray that life is going to be easier for them. And in the meantime we try to alleviate some of the sorrow.