The Mennonite Centre in Molochansk, Ukraine
Following the tragic years of World War 1, the revolution and subsequent policies of the Josef Stalin regime in Russia, life became very difficult for the Mennonites and many chose to emigrate. With the German retreat at the end of WW2 the Mennonite presence in southern Ukraine became virtually non-existent for many years. However, since as early as the mid 1960’s, under the trail-blazing leadership of people like Gerhard Lorenz, Mennonites have returned to visit some of their ancestral villages and colonies in Southern Ukraine. Many such tours were subsequently undertaken by John Schroeder of Assiniboine Travel in Winnipeg as well as other tour operators. Beginning in the 1990’s the Mennonite Heritage Cruise, led by Walter and Marina Unger, annually brought in up to 160 passengers.
In the 1970’s these Mennonite tourists recognized the abject poverty of the current residents of the former Mennonite villages, and, for some, re-discovered some long-lost relatives or acquaintances. This opened the door for these tourists to bring along with them much needed moral support and financial aid for things like medical equipment and supplies.
1989 marked the bi-centennial of the first migration of Mennonites to Ukraine. Mennonites from various parts of the Soviet Union, Germany, North & South America met in the city of Zaporizhzhia to commemorate this event. Subsequently, Mennonites with various skills and interests have returned to Ukraine to provide assistance. Included among these are Frank and Nettie Dyck, Peter and Sue Kehler, Jake and Dorothy Unrau and John and Evelyn Wiens who have given leadership in the establishment of Mennonite churches.
In 1999 a collaborative scholarly conference took place in Zaporizhzhia with scholars from Ukraine, Russia and six other countries. Russian and Soviet Mennonite studies became a subject of broad international scholarship. This conference also encouraged the further development of the Mennonite church in Ukraine giving them self-respect and courage.
On April 10, 2000, members of the Mennonite Heritage Club in Toronto heard about the possibility of acquiring a historic Mennonite building in Molochansk. (Formerly Halbstadt in the Molotschna Colony) This offered new possibilities of providing aid to this region. The international association entitled “Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine” was established with Nicholas Dick, Rudy Huebert, Harvey Dyck, Paul Siemens and Walter Unger giving early leadership to this venture. A further consultation followed on June 6, 2000 where Nicholas Dick, Walter Unger, Harvey Dyck, Drs. Art & Marlyce Friesen, Dr. John Staples among others gave presentations on various topics related to assisting in the former Ukrainian Mennonite settlements.
In the summer of 2000, with the encouragement of then mayor of Molochansk, Alexandra V. Saenko, “Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine” purchased the former Maedchenschule in Molochansk. The one-storey, 2500 square foot building consisted of four classrooms, a spacious foyer, teachers’ room and library. Although the building was still in reasonably good condition, renovations were quickly undertaken to adapt it for use as a multi-functional centre.
Two couples were key to the early evolvement to the Mennonite Centre. Herb and Maureen Klassen, both fluent in Russian, had just completed an assignment in Moscow. They came and helped set up the Centre, working together with Boris Letkeman of Zaporizhzhia. Al and Peggy Hiebert were then invited as the first North American Directors. Al had taught English at the University in Dnepropetrovsk and also spoke Russian. The Hieberts and Klassens helped to envision and implement the first projects.
With some modest beginnings in providing lunches for seniors, funds for medical emergencies and access to computers, the Centre now operates with an annual budget of approximately $300,000 for projects in the Molochna and Zaporizhzhia areas. Projects fall into 5 major categories:
1. Seniors: hosting three free lunches at the Centre, supporting two homes for seniors and providing food packages for needy shut-ins.
2. Education: scholarships for post-secondary studies, funds for educational materials, computer technology, and building maintenance for schools, kindergartens, music and sports schools, support for schools in teaching and integrating students with special needs.
3. Medical: paying for four medical practitioners to hold regular consultations at the Centre, funding various individual medical emergencies, eye examinations and glasses, providing funds for computers, medical supplies and equipment for hospitals and clinics as well as building repairs.
4. Community: providing funds for local fire departments, police and probation services for computer technology, vehicle maintenance and general community support. The Centre also maintains close relations with the local Mennonite congregations in Molochansk and Zaporizhzhia and their outreach programs.
5. Internally Displaced Persons: providing funds for food and medications for individuals in war-torn communities and assistance for IDP’s in Zaporizhzhia.
The Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine (FOMCU) is a registered charity in Canada with a North American board of directors that provides direction, oversight and funds to the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine. Currently this board consists of Ben Stobbe (chair, BC), Dave Regehr (vice-chair, MB), Alvin Suderman (secretary, MB), George Dyck, (treasurer, ON), Dr. Art Friesen (BC), Linda Friesen, (ON), Ruth Derksen Siemens (BC), Anita Toews (Michigan), Mike Wilms (MB).
The Mennonite Centre in Molochansk is also a registered charity in Ukraine with its own Ukrainian board of directors that provides humanitarian aid primarily to individuals residing in former Mennonite villages in Southern Ukraine with funds from FOMCU. The Centre has a manager in Molochansk (Oksana Bratchenko) with several Ukrainian staff, and a Zaporizhzhia manager (Olga Rubel) directing projects in the city and rural communities of the former Chortitza and Yazokova Colonies. Canadian directors provide general oversight of the projects by being onsite in Ukraine several times a year, usually for 6 to 10 weeks at a time.
While the financial assistance is of great significance for the people and institutions in the former Mennonite villages, the moral and spiritual support is not to be underestimated. At the launching of the Mennonite Centre in 2000, the Molochansk mayor said: “I know Mennonites quite well. I’ve seen what they did here in the past. I think the Centre offers our devastated people a little hope. Perhaps the Maedchenschule will become a ‘light on a hill’. We are eager to work with you.” For 15 years the Mennonite Centre, with the generosity of many donors, has taken up the challenge in the spirit of the words spoken long ago by Menno Simons:
True evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping.
It clothes the naked and comforts the sorrowful.
It gives to the hungry food and it shelters the destitute.
It cares for the blind and the lame, the widow and orphan child.
It binds up the wounded man and offers a gentle hand.
We must become everything to all men.
Abundantly we have received and gratefully we will respond.
So overcome evil with good, return someone’s hatred with love.
That is true evangelical faith.