The Rhapsody vocal ensemble over the years has performed a variety of music, from Mozart to Ukrainian folk tunes. However, what they seem to feel most comfortable with is the Orthodox liturgical music. Under the direction of Sergei Lokotkov, director of the Tokmak Music School, this small ensemble has performed in various locations in Ukraine as well as Europe. On Monday, Oct. 14, in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus, this group of five singers led a small audience of some 80 congregants in worship with their music. The fine tuning, sensitive diminuendos and crescendos with their well-trained voices sent our spirits soaring to the music of composers such as Bortniansky and Tchesnokov. The Mennonite Centre has assisted the Tokmak and Molochansk Music schools with various projects.
On October 24 we visited the Udarnik School. Udarnik (Neukirch) is the neighboring village to Lichtfelde and Alexanderkrone (Gruschevka), the home villages of my parents. We were treated to a brief history lesson and video by several students about the origin and development of these villages as well as the tragedies experienced by the villagers during WW1, the revolution, the holodomor (famine) and WW2. With the assistance of an array of artifacts collected by the children in the school’s museum, the children did an excellent presentation. Time and again we are reminded of the hardships experienced by the Mennonite and Ukrainian villagers during many years of oppression. These stories become so much more real for us when standing on the streets that our parents once walked and from which they fled in the 1920’s.
Today, other forces are at play as village life once again is in decline due to the limited opportunities and the persistent tide of urbanization. This year the school has only 29 students and is slated to be closed, perhaps already this winter as soon as the weather turns colder. Heating a building like this is expensive. The children would then be bused 20 kilometers on deteriorating roads to the larger centre of Kirovo (Juschanlee), leaving staff retired, unemployed or facing relocation.
Nikolai, the school director, has secured full ownership of the neighboring former Mennonite Church building, preventing its demolition several years ago. However, it now remains vacant and he is not sure what to do with it. Without natural gas connections or a reliable water supply in the village and continually decreasing population, the prospects for buildings like these are bleak. The school was built in 1989 while the church was built in 1865.
A special gathering was held Oct. 9 at the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church. Eight different Mennonite agencies working in the Zaporozhya Oblast met to exchange ideas and to learn from each other. We were inspired by the variety of projects and approaches that became evident as representatives from each agency shared about their work. Projects are numerous, but they include services for seniors, camps for children and youth, training for orphans, education on HIV/AIDS, assistance to schools and medical facilities, scholarships, and the list goes on. Questions were also raised about financial support and how to enable these efforts to become self-sustaining. Another concern is the necessity to teach and encourage volunteerism, a quality that seems to have been lost during the communist time. We were encouraged to engage not only young people, but also those on pensions to become involved in voluntary service. A widespread problem is the lack of employment opportunities and the need for loans. This is an ongoing challenge. The various agencies work in different locations using a variety of approaches, but our purpose is the same: to demonstrate God’s love to the people of Ukraine.
Last week we received an impressive tour of a long-term care facility for mentally challenged individuals in Orlovo (formerly Ohrloff). This is a large compound with various buildings surrounded by well-tended gardens for 186 men. The patients (aged 18 and up) are involved in helping with animal care, fieldwork, and gardening. We were impressed with how well the buildings were being maintained. At present, they are adding a smaller residence for some of the more capable clients in the style of a family dwelling. The director tried to impress upon us that they consider the patients as their family, feeding them tasty meals and treating them with respect. A soccer team had even participated in an international competition and done very well. We were pleased to see such a positive treatment program. The Mennonite Centre has purchased new flooring for their administrative area. Further requests were to have more trees planted on the grounds.
A quilting group gathers at the Centre every Wednesday. We are reminded of the groups who gather at the MCC Thrift Stores in Canada, converting used clothing, etc. into colorful patchwork quilts. The women enjoy the opportunity to work together on a project and having fellowship with one another.
This week the two schools in Moloshansk, the Russian and the Ukranian schools, celebrated their 70th anniversaries. At one time the Ukranian school used the current Mennonite Centre as part of their facility. We attended both events and were well-entertained by the performances of talented students, including a well-tuned girls’ choir, colorful dances, and a well-rehearsed gymnastic display. There were, of course, many speeches from various dignitaries, and presentations of gifts and flowers. Mennonite Centre assisted with lighting and sound. We appreciated being part of their celebrations and participating in these cultural events.
When so much of our attention is focused on health concerns, unemployment, the disintegration of infrastructure and public buildings, and the list could go on, our hearts were warmed by the festivities and hospitality we experienced in the village of Orlova (Ohrloff) last Friday.The program of music, speeches, and awards presented to various villagers, was held in the concert hall of the former Maria School for the Deaf (Tiege).This was also significant for me because my father’s deaf uncle had attended this school and had been greatly helped by the skilled and well-trained teachers.The hall has lost much of its former glory, but the people seemed proud to use the facility.Following the program we were ushered into a bright room that they had renovated for small gatherings.Bright floral designs decorated the walls.Although the table and the benches were old and rickety, the spread of platters on the table was a feast for the eyes!Every platter was creatively arranged with cheese, cold meats, sliced vegetables and fruits.Bowls of chicken gelatins, potato and carrot salads filled every space.Then a whole course of hot dishes was brought in: barbecued meats, potatoes, and plov.Needless to say, the food was delicious!The real highlight for us, I believe, came when one of the people who were gathered around the table broke into song, others joined in, and someone else picked up an accordion and accompanied them all.Lovely folksong melodies, some joyous and others etched with longing, filled the room, with which we could hum along and join in the clapping.Someone got up and danced spontaneously.The music was interspersed with conversation and more food and then the singing would burst forth anew.This celebration of village culture warmed our hearts.They were eager to express their gratitude to the Mennonite Centre, which really means all of you back home who so generously contribute to our projects.We felt humbled to be the recipients of their warm gratitude as your representatives.
Much of my reading these days has been the memoirs of individuals who suffered horrendously during the Stalin years.These stories become all the more real for us living here in Ukraine, the land where it happened and where the effects of an oppressive government who destroyed its citizens is still evident.How fortunate that our ancestors were able to escape when they did!Some of the expressions of incredible faith amidst this unimaginable suffering raise questions for us.How would we respond in similar circumstances?Would our faith survive?Are we passing on a lasting legacy to our children and grandchildren of commitment and devotion to our God?
Senior’s Day is celebrated annually in Ukraine on Oct. 1st, and Mennonite Centre’s staff prepared a tasty hot lunch for them.The tables were filled with seniors enjoying the food, the warmth of the room, and the fellowship with their friends.Some shared a poem or a song to add to the celebration.
We were quite surprised to be notified that the Mennonite Centre had been nominated for a Tourism Award from the Zaporoschye oblast.Normally we do not think of the Centre as a tourist attraction, but when we consider the many foreign visitors and the contribution made to the historical knowledge of the local people and beyond, it is definitely true.A small example from just a couple of days ago proves again the Centre’s historical influence:a local teacher came to gather information from our library for a history project that she was doing with her students.