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Seeing opportunity in a pregnant rabbit


Nina Ivanovna holds up her multiplier rabbit for neighbourhood children to pet.

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“If you ask me to define my country in one sentence, I would say, ‘I see a huge woman, a babushka kind of person, with a rolling pin in her hand trying to keep her drunkard husband under control.’” The cartoonist is Vasya, brother to Natasha Dueck; Cliff and Natasha are Mennonite Church Canada mission workers in Ukraine. The cartoon was drawn at the request of Mennonite Church Canada staffer, Hippolyto Tshimanga, during a visit with local church leaders.

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June 22, 2006
-by Hippolyto Tshimanga

Ukraine — Nina Ivanovna insisted that we accompany her to the saray – a small shed in a designated urban area in Kherson where residents keep garden plots and carry on small scale farming – to see her goats, chicken and bees.

Tim Froese, Executive Director of International Ministries for Mennonite Church Canada Witness, and myself, met Nina while on an administrative trip through Europe to introduce ourselves – the new kids on the block – to our mission workers and local church leaders.

Nina Ivanovna is best described as a jovial babushka (‘grandmother’ or ‘old lady’ in Russian). Nina shared that her husband and she received only a meager pension. They barely make ends meet.

While at the saray, she approached a rabbit cage, quickly plunged in her hands and held up one rabbit for our examination. She explained that her neighbors had given her this rabbit to be slaughtered for them, but when she held it in her hands, she sensed that the animal was pregnant. She then offered to exchange the rabbit for two ducks; they accepted. “Since then,” Nina explained, “this rabbit has already given me three more rabbits.”

There are people like Nina at work in Ukraine wherever you look, but poverty is omnipresent, and hope is hard won. It is blatantly visible in the hand of a young lad who crosses the street with a bottle of alcohol in his hand, and in the disfigured face of the street kid who seems to be mature beyond his years. In addition, the country is said to have the fastest growing HIV/AIDS infection rate among the post-Soviet Republics.

Traveling through the rural regions between Zaporozhye, Mis, and Kherson, we are impressed by the immensity of farm lands, the number of rivers and hydroelectric dams. We can’t help but compare these vast cultivated lands with our rich, Canadian prairie farm regions.

But that is where the comparison between the two countries starts and ends. The Ukrainian landscape is characterized by a great number of aging and dilapidated apartment buildings dating back to the Soviet era. Roads, paved or not, are falling apart.

Some people in Ukraine still dream about a return to the good old communist system, a dream kept alive by domineering monuments of Lenin, which stand tall and high in Lenin Boulevard, a main city street in Zaporozhye.

Others, mostly intellectuals, dream of the day Ukraine will integrate into the European Community. One gets the impression that Europe will automatically resolve all their problems, though those who observe today’s Europe would tell you that liberalization and opening of frontiers is more about welcoming goods than it is about people.

The new authorities in power in Ukraine, appear to be trying their best, but the transition from the communist system to the free-market and the democratic system of government is a huge task. Ukraine simply seems unable to master the mechanisms required for its metamorphosis, evidenced by the way individual people get by.

During one of our meetings with a small group of young church leaders in Mis, we learned that practically no couples regularly attend church services in the area. The majority of the faithful comprise older women and young people.

One young minister recounted that after the fall of communism, there was a great spiritual vacuum in the country. For a number of years, people tried to fill this vacuum by accepting Christ into their lives or by embracing witchcraft and other kinds of divination. Now, the movement has faltered and few new people join churches.

People are also discovering that witchcraft does not resolve their problems. Many individuals, mostly men, drown their problems in alcohol. In this matriarchal society, Vasya, a young Christian leader told us, “If you ask me to define my country in one sentence, I would say, ‘I see a huge woman, a babushka kind of person, with a rolling pin in her hand trying to keep her drunkard husband under control.’”

At my request, Vasya, with a gift for cartooning, summarized his thoughts in a sketch.

In Mis we were left with one other powerful impression: the attachment of the youth and their young church leaders in particular, to their pastor.

When we pressed for more, they didn’t speak of their pastor’s inspiring sermons, his entrepreneurial endeavors, or his pastoral care; rather, they were in awe of his family life. They admired the way he related to his young wife. They spoke glowingly of the way he cherishes her and speaks to her. They all dreamed of a family life like his.

Our time with Nina was short; we were already late for another appointment with local church leaders. We thanked Nina, making remonstrations to leave. But her fervent words held us back.

Often people who live in desperate situations end their discourse by asking for money to improve their living conditions. Not the case with Nina. She changed the subject, but not by asking us for money to improve her saray. Instead, she thanked Mennonite Church Canada, who through the ministry of Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers Cliff and Natasha Dueck, established a church in her neighborhood.

“We are old and poor,” said Nina. “We have no transportation to go far away for a church service. Thank you for bringing the church here close to home. Thank you very much.” Tearfully, she added, “Please pray for us.”

After three weeks of church administrative meetings, the image of a church made up only of old ladies and youth troubles me. Nonetheless, here I was in Ukraine seeing a vision for the future of the church in this babushka. She had seen the opportunity in a pregnant rabbit.

Will Ukraine ever win the battle of its development? Will the church at Mis, made up only of old ladies and young people, ever grow in number? Will its composition ever change to include men and married couples? Will it ever reproduce itself, like Nina’s rabbit?

I don’t know, but I trust the words of the one who said: “With you, when you have done all you have been told to do, say, ‘we are useless servants: we have done no more than our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)

The author, Hippolyto Tshimanga, is the Europe and Africa Mission Partnership Facilitator for Mennonite Church Canada Witness.