Sunday, July 28, 2013


This weekend marks an important historical event.  It is the 1025th anniversary of Christianity in what was once known as the Kievan Rus - the medieval Slavic state that laid the Orthodox foundation for modern day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
Today "The Voice of Russia" reported that President Vladimir Putin arrived in Kiev Saturday "for politically charged festivities celebrating the arrival of Christianity in Russia and Ukraine, highlighting a tug-of-war over Kiev's moves to integrate with the EU." The outcome of meetings this week could have huge implications for the political and economic future of this country.  The anniversary was also referred to in church this morning.

For those who can find Ukraine on the map but lack further specifics, here is a little geography lesson - helping to put our work into context. We live 611 km SE of Kiev.  The town of Molochansk (pop. 7000) is close to the centre of the map in the northwest corner of the former Molotschna colony, not far from the city of Tokmak.  Our projects are centred in the former Mennonite colonies of Molotschna, Choritiza and Yazekovo which at times requires travelling over roads that defy description.  Fortunately we have a good, solid vehicle.

It was a perfect, thoroughly enjoyable day, not too hot
Tuesday was the final workday for the group from Switzerland.  They
had almost completed installing gyproc on the church ceiling. Wednesday was reward day, a trip to the Sea of Azov near Berdyansk. We were asked whether we could help with transportation.  Together with our local young people, 30 of us piled into 4 vehicles.  As you may surmise, the wearing of seat belts is not mandatory here.  Our destination was the spit of land that juts into the sea just south of Berdyansk, a two hour drive.

Back again to Molochansk.  One of our priorities is encouraging local initiatives.  Last fall we became aware of an enterprising young couple who had started a farming venture. Denis and Svieta had taken a loan to purchase land and planted several hectares of strawberries and garlic.  Our organization helped with the purchase of a rototiller. The good news is that after several successful strawberry crops they have almost finished repaying their loan.  This year they harvested a lot of garlic and are looking for markets.
Sadly, they discovered that Ukraine is importing garlic from China at very low prices. In addition to farming Denis is  responsible for maintenance at the Senior's Home and has occasionally brought some of the residents to the farm for an afternoon outing.  This is a literal "field trip" for them.  They've enjoyed sitting in the shade trimming greens off the garlic bulbs.  Several days ago we were treated to a Bulgarian dinner consisting of cottage cheese stuffed pockets of deep-fried dough eaten with lots of sour cream. Then Denis and Svieta took us on a garden tour, showing us the product of seeds brought from Canada in spring, also pointing out a grove of young fruit trees.  They dream of purchasing more land and eventually tending a big orchard.
Fruit saplings
What are those red-stemmed stalks?
There was a mystery to be solved.  Going by the picture on the seed packet, they planted what they considered to be rhubarb seeds.  What came up, however, is a row of healthy-looking Swiss chard.  They have no idea how to prepare this - I plan to cook up a meal for them before we leave. Surprisingly rhubarb is also unknown here.
We applaud this couple and a few others who are reimagining work, seeing opportunities, and are not afraid to get their hands dirty.  They are setting a great example and bringing hope.
First taste of mulberries

Over the past ten days we've celebrated three staff birthdays. Custom dictates that the birthday person provides the goodies.  Ira is our head cook and her creation tasted even better than it looked.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to

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Monday, July 22, 2013


No week is like another at the Centre. The past week started off with Dema cooking and ended with Oksana cooking for Dema.  On Monday 8 young people, representing 4 Mennonite churches, arrived from Switzerland.  They came for what had been billed as a youth camp.  In actuality this group teamed up with local young people to help with construction of the new church building.  In addition they declared themselves willing to help elderly with house and garden chores.  The kick-off - a Plov dinner at the Centre. Before the feast Dema gave the group a powerpoint lesson, familiarizing them with the Ukrainian chapter of Mennonite history.

Preparing this Uzbekian specialty dish authentically, requires a special cast iron pot which must be suspended over an open fire. The recipe includes lots of onion, carrots, chunks of pork, rice, and secret ingredients, i.e. certain spices, and several submerged heads of garlic - all cooked with water and much oil.  We were allowed to chop vegetables, however, no one but Dema gets to preside over the Plov pot.  The aroma outdoors was tantalizing and the meal a great success - feasting followed by a lively volleyball match.
One way of cleaning the picnic table before the feast begins

We frequently host visitors at the Centre.  On Wednesday a grandfather/granddaughter pair from Canada arrived with a tour guide from Odessa.  They came to explore their roots in Schönsee, the village mentioned in our previous blog.  We had met John previously; the surprise came when we noticed the tour guide.  Within a moment there was mutual recognition, taking us back sixteen years.  It was 1997 - we were on our first Mennonite Heritage Cruise.  On a Sunday morning while in Odessa, we had the opportunity to attend a service at an Orthodox Cathedral.  We were standing with other worshippers and at one point during the liturgy became aware of a beautiful soprano voice behind us.  Later, together with others, we met this young lady, found out that she could speak English, and invited her to join us for lunch on the ship.  This was followed by a memorial service for those whose ancestors had perished at sea, while serving in the Sanitätsdient in WW1 (an alternative service to active war duty). These people had the opportunity of tossing remembrance roses into the Black Sea.  During these moments of reminiscence we again hear this voice - Anzhelika singing "The Lord's Prayer" in Russian.  The minor melody tugs at your heartstrings.  It was one of those exquisite, unorchestrated, never-to-be forgotten moments.

Anzhelika, myself and Olga Rubel formed a trio

Anzhelika is married and has a 7 year old son.  As well as hosting a tour company, she teaches music at the university.  Her husband is an artist; he is often commissioned to paint backdrops for the Odessa opera.  Before we parted Anzhelika requested that we sing "Amazing Grace" together.

Sasha's mother at her workplace
Olga Rubel, our representative in Zaporozhye, has been keeping in contact with Sasha, the young man who lost his arms under very unfortunate circumstances seven years ago.  We've assisted in various ways through the years. He finished school in spring. Earlier this month we made it possible for him to attend a camp for disabled young people which he enjoyed.  He loves to swim and play soccer.  He has also become proficient in using a foot mouse to operate a computer.  We tried unsuccessfully to connect with Sasha last week, but did meet with his mother.  We are offering him a distance-learning computer course in fall and are willing to put needed supports into place.

Yesterday was a red-letter day - Dema's birthday! He made the announcement at church together with an open invitation to join in a wiener roast at the Centre in the evening.  At least 45 people responded.
Dema on the hot seat

Responding to the toasts & roasts

Oksana outdid herself baking 6 cakes, wiener buns and preparing salads.  A great climax to another week.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to

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Monday, July 15, 2013


It was eight years ago.  We had come to Ukraine to volunteer at the Mennonite Centre. In the early years we made many discoveries as we explored the villages of our ancestry.   One building stands out in our memory - the ruins of a once ornate church in the village of Schönsee.
Walls were still standing and trees within were almost overshadowing the building. Loose bricks had long been gleaned for reconstruction elsewhere. We roamed around the site and tried to imagine what once was.  It came as a surprise earlier this year to learn that this building was under reconstruction - again as a centre for worship.  The Mennonite Centre is supporting the restoration by providing cement and bricks.

This is a church-planting project of Father Peter, a Greek Catholic missionary from the Czech Republic.  We had the opportunity to meet him at the building site.

Father Peter, second from right
When we arrived 8 young people, volunteers from CZ, were hard at work levelling the ground so that the concrete flooring could be completed.  They all spoke English, as well as two seminarians studying in Austria.
One of them told us that Father Peter has planted 18 churches in Europe.  They also said that there was a time when he was persecuted and had to flee for his life.  A group of believers has already formed in Schönsee and are meeting regularly in this still-to-be-completed building.  Several of them appeared while we were there.
Local parishioners

This project will take some time to complete. Father Peter is planning a dedication a year from now and intimated that this church might become a pilgrimage site.  We were able to converse in German and found him to be a most likeable, kind person.  Before we left he gathered his colleagues around him and ourselves and they sang the Lord's Prayer in three-part harmony.  I must admit that I was wiping tears.  He then closed in prayer - not a memorized liturgy, but a blessing from the heart.  We are grateful that this building is having a new life.

Another restoration:
In previous blogs we've referred to the the former Willm's mansion next door to our apartment.  When we left in November a new roof was being put on the building. When we returned a few weeks ago the roof was still incomplete, but men are again working. We are told that workers had disappeared with 20,000 UAH of roofing material which put a stop to the project.  This week the whole area has been fenced in.  Apparently it belongs to the local furniture factory and the building is being renovated to create sleeping space for workers. This still begs the question.  With so many unemployed in Molochansk why create lodging?

             Sunflowers in all their glory.  Some fields extend as far as the eye can see.
             A restoration for the senses.  Good news, we had some rain yesterday.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013


We've been drawn back to Ukraine once again - it's strange, the allure.  This time we came via Poland.  We had the opportunity to participate in a Mennonite historical tour which expanded the knowledge and scope of our heritage.  Our genealogical  quest was akin to searching for treasure and to our surprise we were able to uncover some family gems in the form of gravestone fragments with ancestral names.  It was pretty exhilarating.

The theme was "Searching for Treasure"  There were
pirates, a ship and sunken treasure

Upon arrival here we became aware of another treasure hunt in process.  Last week the Kutuzovka Church held its annual children's camp.  We were invited to join parents in attending the final wrap-up session Friday afternoon.  Seventy children were registered. They had been divided into six groups, each with a leader and a helper.  Eight years ago, when we first came to Ukraine, these young leaders were the children.  It's great to see them becoming responsible young adults; also gratifying for us an organization because we are annual sponsors of this camp.  The camp director, a very capable young women, is the daughter of our head cook, Ira.

Ploughing into the muck
Searching under the tent
Teams, parents among them, competed in finding treasure. Where were those elusive keys to unlock the treasure chests?  There was much excitement, seeking and scrambling.  In addition to all the activities and fun each day, children were given keys to unlocking Scriptural treasures - the ultimate treasure quest.                                                                                         
As in other years, residents of the Senior's Home at the church participated in the camp. Women who are physically able, willingly peeled potatoes for 100 people and busily washed dishes.  Connections were made across the generations.  Contributing to operational costs of the Senior's Home is another one of our projects.
Fleeting treasures.
We're in the midst of apricot season.  Trees everywhere are laden with fruit. We're enjoying this abundance but it won't be for long.  The weather is scorching hot and in many cases fruit is cooking on the stem.  People tell us that summers have been getting hotter and dryer; there has been less snow in winters.  Less moisture in the ground is taking its toll because many here depend on their gardens for their livelihood.  Right now gardens are producing but people are waiting for rain.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to

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