Mary Raber has been involved in theological education and encouraging Christians in Ukraine since 1991. The past decade she has served through Mennonite Mission Network. Here she reflects on how her ministry is evolving as she ages and the context changes.
Four-year-old Sofia studied me carefully through a pair of tiny corrective lenses. "Are you an auntie or a grandma?" she asked.
"I'm an auntie," I said firmly. In Ukraine, regardless of blood relationship, any adult may be referred to as an uncle or aunt, grandma or grandpa, depending on age. With that, the issue of my relatively youthful auntie status was settled, at least in my own mind.
A few days later, I crossed a schoolyard when some boys kicking a soccer ball hailed me. "Hey, Babushka, what time is it?"
What time indeed! The boys' assessment made it official: I had become a babushka (grandma) without noticing it!
My feelings are mixed about the status change. I like the honor extended by bus passengers who jump up to give me their seat. But I sometimes feel like crying out with the psalmist, "Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone" (Psalm 71:9).
Since the 1990s, I have been involved in theological education in Ukraine. In that earlier era, theology teachers were much in demand in the former Soviet Union. Now, however, most of the teaching is in the hands of young, national instructors. While I rejoice that we did a good job training the present generation of scholars, I wonder what God has in mind for me now.
Scripture promises that "the righteous … will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming 'the Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him'" (Psalm 92:12-15). In other words, the aging process is not a cruel trick, but in harmony with the good plans of a good God. Clearly, there is a future for the babushka, if I have the eyes to see it. Today, as my work centers around routine translation and editing, with less emphasis on professional accomplishment, I find there is much to learn from my fellow grandmothers.
For example, consider the way my friend, Elena, arrives at church on Sunday morning. I know she is exhausted from running a clothing stall in the market, but she greets everyone with a hug and a smile. Many of the young people in our congregation are foster children, and they respond with delight. I lack Elena's cozy warmth, but are there other ways that I can notice people and affirm them?
Mary Raber with a young friend, Natalia Trifon. Photo provided.
Last winter, I spent the night in the home of an elderly woman in western Ukraine. Her apartment is a home-away-from-home for single women who study or work in her city. They come to bathe, sleep, or have a meal. Tamara prays for them, and for her church and the whole world. Her pastors rely on her prayers and regard her with great respect. Who is praying for the ministry of theological education in Ukraine? What about orphaned children, people with disabilities, or the churches in the militarized zone? Through my church and friendships, I connect with people in all these situations. In times of great peril, praying grandmothers have traditionally held churches together. Can I learn to take that calling as seriously as Tamara does?
I know other grandmother models. Olga cares for her grandniece every day so the child's parents can work. Natalia came out of retirement to keep the kitchen running at Odessa Theological Seminary, my home in Ukraine. Zinaida keeps a beautiful vegetable garden and shares the produce generously. These grandmothers fill in life's gaps in hundreds of ways. The world takes little notice, but I describe all of them as "fresh and green" despite high blood pressure, painful corns, bad moods, and aching backs.
I am proud to join their ranks. Physical frailty will claim all of us sooner or later, but may we continue to declare that "… the Lord is upright; he is my Rock and there is no wickedness in him."
Have I really become a babushka? I hope so.