What a week. After months of planning from Canada and close to 3 weeks of detailed preparations in Molochansk, we were ready for the Ambassador, Senators, Faith and Life choir and guests for our anniversary at the Mennonite Centre. Over 60 people came from Canada. Our beautiful Mennonite Centre, clothed in its fall colours was ready to celebrate its 15th birthday.
The week actually had a number of events. It started off Monday evening with a surprise “after wedding” party for Ben and Lil Stobbe. They were married in June and this was their first trip together to Molochansk. We really did surprise them. The evening started off with a welcoming dance from the children of the Kindergarten next door. They were dressed like elegant ladies and gentlemen and danced beautifully. This was followed by a meal prepared by Ira, our cook, and finished with an informal program which included singing by the Rhapsody choir. This is a small choir from Tokmak. That evening there were four Rhapsody singers – one male and three female voices. They sang some fun songs such as the song “Lollipop”, as well as a number of Ukrainian folk songs. Their clarity, precision, and eloquent expression made each song a delight.
|Ben and Lil surrounded by friends at their party|
The Faith and Life choir started their tour of the Molotschna settlement on Tuesday. They started with a brief stop at the Mennonite Centre. Senator Don Plett and his wife Betty were touring with the choir that day. They left the bus for a few hours so I could take them to Lindenau, one of Senator Plett’s ancestral villages. We walked through the trees behind the village looking for the cemetery. We finally located this and after much diligent searching found some old unmarked gravestones outside the fence marking the boundary of the cemetery. The stone markers were from Mennonite times. We then drove to the village of Tiege to rejoin the choir who had just completed a concert in the former Mennonite school for children who were challenged with hearing related problems.
|Senator Don Plett and his wife Betty at Lindenau cemetery|
Wednesday, our big day of the week, started with a problem. There was no water pressure in our apartment building and I had to go all day in my dress shirt and tie but without having a shower or shave.
The first people to arrive were four men in a van. They were from Ukraine’s National Security Service. We knew that they had been alerted to the event. We assume it was the Mayor of Molochansk who alerted them and was concerned that nothing should happen to the dignitaries in his town. Mary saw them drinking from a small container that is usually not used to hold water. This was quickly hidden when they realized that they had been observed. Nevertheless, their sober work was successful as nothing untoward happened to the Ambassador or Senators.
Our invited guests started arriving at 11:00 AM. Our staff had worked hard to get ready. We had invited 82 people to our banquet. The staff had wisely set places for 94. Ninety people showed up and were seated for our noon meal. The Mennonite Centre is located in a former Mennonite girls’ school. No room was big enough to seat 90 people and we were actually spread over 3 rooms in the building. Ben Pauls and Henry Engbrecht, the conductors of the Faith and Life choir, coordinated their conducting and all three rooms simultaneously blessed the meal with the vibrant harmony of the Doxology. The meal started off with borscht, like our mothers’ used to make. The serving staff then brought the main course of kutletten (this is a Russian word but was generally used by Mennonites to describe an oblong meatball), mashed potatoes, and coleslaw.
|Ambassador Waschuk in centre with Senator Peter Harder on his left|
Five local clergy had been invited to this event. Right after the meal, these five people were seen having an intense friendly discussion outside. There was an Orthodox priest with his long gown and tall hat, two Ukrainian Catholic priests in their long gowns, a pastor from an evangelical church in Melitopol in his suit and clerical collar, and the pastor of the local Mennonite church in casual street clothes. The image of these five people talking together was so strong that it drew everyone out of the building to watch and even join the group. Even the Ambassador joined in the discussions. With everyone outside, we were able to start our meeting 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
|Local Clergy at the Mennonite Centre|
|Attendees joining the discussion with the clergy|
We had always planned for the event to be held outside in front of the Mennonite Centre. The image of having the Faith and Life choir singing in front of our building was an opportunity I did not want to miss. The day had started out cool with some sun. Unfortunately it got colder in the afternoon. The meeting started with a welcome from the Ambassador, followed by the choir. Each of the Mennonite groups was given 5-7 minutes to make their presentation. There must be an inflationary factor to time in Ukraine as most speakers exceeded their allotted time while the attendees sat shivering in their seats. By half time, we all went inside for coffee and “blinchkies” (Ira’s famous crepes stuffed with cottage cheese filling and topped with a special sauce). Nobody wanted to risk sitting outside again. We finished the event inside with people listening from all three rooms as the choir sang in the entrance hallway.
|Ambassador addressing the meeting with choir in background|
An elderly lady joined our program when we were outside and desperately wanted to talk to me. She lives across the street in the former Suderman house – which at one time was the local Opel dealership. She had something she wanted to present to the Ambassador. It was something that she had made. Her story was that at one time, some Mennonites had helped her with food and saved her from starvation. She wanted the Ambassador to hear this but left before we could make the actual presentation. Her story was so compelling that we had to go visit her after our event and get her picture. Her name is Anastasia and she is 80 years old. She lives by herself. She had a request. She feels she does not have long to live and wondered if the Mennonite Centre would assist financially in giving her a proper burial. We assured her that we would do something to help.
|Oksana, Alvin, Anastasia, and Mary|
Our afternoon program concluded with remarks from Senator Don Plett and Senator Peter Harder. They both had an opportunity to connect with their own roots and expressed appreciation for the ongoing work of the many Mennonite organizations in Ukraine. After the program, Senator Plett told me that he and Senator Harder had both agreed to make a statement on Wednesday October 19, 2016 in the Senate chambers noting the contribution of the many Mennonite organizations in Ukraine. These statements will become part of the permanent record of the Senate.
The meeting with the Ambassador and Senators will have many positive aspects for Mennonite organizations operating in Ukraine. For example, the ambassador talked to Dr. Art Friesen at length about our initiative for tele-medicine. He immediately put Art in contact with the Minister of Health in Kyiv and Art spent the afternoon talking to her about the issues. The Minister of Health in Ukraine is aware of the shortcomings in the delivery of health care and was impressed that the Mennonite Centre had actually bought some equipment and tested this approach. Everyone else in Ukraine was just talking about it. There are still many challenges in introducing tele-medicine in Ukraine. In the past we dealt with the Chief Doctor in Molochansk. Now we have an opening for ongoing discussions with the minister in Kyiv.
For the evening we had invited the whole town of Molochansk to come celebrate our 15th Anniversary. We were prepared for 500 people and I worried that because of the cool weather, nobody would show up. I should not have worried as Ukrainians love a good party. We had a great turn-out. The event was held in the town square, in front of the former Mennonite boys’ school. There were Ukrainian dance groups, our own Faith and Life choir, and other local performers. The Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, addressed the town in Ukrainian. This was followed by birthday cake and “goodie bags” for everyone. The evening concluded with a “fire show” as fireworks are currently illegal. The sound of explosions causes fears in a society that is living too close to the war zone.
|Birthday Cake being distributed|
On Thursday, October 13, the Faith and Life choir continued their tour of the Molotschna settlement with an important concert in the former Mennonite church in Schoensee. This is now a Ukrainian Catholic church and they have done a beautiful job of restoring it. Their priest, Father Peter, had requested that a Mennonite choir come and sing “Grosser Gott Wir Loben Dich”. In English it is “Holy God We praise Thy Name”. Ambassador Waschuk and Senators Harder and Plett all came to this important concert. Father Peter had invited his parishioners and everyone in the village who could get off work was there. The program started with the Faith and Life choir singing. After a few songs, Aaron Redekop, travelling with the choir, came forward and made a special presentation to Father Peter. Aaron’s grandfather had attended that church and this was a special occasion for him. After the presentation, the choir started singing ‘Grosser Gott Wir Loben Dich”. As they did, Father Peter rose and motioned to a priest beside him to also rise. We all followed his lead and stood there with tears in our eyes as the sound of this magnificent song filled the building. This was the first time in almost 100 years that Mennonite choral music had been performed in this place. One of the choir members later told me that he had trouble singing because of his emotions. The experience of standing for the song reminded me of the practise of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus. Hearing this majestic hymn, which is such a favourite among Mennonite audiences, performed while the choir was surrounded by Ukrainian ikons and symbols was a unique experience. Mary and I will never forget the concert in Schoensee.
|Presentation by Aaron Redekop to Father Peter|
|Senator Don Plett handing out Canadian flags to local parishoners|
If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/ or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Mennonite-Centre-Ukraine-735361069838076/