“We get our bread at the peril of our lives” (Lam. 5:9).
In Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, at the Mennonite Family Center, we hear Boris Letkemann share his family’s story of exile and homecoming. There was so much suffering and so much death.
Boris remembers, they took his father and his father never returned. Years later, in a camp in Siberia, the family is reunited and they make their way back to Zaporizhzhia. Today, Boris works at the center and helps provide food, shelter and support for people like him who need what he needed those many years ago.
As Boris shares his story, the elderly women across the hallway, a few of the 120 women who receive home health care from there, plaintively sing the old hymns of the church. Later, we sing back to them, and then we sing together “How Great Thou Art.”
In Russia, between 1914 and 1923, millions of people lost their lives to war, disease and starvation. Mennonites were among those who suffered. And Mennonites were among those who brought help.
“Bread, in God’s name, bread!” Mennonite Central Committee worker A.J. Miller remembers the living skeletons at the train station pitching toward him, too starved to hurry, wailing for food. In his journal, A.J. says those cries haunted his sleep long after his service with the Mennonite relief effort ended.
We visit the site of one of the first Mennonite feeding stations in Ukraine and share a symbolic meal of bread, porridge and hot cocoa. At the height of the famine in 1922, 25,000 people in Khortitsa, Gnadenfeld, Nikopol and elsewhere were fed with bread that came from far away America, from friends they had never met, from people who wished them well.
In the midst of that famine, MCC was born, churches in North America coming together one hundred years ago to help their sisters and brothers in need half-way around the world in Ukraine — helping Mennonites, Lutherans, Catholics, Bashkirs, Jews and others.
Today, there is fighting once again in Ukraine. MCC is still working here, working with partners who care for people who are displaced and others who are vulnerable.
One couple we met say they didn’t want to leave the conflict area because of their disabled daughter, but the time finally came when they had to hide in their basement. After the bombing, when they came up from hiding, there was no house roof to greet them, only the sky.
Now they are displaced in Nikopol and their hope is that one day the fighting will end. In the meantime, MCC partner New Life Charitable Fund helps them with food packages, utility payments and medicine.
“Do not close your ear to my cry for help, but give me relief,” cries the prophet in Lamentations (3:56). For 100 years now, MCC and the churches have provided the bread of the Lord’s compassion and the abundance of God’s steadfast love in Ukraine and around the world.
Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.