Civilians sheltered in basements Feb. 26 as Russian troops began occupying communities in southeastern Ukraine that are home to Mennonite churches and agencies.
The invasion arrived the previous night in Molochansk, where the Mennonite Centre is based in a former school from the village’s 19th-century Mennonite colony roots.
The center assists locals experiencing poverty and is supported by Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, based in Winnipeg, Man.
“Russian tanks were seen throughout the town,” wrote Alvin Suderman on Feb. 26 on social media. Suderman is the organization’s board chair. “They approached from the south and likely had come from Melitopol and passed through all the former Mennonite villages from Lichtenau on to Halbstadt [the former name of Molochansk].”
Residents requested to use the facility as a bomb shelter. The center’s staff began stocking the building’s basement with food, water and furniture a few days earlier when Russian drones began flying over the community.
“Our staff has been staying in the basement of the Mennonite Centre for safety,” Suderman wrote.
Across the Molotschna River, the village of Prischib has been shelled, and the nearby city of Tokmak has also been under attack.
“It is our intention to keep on with our work of helping the people who live in the places once occupied by our ancestors, regardless of ethnicity,” Suderman wrote, noting at last report all individuals who have sought shelter are safe.
The center was founded by Canadian Mennonites who felt called to assist people living today in locations that were home to Anabaptist ancestors up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Mennonite Benevolent Society operates a similar project in Zaporizhzhia, a large city to the north. Project director Louie Sawatzky of Winnipeg said Feb. 25 that staff of the Mennonite Family Centre heard rocket fire, bombing and shelling, but Russian forces had not taken the city.
In addition to a Feb. 24 pastoral letter of support written to Anabaptists in Ukraine, Mennonite World Conference President J. Nelson Kraybill called on the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church to be a peaceamaker as Jesus taught and modeled.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow holds some sway with Russian political leaders, but the Orthodox Church of Ukraine-Kyiv Patriachate is considered by leaders in Russia to be an illegitimate offshoot that must be restored to Russian orthodoxy.
“As Russia unleashes weapons upon Ukraine, we call on you as a Christian leader in Russia to speak and act boldly for the gospel of peace,” Kraybill wrote. “Regardless of any rationale given for the attack upon Ukraine, this is an immoral action that Christians everywhere must condemn.”
The projects in Ukraine are accepting donations — along with Associated Mennonite Brethren Churches in Ukraine, Mennonite Central Committee, Christian Aid Ministries and European Mennonite relief agencies — as each organization begins evaluating how to help communities in Ukraine, along with ministries in neighboring countries assisting hundreds of thousands of people crossing borders to flee violence.