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Small churches do big things: Ukraine
June 15, 2004
Zaporozhye, Ukraine— A few small churches in Ukraine are doing a big thing.
Four congregations in Ukraine with a combination of Mennonite Church and Mennonite Brethren support led by pastors of mostly Baptist background are forming a conference called the Christian Union of Mennonite Churches.
What’s more, these congregations with a membership numbering just over 100 are uniting in the same region of Ukraine where the Mennonite Church and Mennonite Brethren formally split in 1860, said Peter Rempel, Mennonite Church Canada’s Witness partnership facilitator for Europe.
Rempel says the four congregations, Zaporozhye Evangelical Mennonite Church, Kutuzovka Evangelical Mennonite Church, Kherson Evangelical Mennonite Church, and the Balkovye Evangelical Mennonite Church, were already in fellowship with one another. Representatives of their supporting mission agencies encouraged the congregations to form a union now, and let the conference grow up with them rather than establishing different trajectories.
Rempel has been helping the Zaporozhye and Kherson Evangelical Mennonite congregations through the process and attended the founding meeting and a celebration in honour of the new union. He said, “There is an interest in the Mennonite way of being church. There are Ukrainians who have fond memories of what the Mennonites did and were, for their honesty and work ethic in Ukraine. This elicits an interest in the Mennonite faith. We also have promoted a more democratic form of being church. As people find out about this they are attracted to it.”
He described the mood at the event as one of “joyful reverence at the unity we felt as North Americans and Ukrainians, as Mennonite Brethren and Mennonites.” After a document signing among leaders, lay members of the four congregations gathered for a time of worship and sharing of gifts.
Rempel says there are things we can learn from this story. “When it comes to the fundamentals, there is much that unites us as Mennonites of different traditions. We can keep pursuing fellowship among Mennonites, not just on the practical service level but also on theological points. What’s important for me is to have people from our churches recognize that while we are separated denominations here in North America, we can find ways of working together in other countries, and maybe that will start spilling back to our situation in North America and build the unity we have here.”
By example, Rempel notes a recent event where the Kherson Mennonite congregation participated with other denominations in a procession through the city on Easter Sunday. In all Baptists, Mennonites, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Presbyterians, Greek Catholics, and some smaller denominations mobilized 5,000 people for the march. “For those that attended it served to strengthen their faith and help bring unity. We plan to continue this event and make it an annual event in our city,” wrote Witness worker Cliff Dueck in a report. The event, says Rempel, has increased interest in ecumenical work in the Kherson congregation.
While the coming together as a conference is exciting, challenges remain. The four pastors who are already busy meeting the needs of their congregations will now have the added administrative responsibility of forming a conference. “This is an informal fellowship of churches that cannot yet act legally,” said Rempel. To be legally recognized as a church union in Ukraine requires at least seven congregations. There are prospects that new Mennonite congregations will be established, for example in Nikolaipolye, a former Mennonite village, where the Zaporozhye church is conducting Bible studies and youth events. The pastors also need additional theological training in “what it means to Mennonite in Ukraine at this time,” since several of the leaders come from a Baptist background. “All of these concerns need to be accompanied by prayer support. I know a lot of people visit Ukraine as tourists, and I hope they drop in on these churches and worship with them… and encourage them as young churches.”
The four congregations forming the Christian Union of Mennonite Churches receive support from Mennonite Church Canada Witness, Mennonite Brethren Mission and Service International, and LOGOS International (a mission agency based in Germany). Witness provides a $25,000 grant for the congregation in Zaporozhye and fully supports the work of Cliff and Natasha Dueck, Witness workers who provide leadership for the Kherson congregation.