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


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