Sunday, August 15, 2010

An accountant friend of Ben’s always bristled when he was called a ‘number cruncher.’ He said that numbers and currency were mere symbols of programs and people. He looked at the end result, not the process.

One of the advantages of being here is that, while we experience the process, we also can see the beginning of the end result. Last Monday morning we came into a busy office at the Mennonite Centre. There were several bright, young university applicants and an old woman with her son. The students could wait, after all they had a lifetime ahead of them; we weren’t so sure about the woman.

Ella, who is from the former Mennonite village of Lichtenau, has had two surgeries for colon cancer and is facing another on August 24th. Her son, a former vet, explained that so far they have been able to keep their house but have sold their pigs, a cow, and anything else they can sell, to pay for medical intervention. Their income consists of her pension and the pension of her 93-year-old mother–he has given up his job to care for them. She handed us receipts for past expenses and all we could see with the receipts was the loss of pigs and a cow. Her request was modest, some money to pay for the third surgery. Ben said to Dema, “let’s give her 200 grievnas (UAH) today, just to give her some immediate hope, and go to the Board for additional funds.” The 200 UAH are just numbers, but to her they not–they represented hope; we saw the result–a smile which even pain could not hold back. Oksana, our bookkeeper was no number-cruncher, she delivered hope.

The students came next. This year’s numbers suggest that we will approve 20 to 25 students going to university, with a total budget of about 100,000 UAH ($12,500 US). This fall, coming out of our Youth for Life program, five of these students have been nominated by the Superintendent of Schools because they are very bright but come from very poor family and village backgrounds. While they will get full tuition scholarships from government, they still don’t have enough for books, and room and board. One of the students, Denis, is a history buff and was asked by Dema if he new knew anything about Mennonite History in Ukraine. Wrong question if you have to go to the washroom! Denis’ eyes became focussed and by the time we stopped him 10 minutes later he had gone from Menno Simons to the impact of Potemkin. Denis comes from a small, non-German village and we were totally surprised that he had even heard of us. Dema wondered if Denis could come back some time during the university year and give a lecture to other students. Ben thought he should be giving lectures to North American Mennonites! We want to give him and other scholarship applicants money not just because they need it but because we see them as legitimate academics who will have significant influence in the new Ukraine. This is not about money, it is about investment.

Last Sunday we were at the Grace Church in Melitopol. Dema, our Ukrainian Manager, delivered the sermon while Ben provided an introduction thanking the church for giving us two of our Ukrainian Directors from their midst–Kate Ostapenko and Dema Bratchenko. After church we met with the Deaf and Mute group, who were given funds by us for a summer camp. Here, not knowing Russian and not being able to read sign language really means you have two strikes against you. But we could read body language and we had a wonderful time of tea and sharing. Ben asked them if a North American who could “sign” would be able to communicate directly with them; they said most words are transferrable and gave examples of North Americans who have done just that. There is some irony in this–if you can’t speak but can sign, you can communicate with more language groups around the world than most linguists can. As one of our Canadian friends said, “I’m learning the wrong language!” We didn’t just give them money, we gave them a new sense of community and support.

A major frustration this week was trying to change the ownership of the Mennonite Centre car from our retired bookkeeper Ada, to our current bookkeeper Oksana. Before you ask why the car isn’t in the name of the Mennonite Centre, be sure to take a washroom break! Too long a story for this blog! To do this, our money had to go to the police–not once, but several times–all legitimate. To change ownership you have to change licence plates. First, before you can take off the old licence plate, the police have to inspect the car to confirm registration. Then you put on a red licence plate, signifying ownership is in transition. Then you have to bring the car to a notary public who reviews documents and confirms that Oksana can be the new owner. Then you take the car back to the police, show the new documents, and get another inspection to confirm that the car is the same one as you brought since the red plates were put on. All of these visits involve a fee which some of you dear friends have contributed to. We always want to believe that all our money goes to widows and orphans, but some of it has to go to the process–to get mobility and to deliver services. Our challenge here is to do this with integrity, to fill out every form, not “buying our way” through the system, even if that means we are in the slow lineup and have to wait hours longer than the young fellows who come with their black BMW’s. Even here it’s not just about the money, it’s about doing it right.

The week ended off with our Saturday morning Tokmak market visit. We hold our breath, gird our loins, and step into the meat market, a place we have visited for the last several years. We are always greeted by a community of pigs’s heads, ears, and a display of other livestock anatomy. We are also greeted by the welcoming smiles of fly-swatting vendors, some who remember us from past visits. We buy a pork roast for our Saturday night dinner, then remembered that some poor family from Lichtenau had to give up their pigs to provide not only money, but also hope.

Ben and Linda Stobbe,
c/o Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine,
2675 North Service Road,
Beamsville, Ontario. L0R 1B1


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