Saturday, September 27, 2008

You don't get into Ukrainian homes that often. Maybe it's because they are embarrassed about their poor living conditions, and the language barrier doesn't help. But the last two weeks we were invited into two different homes in two different locales.

One common thing between both places is that your esophagus feels overused, and your stomach feels overextended--in other words, you feel fat! Fat is not a physical condition--it is the feeling you get before have even started eating when you see the table straining to hold up. Mashed potatoes, ketletten (meatballs), varenicki, blinchiki (filled crepes), salads (at least three), salted or smoked fish, pickled tomatoes, pork cutlets, etc. This doesn't include dessert which is usually a bag of candy and fresh fruit. It is no advantage to be thin, because you are seen as being sickly, incapable of working hard, and therefore you can't leave until seen food for its medicinal value.

The next common thing between both places was the desire to show how they have survived and done well in difficult times. The first place was in a small village and the pensioned couple has lived off their garden, their few livestock, and their ingenuity. They feel they have done well. And they have, considering their circumstances. They have running water, but no indoor toilet, a makeshift coal-fired boiler, lots of throw rugs on the floor and rugs hanging on the walls.

The other couple are in their earning years, both making relatively good money in professional jobs and have taken advantage of buying goods on credit. They are very pleased that they have been able to quickly pay off their house and manage their debt load very well. They are going "abroad" this November (they are going to Prague for 4 days). This is their first trip to the outside.

The second couple illustrates the potential and promise of the new Ukraine. They are fortunate in that they both work and have supportive family nearby. They have recently renovated their home and it has a modern kitchen and bathroom that would be up to many Canadian standards. They have a summer (outdoor) kitchen/veranda area with a built-in wood-fired barbecue. They have a small computer and music room with high speed internet, and a sound system systam better than ours.

Our village friends illustrate the uncertainties facing pensioners--as long as they can have their livestock and garden they will do alright. But when they are too old to care for livestock and garden and face health issues they will have to rely on friends and neighbours, as their children have moved to the big cities and are hours away.

We are sending this from Zaparozhye where in a few hours we will board the train for Odessa. From Odessa we join the Heritage Cruise and sail to Sevastopol and Crimea. Walter and Marina Unger have generously given us the opportunity to visit with cruise passengers, telling them about our experiences, and seeing where they can best help in this work. So we probably won't be able to send a report next Sunday.

By the way, we hear of elections in Canada and the US--we will keep you in our prayers...

Ben and Linda

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The opening sentence of Lucy Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables describes Mrs. Rachel Lynde sitting at her window, “keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed.” In Corrections lingo Mrs. Lynde sat at the “Control Centre,” a name describing Purpose and Place where inmates can be observed in their goings-on. In many Ukrainian villages you also have these mini-observation stations, mostly beside the gate which gives you entrance into their yards. We are talking of the Ukrainian bench—a most functional, simple, wooden structure, serving as the place of observation and comment.

The bench appears to serve many purposes. When we come into a new village, our interpreter asks directions from someone sitting at the bench. Often we approach the old ladies (it appears that about 95% of benches are used by women) and ask if they remember anything about the German colonists who used to live in their village. They will point to another house with another bench. The bench is where stories are exchanged, gossip provided, issues clarified, advice given, and no doubt tears shed.

It appears that the larger the village, the fewer the benches. Molochansk has very few benches compared to Dolina or Grushevka. Maybe the two sets of benches we have at the Mennonite Centre take the place of others. On Seniors Luncheon days the benches are often occupied from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. On other days of the week, sometimes solitary people come and just sit and reflect. Often when we leave in the evening when it is already dusk, the benches are still being used. At least our benches at the Mennonite Centre have backs—many don’t. Most appear to have served for generations. Stories of war, death, new life, promises, tragedies, are told and retold. They are primarily occupied by older people who don’t get out too far but who want to see what’s going on. We have noticed one old lady on our street who stands by the hour, leaning on her fence, watching people. She needs to watch.

The seniors in the Seniors House which has been operated by the Kutuzovka Church for two years are relocating to the back rooms of the Church. One of the complaints of the seniors regarding this move is that they will be taken away from their busy street and placed in a quiet, private area where they can’t observe people—they want to see who is coming and going. One of the proposed solutions is to have children playing upstairs in the Sunday School rooms just so the seniors can hear activity.

The most interesting request we got this week was from a Ukrainian builder who plans to restore a former Mennonite home at the boundary between Halbstadt and Muntau. He wanted pictures of the interior of Mennonite homes so that he could restore it accurately. He said he has always been fascinated by the homes of the “German colonists” and he got quite excited when we spoke of the plans to translate Rudy Friesen’s “Building on the Past” into Ukrainian. This is the third place that we know of in Molotchna, where Ukrainians are actively saving or restoring a Mennonite building. We feel there is growing interest in this area and even though they want to have authentic Mennonite buildings they will probably still make provision for a bench near the front gate.

This morning Pastor Jakob Thiessen spoke of the gift of thankfulness. For the first time we heard him make a reference to English, where he said the difference between “think” and “thank” is one letter—if you truly think, you will be thankful. Friends, we think of you often and are thankful.

We will post some pictures of benches on our blogsite at

Ben and Linda

P.S. We broke new ground this week—Linda taught her first piano lesson to students in Victoria via Skype. You can run from your piano teacher but you will always be heard!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

This week we had some unexpected hotel-seeking guests who showed up at the Mennonite Centre fairly late on Wednesday evening. Christian Aid is a humanitarian aid organization which has its roots in conservative Mennonite churches, primarily in Pennsylvania. They started their aid work in Rumania when it was still part of the Soviet Union and have been working in a village south of Kiev for many years. Three of their workers from Kiev and two Mission officials from the United States dropped in to visit, having been told about the Mennonite Centre. Fortunately, for them and for Linda, they found room at the Inn in Tokmak, otherwise our little apartment would have resembled a Kiev subway car.

We had a delightful visit that evening, and Ben gave them a tour of Molochanks and its Mennonite past the following morning. They were intrigued that we would work with people outside the evangelical church, as they limit their work to people of the "household of faith." Three of our brothers sported beards and our Ukrainian staff immediately concluded that they had seen their first real-live Amish people--after all, they believe themselves to be authorities on such matters after having watched the movie "Witness." Ben took them to the former Willms flour mill which is now in receivership, and after they took many pictures of the building he noticed a crowd of former workers standing around, no doubt wondering if the "Amish" were going to buy out the mill.

It certainly isn't hard to understand why Christian groups in the former Soviet Union countries want to work within their own communities. After all, churches during the communist years certainly feared infiltration by Soviet authorities and therefore developed a sense of mistrust and suspicion of anyone new and, to some extent, even each other. That may be why even now Baptists prefer working with Baptists, Pentecostals with Pentecostals, and Orthodox with Orthodox. Long before Soviet times Mennonites preferred working and dealing with people of "their own kind." Now, when the Mennonite Centre has made it clear that we want to work with all groups regardless of their backgrounds, some in North America and others in Ukraine have raised their eyebrows and given us quizzical looks. Giving money to village mayors, hospital administrators, and school directors does involved an element of trust--sadly trust is lacking in this society. As an example, just going from our apartment, getting our car out of the garage, and going into our office requires seven different keys. Everyone seems to have double locks and yapping guard dogs. Even our staff quickly differentiate who is Ukrainian, Russian, and Jewish.

Therefore, when a group of people from a small former Mennonite village, Udarnik, phoned us and asked us to visit them, it came as a bit of a surprise. They enticed us by stating they had a Mennonite church building they wanted to save from demolition. We were contacted, not by any church or missions group in Udarnik —we were approached by educators schooled under the Soviet system who simply wanted to know more about their village history. And now this little group of villagers has made a monument honoring their Mennonite past. This week they proudly showed us pictures of their dedication service for the monument. There, among the local and regional dignitaries, stood the local Orthodox priest, extending his hand of blessing over a granite stone that reads in Russian, Ukrainian, and English: “To the inhabitants of the villages of Alexanderkrone, Friedensruh, Kleefeld, Lichtfelde, Prangenau, Neukirch, Steinfeld, who fell in the wars, holodomor, repression and deportation.”

And then John Wiens, a Mennonite missionary in Zaparozhye, tells us how excited he is to be working with an Orthodox believer who will soon begin working as translator for his sermons. It seems that the “household of faith” may be much bigger here than we ever imagined, and only by extending trust do we start to appreciate its increasing scope.

And thanks for extending trust to us with your donations and other forms of support.

Ben and Linda

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

While driving down the road to Liebenau, guided by our trusty (borrowed) Garmin Nuvi GPS, and Linda kept wondering “why do they do so much burning around here?” Often trees are burnt by the numerous grass fires on the road sides. That coupled with the blue vapour trails left by so many older trucks, suggests that Ukraine has a long way to go improve its environmental record.

However, lest we think too smugly of our environmental work in North America, we have found that there are things we can learn from Ukrainians. A lot of what we encourage Canadians to do in terms of good environmental practice is already being done here.

In Ukraine we tend to follow the one-hundred-meter diet, buying most of our vegetables from the lady across the street. We don’t buy a great deal of fruit, as it is given to us from the gardens of staff and friends of the Centre. We suspect that most of our Sunday lunch-time dried fish comes from the nearby Sea of Azov. The meat we buy at the market often comes from local sources. We do have a good German-made washing machine but we use the Ukrainian sun as our dryer. While we do put on quite a few miles visiting nearby communities, any traveling done in Molochansk is on foot. Every year there are more cars on the roads but still the vast majority of Ukrainians in this village use their bicycles. Yesterday we spotted a Ukrainian woman who, by North American standards, would have surely qualified for Seniors’ passes, possibly a disability pension, walk up her driveway using her bike as support. She got on the road, stopped, and Ben said to Linda, “watch this, she is going to get onto that old Soviet-era bicycle—it may be the first she ever owned.” Indeed, with little effort and amazing style and agility, she was up on that bike and pedaled as she had likely been doing all her life. No waste of energy, no problem balancing. Take those two wheels away from her and she would soon have to use four. Later we saw a young girl barely into her school years, slowly pedaling past a young friend who was walking—the next thing we knew her friend took one or two nimble steps and sat herself down, sidesaddle, on the back of the bike. The cyclist never broke stride. Easier than mounting a cable car in San Fran.

However it’s too bad this 8-year-old cyclist won’t cycle as long as the babushka; the locals are catching our bad habits too quickly. Already these strong, sturdy, hole-defying Soviet-era bikes seem to be in the minority as every youngster lusts after the chrome, multi-geared, plastic-laced hot rods named Phantom, Fort, Sport, or Hercules. And the streets whine with the numerous scooters that can carry more than any Smart car. And every year we see more big bikes, even a few choppers with the “Hardly” Davison look.

This week a senior Ministry of Education official from Melitopol reminded us that so many of the trees growing in the Molotchna area can trace their roots back to Johann Cornies. In fact, he proposed that there should be a joint event celebrating the forested parks started in this area by Cornies and continued by young Mennonite men. We will be visiting him shortly.

We have also noticed that the industrial pollution in Molochansk appears to have decreased significantly. Unfortunately this good result came at a cost—the local milk plant, which produced beautiful white milk, also produced incredibly black smoke. Now it produces neither, as it went into receivership 6 weeks ago and took 200 already-scarce jobs from this community.

We keep hearing of tragic cases where people have bought appliances on credit and now find themselves in circumstances where they cannot pay. The interest rate is often well over 20% (sometimes over 30%). The debt keeps growing and now exceeds the value of the appliance. The stores aren’t interested in repossessing. People who should be collecting a pension are now finding themselves seeking work in Russia to pay off this growing monster.

For those of you who expected this email on Sunday, sorry. We were ready to go, however the internet wasn’t.