Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Gala Concert

All our energies for the past week have gone into preparing for Saturday evening.  This was planned as a special evening for the leaders and shakers in Molochansk.  They would be served a fabulous meal, listen to a professional music concert, and be presented with a special challenge from the Mennonite Centre.  This was a new concept for Molochansk. 

The idea for the evening was first proposed by our manager, Dema Bratchenko to the Board of the Mennonite Centre in Canada.  The objective was to introduce the concept of taking ownership for supporting your own community to the leaders in Molochansk.  The Mennonite Centre has taken on this role, but it needs broader support in the community.  The concept of volunteerism and charity are foreign ideas in Ukraine.  The Board supported Dema’s proposal and agreed to provide matching funds to any charitable initiative coming from the community leaders.

The banquet was held three weeks after we received Board approval.  It was an ambitious project.  Dema arranged for the Director of the School of Music in Tokmak to bring some of his best students and provide the concert.  They have a tight schedule and once they were booked, the evening was set.  We identified all movers and shakers in Molochansk.  Together with their spouses this numbered just over 20 people.  This included the mayor as well as a number of directors of public institutions and some business people.  A problem arose when we tried to establish the menu.  It turned out that we had committed ourselves to a banquet during the period of Lent when some members of the Orthodox faith would be observing the fast – that is, they would be abstaining from all meat and animal products.  Apparently there have been tensions in the past when those observing the fast publicly refused any food with meat and were judged by others as appearing to be more pious.  We did not wish to have this tension distract from the objective of the evening.  It was decided to have a uniform meal for everyone that was consistent with the rules of the fast.  Essentially we were going to have a vegan banquet.

Dema was determined that we were going to have a beautiful and tasty meal.  His choice for dessert was brownies.  Mary and Oksana (Dema’s wife) spent an evening trying to experiment with brownie recipes that did not require eggs or dairy products.  There were a number of failures but one recipe seemed to work.  Mary brought it to work the next day and the entire staff at the Mennonite Centre assembled at the morning break to test its suitability.  There was no reluctance to criticize.  Our test product had nuts on top.  When I suggested that this may be a problem for those suffering from allergies, I was jokingly informed that all people in Ukraine with that problem had already died and therefore we need not worry about it.  Ira, our cook, was very concerned with presentation.  She started detailed planning on how to cut the brownies in circles and to decorate them in an attractive way.

The main course was a bigger challenge.  While Mary and I might have tried a tofu dish, this was not understood by the staff.  As it might have looked like a meat, it was decided that the main course had to appear to be vegan as well as actually meeting that criteria.  After a sleepless night for our cook and a fruitless evening for myself of searching the web, I proposed that we serve a vegetable stir fry in a thickened soy sauce.  I had made this at home many times and knew the recipe from memory.  We could make some substitutions for the usual meat products.  I was invited to test my idea.  After some quick purchases in Molochansk, Mary cooked some rice and I prepared a stir fry in a large pot.  Again all the staff assembled to pass judgment on our creation.  Instead of eating it right away, the group spent 15 minutes analyzing its presentation and deciding exactly how the vegetables should be arranged on the bed of rice.  It was fascinating to watch.  Finally we were ready to eat.  Mary had put some dried parsley in her rice to give it flavour.  It was decided that the rice had to be pure white.  It was also unanimously decided that the carrots in my stir fry were too hard and should be pre-boiled.  Otherwise the suggestion was accepted.  With two days to go, we finally had a main dish for the menu.

The evening itself went very well.  We had 12 distinguished guests including the mayor.  People even came on time.  A decision on whether or not to open with God’s blessing was resolved when Dema suggested that I say grace.  If anyone was offended, they could always blame the foreigner who obviously did not know any better.  I was strictly forbidden to take any pictures, as this would have been intimidating for our guests.  Fears from the Soviet time are still present.  The staff was decked out in their finest serving uniforms.  Even a night watchman was outside to ensure that cars were not vandalized.  This is all part of a special evening in Molochansk.

After the dinner and an excellent music concert, Dema gave a short presentation based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It starts with the basic needs to live and reaches the top through self actualization where social interaction and helping others end up providing their own reward.  I finished the evening with a challenge from the Board.  The Mennonite Centre would provide matching funds to any charitable project that the group identified and supported themselves.  The message was well received.  A director of one of the schools commented that they needed to learn about charity.  There were also some expressions of regret from those who missed the evening.  Everyone wanted to see the Mennonite Centre sponsor an evening like this again.

Other things happened in the last week also.  We had an unofficial visit from two members of the Canadian Embassy, there were the usual number of petitioners asking for assistance, the seniors in the area got fed at their weekly luncheon, and Dema taught the computer club how to create cartoons.  We also enjoyed the two hour worship service on Sunday morning at the Kutuzovka church.  Even if we cannot understand the language, we sense God’s presence in the congregation.

On Wednesday evening we leave for Kiev.  We have a number of significant meetings lined up and I will report on the trip in my next blog.

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

For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:

You can click on any picture in the blog to enlarge it.

Alvin and Mary

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