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Building With Care: The Evangelical Mennonite Church of Zaporizhzhya
April 11, 2002
MC Canada release by Peter Rempel, MC Canada Witness Mission Partnership facilitator for Europe and Africa
Winnipeg, Man. Many Canadian Mennonites can trace their roots to what is now called Zaporizhzhya* in the Ukraine.
Situated on the expansive Dnieper River, modern day Zaporizhzhya encompasses Chortitza, the original settlement of Mennonites in the former Russian Empire. Although Mennonite were largely expelled from the region during the second World War, some have remained or returned.
A welcome decline in religious and ethnic discrimination accompanied the recent break-up of the Soviet Union. With this freedom, a few believers began to dream about rebuilding the faith and life of their childhood. With nothing more than their memories and some support and guidance from North American Mennonites and local Baptist leadership, these believers began to rebuild their Christian faith and Mennonite church life.
The foundation laid by the founders of the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Zaporizhzhya was Jesus Christ. Now the congregation is building on this foundation with care (1. Cor 3:10) so that its structure can withstand the tests they know will come. Jake and Dorothy Unrau, Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers, serve as pastors of the congregation.
Members of the church, like all other Ukrainians, are immensely challenged by the collapse of the economy and, even more by the deterioration of moral and legal codes. Pensioners eke out their survival on tiny pensions. Those in their middle years work on the promise of regular wages, hoping they will get paid in the future. Young people face unemployment despite their education.
In a society of bottomless poverty and pervasive crime, faith-based decisions can have critical consequences for individuals and their families. This is a constant reality for church members who hold positions of leadership in commerce or government. It takes a foundational faith to make honest and fair decisions, and risk offending the powerful. At least one member of the congregation faces threats of misery from others.
Seeking grace in matters of church discipline has tested the bonds within the congregation. Indicators suggest the search has prompted some members to align their relationships with their discipleship. Preaching on Pauls letter to the Romans, complemented by Sunday School classes using the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective are deepening the understanding of Christian faith and life.
Individual baptisms on confession of faith in Christ increase annually. But each year a few members emigrate to Germany. Another dozen are currently studying in preparation for baptism; most attend consistently. The membership total could reach seventy on Pentecost Sunday, scheduled for June 23.
Job requirements, illness and other distractions have reduced attendance in the winter months. Still, new people, both young and old, have begun attending worship services on Sunday morning and Bible study groups on weekdays. Sunday School is well-attended and there are youth who invite friends and acquaintances to worship and to the youth Bible study group.
Several elected committees have taken responsibility for the communitys affairs, with limited success. The Unraus work with closely with the church council led by Boris Letkemann and Nina Sobenina.
A student at the Zaporizhzhya Bible College has been assisting in the areas of music, youth and preaching. The congregation will invite him to continue his work after graduation.
The congregation has the goal of finding new pastoral leadership to continue after the scheduled end of Unraus ministry in mid-2003. They struggle with critical questions. Can new leadership be found within Ukraine? How will a new pastor be supported financially? What languages should this new pastor know: Russian, Ukrainian, German?
Building Seniors Care
With a significant number of ailing and aging members, the congregation has required a steady flow of gifts to assist members with emergency or chronic medical care needs. They are grateful for the many resources they have already received.
Several members have received care in their homes and others have received care-provider training through Ann Goertzen of Winnipeg, placed in Zaporizhzhya by the Mennonite Benevolent Society. One or two members will be employed in seniors care in the near future.
The congregation has dreams for the Mennonite Family Center, now launched with the gift of a ten-storey apartment building from the city to the Mennonite Benevolent Society. Such a prominent Mennonite landmark in the city will raise public awareness of the fledgling Mennonite congregation while providing a place for members needing special care.
Building a Building
For several years the congregation has been seeking a building for itself. Its use of a classroom on the second floor of a school has been problematic and more recently crowded. Reclaiming the site of a former Mennonite church, adapting a larger residence, purchasing a vacant kindergarten, building anew and requesting space in the future Family Center have all been investigated.
Though the congregation has assembled a substantial building fund, a satisfactory building has not yet been found. The situation will become critical in a few months when the room in the Bible College will no longer be available.
Building a Network
The Mennonite Church in Zaporizhzhya has two Mennonite sister congregations in Ukraine: in Mis near Kherson, and in Kutuzovka, a former Mennonite village. Helmut and Valentina Epp, supported by LOGOS International pastor in Kutuzovka. Cliff and Natasha Dueck, supported by Mennonite Church Canada Witness, work in Mis.
The three couples have begun to meet intermittently for fellowship. The next step is to hold meetings of congregational representatives, in addition to the pastors. In 2001 the three congregations conducted a childrens camp together. They are exploring a joint youth retreat and seniors camp for this summer.
Together they will explore the challenges that lie ahead. Should a Mennonite network of congregations be established and developed? How should a network be built up? Should churches planted by and relating to other Mennonite groups be invited to attend? Can Mennonite Church Canada help in planting more Mennonite churches in Ukraine? Or should such congregations be encouraged to find fellowship in the Baptist Union which regards itself as close to Mennonites?
Building a Future
The critical challenges of building the Evangelical Mennonite Church community are very real; they desire to uphold their members, develop local leadership, find a building, and connect to a broader network.
For Mennonite Church Canada the challenge is to support their building with love and care. Your prayers and contributions are welcome.
Jake and Dorothy Unrau (Calgary, AB) are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine. Cliff (Steinbach, MB) and Natasha Dueck are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in Mis, Ukaraine. Mennonite Church Canada Witness welcomes your prayers and contributions for their work and the work of other Witness workers around the world. The Unraus welcome your notes of encouragement. They can be reached at Lenina Prospect 43, Apt. 26, Zaprozhye 69063 Ukraine (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Duecks also welcome your notes of encouragement. They can be reached at Box 147 - Kherson 873008 Ukraine (email: email@example.com).
* This article used the Ukrainian spelling for Zaporizhzhya. « back