It has been almost a century since the Russian revolution and civil war initiated a Mennonite diaspora, and nearly as long since Mennonite Central Committee organized to begin relief operations back to Russia.
The setting of both much joy and great pain for Mennonites, the former Soviet Union has long been a destination for an intermediate generation of missionary: those who grew up with the stories of terror but who believe in the possibilities of the future.
The call of the motherland is powerful, even for those happily settled in North America. John Wiens was pastoring in Surrey, B.C., when he and his wife, Evelyn, both in their sixth decade, decided to relocate their ministry to Zaporozhye, Ukraine. John was haunted by a chance meeting with an immigrant from Kiev; Evelyn was inspired by a mission trip to Mexico.
In September 2007 they went to Zaporozhye, having agreed to a 10-year term with MB Mission.
For John Wiens, whose ancestors arrived in Zaporozhye among the first wave of Mennonite settlers in 1789, it was almost a homecoming.
The Wienses brought four objectives: to establish a church, recovery ministry, fundraising organization (in Canada) and private trade school for youth “aged out” of the many orphanages.
Today, more than six years into their commitment, the Wienses have accomplished several of their objectives, including establishment of what they believe to be Ukraine’s only private trade school. Last year, nine students — all orphans or wards of the state — participated in the first nine-month program on a dairy farm in the neighboring village of Nikolay-Pole.
The dairy is run by Garry Verhoog, a farmer from Steinbach, Man., who moved to Ukraine in 2008 with his wife, Teresa, who teaches English. Their ministry is funded through the proceeds of their family-run 800-cow operation in Steinbach.
The Verhoogs met the Wienses almost a year into the Verhoogs’ ministry, and both instantly sensed an opportunity for partnership.
“I’m not a pastor or a preacher; all I know is farming,” said Garry Verhoog, whose work in teaching, training and community development belies his words. “[The Ukrainian] dairy industry was really underdeveloped… . So my idea was just to come; we’ll start a small farm and just demonstrate to the people around us better ways to take care of cows.”
The Verhoogs operate a 40-cow farm, and they have just purchased a Soviet-era collective farm and are renovating it. Eventually, they’d like it to become a self-sustaining 200-cow farm that pays for the dairy portion of the trade-school program.
Garry Verhoog has also become an indispensible part of the village community, helping residents negotiate land rights, build and organize an irrigation pipeline, and providing microcredit.
Both couples stress the importance of the growing trade school in meeting the needs of Ukraine’s orphans, who often leave the state’s orphanages with few skills and little work experience.
“Ten percent of orphans will commit suicide within a year of leaving the orphanage because they’re just not connected to anyone,” John Wiens said. “Sixty to 70 percent of the boys will turn to crime and end up in prison, and 50 to 60 percent of the girls turn to prostitution. We can’t change the lives of every orphan, but we can change the lives of some.”
Garry Verhoog sees his dairy school as a way to defy the percentages.
“I want a program where the students live in the village and work every day on the farm,” he said. “[Where they] make enough money on the farm to support them while they’re going to school and receive really good practical experience on how to work and live on a dairy farm.”
Full circle Mennonite
Their ministry also provides the Wienses an opportunity to educate their neighbors about Mennonites and their history in Ukraine. Most don’t even know what a Mennonite is, though many distinctive Mennonite-built houses and barns are still standing.
Garry Verhoog said Nikolay-Pole (formerly Nikolaifeld) is one of the best-preserved Mennonite villages in the Ukraine — just without any Mennonites.
John Wiens sees an opportunity to create a new story with the help and support of other believers. “I would just love to say to my brothers and sisters: ‘Earlier, as Mennonites, we left a legacy here of hard work, good farming methods and good factories. Help us leave another legacy — of changed lives among orphans and of church plants. We need people to pray for us; we need people who will invest.’ ”
Just before this issue went to press, MWR received word that John Wiens, left, died Jan. 14. In November doctors discovered a cancerous tumor on his esophagus, and he underwent radiation treatments in Surrey, B.C.