John A. Esau has served as a pastor and denominational
He now works from his home in North Newton, Kan.
Prayers for Peace and Ukraine
Ukraine's Story of Glory, Tragedy
The Church in Ukraine
Bernice and I have just returned from participating in a very meaningful journey to the Ukraine via the Mennonite Heritage Cruise. On Sunday, September 19, the 160 cruise participants joined in worship with the Mennonite congregation of Zaporozhye. I had been asked to lead in a prayer for peace. Today I invite you to join in that prayer:
Lord God, king of the universe
Lord of all peoples and all nations of the earth,
We offer to you our prayers this day.
Some among us have journeyed thousands of miles
to be present in this time and this place,
Others among us have traveled a long spiritual journey, through many experiences and many difficulties.
Some among us are here to relive the past;
Others among us may wish to forget the past.
Some among us are strangers and foreigners to this land;
Others among us are at home in this land.
Wherever we have come from, near or far, today
we are not strangers but brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
We are disciples, first and foremost, followers of Jesus, people of love, joy, and peace.
We are here today because we belong to you and because we belong to each other.
We are here to worship.
We are here to remember a rich and goodly heritage, to give thanks for those who came to this land, to learn again about saints and sinners like ourselves who in their journey of life found faith and meaning, planted the soil in hope, built villages and factories and churches, established institutions of education and care, fought battles of the mind and heart and soul.
In the words of the writer of Hebrews: “For (they) looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
Lord, you are not only the God of history, but
you are the God of today.
We believe that you still love and care for this world, and that you call us to do the same.
You love Mennonites, but you also love Baptists
and Orthodox and all who know themselves as Christians.
You love people of North and South America and people of Europe and Asia and Africa and the islands of the sea.
You love those who know your name, and yes, we believe that you also love even those who deny your existence.
Particularly today we acknowledge your love for
this land, Ukraine.
We have seen its towns and cities, its rivers and reservoirs, its fields and forests. It is a goodly place.
We have heard its music; we listen to its poets, we look for its prophets. It has a rich culture.
But these are not easy times for this country or its peoples.
We pray that those who govern this land might do so with justice and peace.
We pray for the coming election on October 31.
We yourn for the development and prosperity of this nation.
We hope and pray for a day in which all people might share in the bounty of your world.
But what we pray for Ukraine, we also pray for
all nations and all peoples of the earth.
May there be peace in East Timor, in Kosovo, in the Middle East, in Chechnya, in Ireland, in Columbia, in Russia.
We are not far from the devastated land of Turkey, which has suffered so much loss of life and property in the earthquake.
Lord God, king of the universe, we confess again
in the words of Hebrews that we are all “strangers and foreigners on the
earth... seeking a homeland. For here we have no lasting city, but we are
looking for the city that is to come.”
In this journey of life, which we all share, grant us renewed courage, restore our hope, and empower our love to serve you and each other in the name of Christ. These things we pray.
When I think about the formative events in Mennonite history, I am normally inclined to direct my thoughts to the beginnings of Anabaptist faith in the 16th century. It is a glorious story around the persons of Conrad Grebel, Menno Simons, Felix Manz, and many others. It is a first generation story, for what they did had about it a sense of new beginnings. It is right and good that we claim that story as both formative and in some sense normative for what being a Mennonite Christian means today.
But Mennonite history did not end with that first generation experience. And our knowledge of the centuries that followed may be even more informative since we too must live a second and third and fourth generation experience. It does make a difference, doesn’t it?
I understand that in one very true sense there are no second generation Christians; if we do not claim faith anew for ourselves we cannot authentically claim faith at all. Yet, who of us has forged our commitments out of the white heat of a first generation reformation? I find it equally helpful and important to think about those who courageously lived out their Anabaptist Mennonite faith in second and third generation settings.
One part of this Mennonite story that is less known to many contemporary Mennonites is the story of the Mennonite Church in Russia, part of which takes place in what is now known as Ukraine. It is a story which began in 1789 when upon the invitation of Catherine the Great Mennonites of Prussia joined others of German ethnic background to begin a new life in what was then “New Russia.”
At the height of the Mennonite experience in this land, there were over 100,000 persons of Mennonite faith. But there were also more Mennonite martyrs in the 20th century in Russia than there were Anabaptist martyrs in 16th century Europe. It is a story mixed with glory and pathos, with incredible accomplishment and tragic failure. It is a story filled with many ironies. It is a story of good intentions and unanticipated consequences.
In order to learn more and to experience this land of our forebears, Bernice and I recently joined 160 persons on the Mennonite Heritage Cruise. It is a cruise because for two weeks we lived on the modest sized river cruise ship, Viktor Glushkov. We began at Kiev, the historic capitol of Ukraine, or as Ukrainians would prefer to spell it today, Kyiv. From there we sailed down the Dnieper River, ending at the city of Odessa on the Black Sea.
We visited sites important to Ukrainian history, but the focus of the trip was to visit sites important to Mennonite history. For four days we were docked at the city of Zaporozhye, and from there visited the two major areas of Mennonite settlement, Chortitza and Molotschna. Like others on this trip, Bernice and I anticipated the brief stops in villages such as Rudnerwiede and Tiegerweide from which our Esau and Klaassen ancestors had come.
We saw the bricks and mortar of what had once been a Mennonite commonwealth. Here Mennonites created their own social reality, they conducted the affairs of their society, they built homes and churches and banks and hospitals and schools and industries. They dominated the milling industry and the former Niebuhr Mill in Zaporozhye (modeled after the original Pillsbury mill in Minneapolis, Minnesota) continues to function today.
While our family connections to this land go back to the 1874 emigration, there were tour members who were themselves born in these villages and who experienced the terror of war when as children and youth they fled their homes. For them this pilgrimage was a journey of the soul with high emotions and spiritual healing.
While seeing the former Mennonite communities and buildings was historically interesting and sentimentally significant, the real impact of such a journey is simply in being present to a place where people of faith have lived and worked and loved and died. Old buildings are but icons through which one comes in touch with God’s pilgrim people. To have done that is to experience again the call of Christ to faithfulness in our time and place.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18
These words of Jesus to his disciple suggest a church that is on the offensive, moving against the very center of the fortress of evil. And the image which Jesus would have us consider is that of a church so strong and powerful that it can successfully destroy the gates of Hades and conquer the powers of evil in the universe.
The story of the Mennonite church in the Ukraine would seem to reverse the images. Here is a church that once was strong. At one time there were over 100,000 Mennonites in that land. But by the end of the Second World War it was all gone, apparently defeated by the evil powers of an atheistic government and the result of two world wars.
Of course we know that the Mennonite Church survived in other parts of the Soviet Union through difficult and trying times. But in the Ukraine, it was all lost. Nothing of the Mennonite church remained. Church buildings were turned into theaters or cultural centers or used for storage. The former Mennonite Brethren Church at Rueckenau is presently being used as a refinery of vegetable oils. It would seem that the church of God’s people did not prevail against the powers of evil that overwhelmed them.
The story of the Mennonite church in Ukraine (Russia) is really quite an amazing history. Over time their church architecture was among the most interesting in all of Mennonite history. They were among the first to catch the vision of a mission program to foreign lands. They developed schools and supported their youth in alternative service. But it was also a church divided by conflicts of leadership and differences of piety.
One story of particular interest to me was that of the Schmidt brothers estate in southeastern Molotschna, where Peter Schmidt built a retreat center for pastors. Here he invited and hosted pastors in what certainly was the first continuing education facility of such size and substance. Lecturers were brought from as far away as Europe to lead these events.
But not all efforts were directed toward Mennonite development alone. The Lepp and Wallmann factory in Chortitza built an Orthodox Church for its factory workers. They did so in part to counter the accusation that Mennonites were using their industries to convert workers to Mennonite faith. I was also grateful to see the former Mennonite church building at Alexanderkrone still being used today as a church by the Orthodox faith.
The Orthodox Church at one time was a powerful presence in Ukraine, and that is still evident especially in Kyiv. The 11th century St. Sophia’s cathedral stands at the center of the city as a witness to a long spiritual heritage. The central city of Kyiv has many onion domed Orthodox buildings, some still in reconstruction. The Lavra monastery is from the 12th century, with its catacombs where monks go to pray; overlooks the Soviet era stainless steel monument to the great patriotic war. Which will endure?
There are other evidences of a surviving Christian witness. The former Kroeger clock factory (See MWR, Oct. 28) in Rosenthal is presently being converted into a Pentecostal church.
The former Petershagen Mennonite Church was nearing completion of reconstruction when we were there in September and has since held its first worship service after being closed for 70 years. (See MWR, Oct. 28) It is intended to serve its Ukrainian community now known as Kutuzovka.
Finally in Zaporozhye, a city of nearly 1 million residents, there is again a Mennonite congregation. It was our priviledge to worship with them on Sunday morning. Beginning in 1993, the congregation now has more than 50 members with an average Sunday attendance of about 75. Jake and Dorothy Unrau are presently giving pastoral leadership.
Clearly the Mennonite Church in the Ukraine will have a different future than its past. But God will be there. From the prophet Isaiah (52:4-6): “For thus says the Lord GOD: Long ago, my people went down into Egypt to reside there as aliens; the Assyrian, too, has oppressed them without cause. Now therefore what am I doing here, says the LORD, seeing that my people are taken away without cause? ... Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I.”
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