I grew up in the Soviet Union and was taught atheism from the time I was a child, so I never believed in God. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, missionaries started coming.
For the first time in my life, I saw a Bible. And I became a Christian. Because I knew English, I interpreted at a Bible college for three years. Then I was involved in interpreting for Mennonite missionaries who came to Ukraine, and became part of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Zaporizhia.
We can trace Mennonite influence in our area back to the 18th century, when Catherine the Great of Russia invited Catholics, Lutherans, and Mennonites to settle in the south of Russia. Today this is the territory of Ukraine. Catherine granted them land and some privileges, and the Mennonites built many villages and were successful farmers. They were concentrated in two large colonies in the southeast—Molotschna Colony and Chortitza Colony.
In the 20th century, because of the revolution in Russia, Mennonites were under persecution, alongside other Christians.
Many of them immigrated to the West or were exiled to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Of course, the two world wars added to the turmoil. During the Soviet era there were practically no Mennonites in what is now southeastern Ukraine.
It’s a very sad story, but that was not the end.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Mennonites from Canada and other countries went back to visit their homeland in Ukraine. They visited their villages, and some of them were fortunate enough to find their houses, though most of the villages had been destroyed during World War II.
And the response of those Mennonites was: we want to be back, we want to help, we want to serve. Some Mennonite missionaries came and planted several Mennonite churches. In a significant joint effort, Canadian Mennonites and Ukrainians organized Mennonite Centre, a charitable center in Molochansk, in 2000.
This is how Mennonites returned to the place where they used to live.
At Mennonite Centre, I am the manager of charitable projects. Today 7% of Ukrainian territory is occupied by separatists and Russian army, and we have active war in the east of Ukraine. Mennonite Centre is doing many charitable projects in the Molotschna and Chortitza areas—in those areas where Mennonites used to live–including helping refugees, schools, hospitals, and individuals.
Because of the war, we have so many wounded people that need rehabilitation—both physical and emotional. In Ukraine we have 1,400,000 refugees from the eastern part of the country. And in Zaporizhia alone, where I live, there are 60,000-65,000 refugees. The need is so great
We started helping immediately as this need emerged last year. In partnership with a Mennonite church in one of the villages, we hosted around 30 refugees over the course of several months, feeding them, taking care of them, and just doing our best.
You have to understand that we are taking the first steps in understanding what Mennonites are about. Though we are already Mennonites in name, we are learning how to be real peacemakers and what it means to reconcile.
When Mennonites fled this area during the years of the Soviet Union, it seemed like that was the end. But it wasn’t the end. After many years, they’re back. They played their role then. But now they’re back, and their influence is wonderful.
It seems that the revival in restoring the old Mennonite movement starts in Ukraine.