You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world. — Matt. 5:13-14
“MCC envisions communities in right relationship with God, one another and creation.” I am speaking to a summit for Mennonite Central Committee partners in the Ukraine, but I feel like an impostor after hearing “Vadim’s” story (not his real name) last night.
Vadim is a pastor in the eastern Ukraine conflict zone, the occupied territory where bombing is an everyday occurrence and many people have lost their homes.
Yesterday, Vadim spent eight hours waiting at the military checkpoint before he was permitted to drive to Zaporizhzhia for the MCC summit.
In his community, Vadim says the tanks are constantly going up and down the avenue. Young people are risking their lives while the shooting is going on to deliver food and blankets to people in need. He says people even need to be careful what they say to each other because if you are heard sounding sympathetic to Ukraine, you could be arrested.
The violence has brought the churches together, Vadim tells me, because they need to support each other.
Vadim says he grew up in an earlier era in the Soviet Union in a church that was underground. There were people in prison because of their faith, but their elders taught them not to take up violence.
I told Vadim I had been reading the Psalms each day during my two-month sojourn in eastern Europe and the Middle East, but I found myself put off by the repeated whining of the psalmist. Put off, of course, until I finally realized that the Psalms would sound quite differently through the eyes of a refugee family in Syria or Iraq, or by someone who has lived through the bombing in eastern Ukraine and may have lost everything they own.
Vadim said, yes, the Psalms were important to him, too, because they give evidence of God’s faithfulness to us.
He tells the story of a dozen armed men, weapons drawn, recently coming into his church to search and ransack it. Someone in the church had been tipped off that this might happen, so some members of the congregation were inside the church praying when the soldiers arrived.
“I asked God to help us look at these men as people in need whom Christ also died for, but that they would also understand that we were here because of our faith and our values,” Vadim told me. The message apparently got through because the men left and church members kept on praying.
When the occupation began in eastern Ukraine, Vadim says bank robberies increased, stores closed and the economy collapsed. Many people were hungry, and after five months, people were not receiving their pension payments anymore. The church began handing out hot lunches to people in need and community members told the armed groups that if they were going to take power in the community, they also needed to care for the needy.
“God softened their hearts,” says Vadim and the occupiers began to provide some services to the people who needed it the most.
God is with us through this suffering, says Vadim, and we need to learn how to respond. He says that when I tell MCC’s partners in the Ukraine the stories of God’s presence with people suffering through disaster and war around the world, it encourages and gives them strength.
“We need to be salt and light here, to serve, and to support each other,” Vadim concludes.
J Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.