Monday, May 31, 2010
The "Last Bell" ceremony at the Ukrainian school was a gala outdoor production. On observation we decided that the theme had to be "Launched to Fly." Actors dressed in black and white performed a pantomine which included releasing a black and white bird. There were emotional farewells to teachers, parents were honored, then the torch was passed to younger students. The ceremony concluded as graduates symbolically released balloons into the sky. One hopes the world they will be entering will open doors of opportunity for them, allowing them to fly.
Lack of employment and corruption remain huge problems. Russlan is 31 years old. He is a recovering alcoholic. Four years ago, he told us, he was a very bad man. Then our pastor and his wife, Jacob and Natasha Tiessen, offered him shelter. Today people do not believe he is the same person. Last month he was able to find employment in a greenhouse, working 13 hour days. The first weeks he was given positive feedback, then on the fourth week his employer began finding fault with him. This escalated and finally he was sent away, given only bus fare home. This is the second such incident we've heard about in past weeks. There seems little protection for employees unless a formal contract is entered into. Before we left home a friend handed us some money to be used for a project of our choice. Rudy had the idea of providing a bicycle for a boy from a poor family. We were talking about this with the Tiessens when Jacob asked, "how about a 31 year old boy?" Russlan is living with them again, has no means of transportation and is wanting to look for further work. There was no doubt in our minds that this was the right opportunity. Thursday we had the joy of presenting him with a new bicycle. For a moment he was speechless, then he immediately offered a prayer of thanksgiving. We've been told that he went around town telling people this story. He was told "this can't possibly happen , there has to be something sinister behind it." Experience has made many people suspicious and distrusting.
This week we again had the joy of hosting friends from home. Peter and Hilda Goertzen and their relatives from Germany joined us for several days. We spent Saturday driving through the countryside, visiting former Mennonite villages. Both Hilda and Rudy have roots in Hierschau. Several years ago we had connected with Margarita Krivetz, nee Plett, Rudy's distant relative. In the meantime we heard that she had moved to Zaporozhye, was very ill and unresponsive. People in Hierschau, however, told us that she was back living with her daughter-in-law. We managed to locate her and there was immediate recognition. What a joyful reunion with this delightful ninety year old.
Yesterday, one more fascinating day. We had the opportunity of hosting 60 MEDA representatives from North America as well as the Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, His Excellencey, Daniel Caron. Mennonite Economic Development Associates has been given a multi-million dollar CIDA grant and is one and one half years into a five year project aimed at helping 5000 small scale farmers in the Zaporozhye region and Crimea get access to credit and gain skills in planting, storing, packaging and marketing their produce. Ukraine used to be the breadbasket of Europe.
the Ambassador & Rudy
Now Ukraine farmers are again tilling Russian Mennonite ancestral soil. We joined Steve Wright, (photo to right) the director of the project, and the MEDA group in visiting two model farmers in our area. One Molochansk farmer has a cell of 75 farmers producing table grapes, seedlings and garlic. He is obviously prospering. The other is operating on a much smaller scale, also producing grape seedlings, strawberries and roses. Our staff provided a delicious noon meal and we were entertained by Natasha, a Ukrainian MEDA staff person who sang Ukrainian folksongs, accompanying herself on the bandura. In the afternoon we escorted a group on visits to former Mennonite historical sites. It was interesting to visit Juschanlee, to think back to the time of Johann Cornies more than 150 years ago and realize what he was able to achieve in land reforms and agricultural practices in the Mennonite colonies. Perhaps history will repeat itself.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
As we travel city and country roads we still see remnants of our Mennonite past, but sadly many buildings are crumbling. This week we had the opportunity of driving to Chortitza and I was able once again to see the girls' school my mother attended in the early 1920's. This magnificent building was erected in 1904 to provide high school education for girls. It is still a school today; it hurts to see the structure deteriorating. There is no money to provide the needed repairs. A few days ago we received a visit by the head doctor of our local hospital telling us that they are being forced to downsize, offering us the former Muntau Hospital, suggesting that we could use the space to operate a nursing home. It is too costly for them to heat and a lot of repair is needed. A century ago this hospital was led to prominence by Dr. Tavonious who loved the people and at the same time kept abreast of scientific medical advances.
Next door to our apartment we see the shell of the former Willms mansion which was built in 1908 and at that time referred to as a "palace". It's former grandeur is still evident. As recently as 15 years ago the building was used as a concert hall and a place to host special events. Destruction set in after Ukraine independence because there was no money or will to maintain it. Sadly it has become a hangout. Tourists from North America and Europe continue to arrive hoping to connect with their past and set foot on ancestral soil. This week we hosted two such groups. It takes a bit of courage and dexterity to enter the Willms mansion. Walking through the enormous salon at one end of the house there were differences of opinion as to what the recessed space in front of the stage was meant to be. Some suggested an orchestra pit, others a baptismal tank. So much for orientation and perception. It's a pleasure to host these groups, to show them through our museum and to relay information. Our cooks provide delectable meals on request.
Wednesday our Mom's group had a cooking class - using ingredients that are readily available in every household - bread and eggs. They decided that next month they would like to branch out from the known and try something a little more exotic. Many are single moms, some living with a parent, unemployed, depending on their kitchen gardens for their livelihood. For most, this two hour block in the week in an oasis, a time of listening and sharing, a time of creativity and fun, a time when they can forget their day-to-day cares and burdens. The group is lead by Oksana, who is also our able bookkeeper.
More than 300 young people attended another "Youth for Life" presentation on Thursday. It was held a the local Russian school. A further event is planned for the Tokmak city schools in September. So far over 20 schools have participated. Each school is choosing a student who exhibits a healthy life-style. An awards ceremony is in the offing later this week.
A visit to the local psychiatric hospital was an eye-opener in terms of facility and patient care. This large facility services the region and again there is little government money for upkeep and repair. The floors in the women's section were in dreadful condition and our organization agreed to put in tiles. Staff expressed deep appre-ciation when we went to see the finished task.
Ben Stobbe, our board chair from Victoria BC, is with us for two weeks. It has been very helpful in terms of review and setting goals for the organization. Our time is rapidly drawing to a close. Our eyes have been opened to a greater understanding of Mennonite history, faith and culture here in Ukraine and also the needs around us. We hope and pray that our perceptions will lead to helpful decision making and enablement.
Monday, May 17, 2010
A major highlight at the end of the week again took us back 150 years, but this time in a different direction. We had the opportunity of participating in a celebration commemorating the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Mennonite Brethren church on the site of the first MB church building in the village of Rueckenau. Together with many Ukrainians from surrounding communities we joined an international delegation from Japan, Germany, Brazil and Canada. Unfortunately representatives from Paraguay were held up in Vienna due to a visa problem. As we waited for proceedings to get underway, it was a delight to see a familiar face, Margarita, who had spent a year in Abbotsford with the MCC Volunteer Exchange Program. She is now back home in Zaporozhye.
Interestingly, it was Ukrainian dignitaries who welcomed us to the commemoration. Elizaveta Vladyslavovna recounted the history of Mennonites coming to Ukraine at the invitiation of Catherine the Great to colonize the Russian steppes, on to the disintegration and tragic end of the Mennonite commonwealth. She asked us to honour our past and not be ashamed of our motherland. Representatives from the Zaporozhye Oblast and the Tokmak Region gave greetings. We were entertained by a Ukrainian folk ensemble and Marina Romanova sang an moving song in German and Ukrainian. In answer to my query about the text, she wrote out these words: Das Lied ist ueber Russland, die verlassen ist von Mennoniten. Sie muessen zurueck reisen. Es tut leid, das Elternhaus und Graeber zu verlassen. Translated: the song is about Russia, left by the Mennonites. They must return. It hurts to leave fatherland and gravesites behind. Greetings were relayed by Johann Matthies, MBMSI representative for Europe and Asia. David Wiebe, Executive Director of the Canadian MB Conference addressed the audience as well as giving greetings from ICOMB, The International Community of Mennonite Brethren. Rev. Moriki Hatakenaka from Tokyo spoke about the chain of events causing Mennonites to leave Ukraine, to move to North America, then to come to Japan as missionaries sharing the gospel. He closed with a prayer of gratitude. Then finally, the unveiling of the plaque engraved in Ukrainian, German and English. Mounted next to a pole which once held a communist flag on the wall of what is now a sunflower oil factory this memorial drew Ukrainians and Mennonites from around the world together in unity and will remain a symbol in the community.
Friday, May 7, 2010
Most heart-rending was our visit to the Babi Yar Memorial commemorating the loss of more than 33,000 Jews during the genocide that occurred at the site on Sept. 29-30, 1941. The bed of forget-me-nots was a poignant reminder. Our day ended with a stroll through the centre of the city at dusk, seeing the sunset on the Dnieper River and the lights illuminating monuments and historical places.
Next morning we met up with friends, Kim and Wes Janzen and their three teen-aged children who are currently in Ukraine with Music Mission Kiev. Part of Wes' assignment is serving as guest conductor of the Kiev Symphony and Chorus. He also teaches up to 100 students at the seminary at St. Michaels Ukrainian Orthodox Church and has developed a warm relationship with the Metropolitan. We were invited to join them on a one-hour tour of the cathedral museum/gallery. It was inspiring to see these two men, the #2 official of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and an evangelical musician/missionary relating as kinsmen in the faith, both concerned with building God's kingdom. We had the opportunity to tell them about our work at the Mennonite Centre. Similar to what we do, Music Mission Kiev also helps widows, orphans and conducts children's camps. The Horbans had brought a suitcase plus several big bags of wool sent by John and Rita Thiessen for their widows group. There was great rejoicing at the unpacking!
We were invited to return in the afternoon and listen to Wes rehearse the Symphony Chorus in Haydn's Creation and Monteverdi's Beatus Vir. What a wonderful choir - all music academy graduates. Had we been fluent in Ukrainian we would have been tempted to join in. We gratefully accepted the Janzen's invitation to dinner and joined them at the opera in the evening. The performance of Donizetti's Elixir of Love at the grand National Opera House was the crowning event of the day.
During the mid-day interval we visited the Chernobyl Museum, another worthwhile experience. It was sobering to learn that this disaster was a horrific consequence of poor decision-making.
On our final day, a guided tour of the Golden Gate of Kiev gave us a broad understanding of the history of this city. It was interesting to see parts of the fortification wall still in existence, dating back more than 1000 years. We concluded our sightseeing by visiting St. Sophia's Cathedral. This complex with its 13 golden domes blending into the skyline dates back 900 years. We climbed to the top of the bell tower and enjoyed the panoramic views.
The picture was taken from the bell tower and shows St. Michaels in the distance.
Another 9 hour night of shaking and rattling as the train brought us back to Zaporozhye. We are left with a rich array of cultural, spiritual and historical experiences and memories to ponder.