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Ukraine workers see hope amidst despair


December 30, 2002
By Daniel Rempel

Winnipeg, Man.— It would be easy to feel discouraged working in the Ukraine.

Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker Cliff Dueck says, "hearts… have been hardening for 80 years," referring to the effects both of Soviet-imposed atheism and growing disillusionment with the failed promises of a free-market economy as making people less open to evangelism. Added to hardened hearts are the social realities of endemic unemployment, alcoholism, and an HIV infection rate of 2 percent and rising.

Old habits die hard, and many teachers who spent decades singling out Christian children for ridicule continue that practice, even though it is no longer government policy.

But Cliff and his wife Natasha feel more enthusiastic the longer they stay, this at a time when "no one in the Ukraine wants to be there," says Dueck.

The couple work with a young church in Mis in the Kerson area which acquired its own building just this year; previously they had been meeting in an unheated cultural centre. The cold compelled them to keep winter services to one song, one prayer and a ten minute message.

Summer however brought more than a new building to warm the life of "The Lord is My Shepherd" church, officially called Evangelical Mennonite Church of Kherson.

The church held its second annual Summer Bible Camp. Natasha went with the children and Sunday school teachers to the camp and Cliff stayed home with the church. Cliff made a deep connection with the faith life of a church member, while Natasha was deeply moved by the faith she saw developing in the children at camp.

When they saw each other again, both had renewed passion for their work; "We have to stay", they said to each other.

"It's so amazing to witness the change from death to life," said Dueck. One bright child had seemed troubled lately; they learned he had become involved in summoning spirits, a common practice in the Ukraine.

At Bible camp he decided to leave that behind, and became a happier person.

"You really thrive on watching those personal relationships develop and grow," said Dueck.

The church has its own Sunday school teachers, which Dueck says is unusual for a church of its age in the Ukraine; it is just barely three years old. Typically other established churches would need to send members to provide leadership.

Cliff and Natasha expressed gratitude to those who sent letters, care packages and prayers, stressing that the mission work is ultimately dependent on God's blessing, grace and mercy; "You that pray are the source of God's blessings," said Dueck.

The couple has come to Canada for several months of North American ministry and for the birth of their first child, due this December. Their work is made possible in part through $127,000 of support by Mennonite Church Canada Witness, and in further partnership with Mennonite Mission Network.