ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) — The Odessa Theological Seminary in Ukraine has not missed a day of classes due to the unrest in the country.
“People are deeply concerned with what is happening,” said Mary Raber, a Mennonite Mission Network mission worker and Mennonite Church Canada partner who teaches at the seminary. “There is a sense of living from crisis to crisis, but so far, there are no army trucks rumbling by exactly here.”
To address the political turmoil in Ukraine, from 10 to 40 people, depending on how many are on campus, gather once a day during the week to pray for their country. Typically, the seminary holds worship services on Mondays and Fridays, but with all the problems in Ukraine, staff, faculty and students gather at 2 p.m. to pray Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays as well.
Raber said that they pray for peace, for wisdom, and restraint for leaders on all sides of the crisis.
“Many people say that they never realized before what it means to pray for their government,” said Raber.
In the town of Kherson, where Raber once lived, it has been a Palm Sunday tradition to have an interdenominational procession. This year was no different and hundreds of Orthodox, Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics, Charismatics and Pentecostals all celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
However, Raber’s friends in Kherson told her that an even bigger religious event happened several weeks before Palm Sunday when hundreds of Christians gathered in the center square of the city. They sang How Great Thou Art and knelt on the hard pavement of the square to pray for their country.
Many believers are cautious about the slogans they use. “I’ve seen graffiti that has been corrected,” said Raber. “In one place where ‘Glory to Ukraine’ was spray-painted on a wall, it was crossed out. Now it says ‘Glory only to God.’”
At many of the city squares where protests are happening, Christians set up prayer tents where they pray with anyone who wishes.
Raber read a story on Facebook of an acquaintance serving in a prayer tent in the center of Donetsk on April 14. This tent was flying both a Ukrainian flag and one with the Donetsk city crest.
Two men ran to the tent and grabbed both of the flags. They ran to a nearby bridge and threw the Ukrainian flag into the water below, then tried to run with the Donetsk flag. A car stopped them and two men got out and beat up the flag thieves.
“The men left their victims lying on the bridge and returned the Donetsk flag to the prayer tent,” said Raber. The men apologized that the flag was bloody, and then left.
Some of the people from the tent went to the bridge to find the thieves and “administered first aid, prayed with them, and sent them on their way ‘in peace’ with a New Testament each,” said Raber.
The group in the prayer tent ended the Facebook story by saying simply, “We got a new Ukrainian flag, but we hung it up higher.”
Although there are violent encounters taking place in the country, Raber feels safe where she lives. When she goes outside, she sees a beautiful, peaceful spring scene.
Yet for almost everyone, the crisis is foremost in their minds.
“One of the workmen on campus, who is in his 70s, was telling me that we need to think about our priorities and not get carried away with politics,” said Raber. “He was referring to a preacher who has said that he can’t prepare sermons anymore because he can’t stop watching the news all the time.”
For many church institutions, the worsening economic situation may make life difficult, said Raber. But at Odessa Theological Seminary, classes continue. There have been problems holding classes that are taught by foreign faculty as some people are cautious about coming to Ukraine.
Raber extended her stay in the United States when the violence increased in February, but she returned to Ukraine March 31.
Peaceful protests started in the capital, Kyiv, in November 2013 after then-president Viktor Yanukovych decided not to sign an agreement to strengthen economic ties with the European Union. By not signing the contract, he sent the message that Ukraine would stay economically closer to Russia.
The country is divided roughly along geographic lines between those who favor a stronger relationship with the European Union, located largely in the west, and those who favor a stronger relationship with Russia in the east.
However, among the deeper causes of the crisis are dissatisfaction with government unresponsiveness and corruption, as well as widespread unemployment. Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February.
An interim government is leading the country until national elections are held May 25. Russia opposes the interim government and reserves the right to intervene militarily in Ukraine if it perceives that its regional interests are threatened. Some regions in eastern Ukraine have declared their independence from Ukraine. Russia formally annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March and has built up its troops on Ukraine’s eastern border.
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Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, leads, mobilizes and equips the church to participate in holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world. Media may contact firstname.lastname@example.org.