The town of Molochansk in Ukraine was once home to 15,000 citizens. Over time, a lack of work prompted more than half to leave one of the oldest parts of what used to be the Mennonite Molotschna settlement to seek other fortunes.
Dema Bratchenko, director of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, said the population now hovers around 7,000.
“A hundred years ago, this area was filled with Mennonites,” he said. “There is a lot of infrastructure that was abandoned by Mennonites. The people who came here to live in their houses came from Russia.”
Pro-Russian sentiments in southern and eastern Ukraine make sense. Russian immigrants arrived, and Bolsheviks promised a state to take care of them.
The Soviet Union failed at many things, but it did provide consistent pensions — something Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych promised an aging political base weary of economic hardships. Such a reminder of the “good old days” would be especially attractive to a family whose ancestors once received a fine Mennonite home for free.
When Yanukovych recently fled in fear for his life, one of the new government’s first actions was to make Russian — an official language of Ukraine — illegal. With their culture under attack, the subpopulation welcomed the arrival of Russian troops. On the other side, many ethnic Ukrainians are still nursing wounds from the brutal Stalin years.
The Mennonite Centre and Molochansk Mennonite Church address those divisions not with a special program or initiative but merely by being the church together.
“I think church has a different basis of unity. We have a common faith and a common church experience,” Bratchenko said. “We don’t see the threat of division on an irrational basis like the Russian-Ukrainian divide.
“We are praying for peace and the best for Ukraine — that God will protect and give us peace. I don’t think there is any science of division in the church on this basis.”
That outlook is just as applicable to the Mennonites whose ancestors traveled from Ukraine to North America more than a century ago. Nobody wears T-shirts declaring allegiance to a side. Ben Stobbe, the chair of Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, said the Molochansk church is attended by both ethnicities.
“I wouldn’t be able to tell who is who,” he said. “I think that the churches have been very successful in saying, more than other groups, ‘You are part of a community here; we aren’t pro- this and pro- that. We are part of a new community that brings us together with an emphasis on faith.’ ”
He’s mostly correct. But the church is pro-something. It is pro-peace, pro-love and pro-community, on earth as it is in heaven.