MIS, Ukraine (Mennonite Mission Network) – Until recently, Cliff Dueck began each school day scrambling eggs or preparing noodles with milk for seven angelic-looking adolescent boys. After breakfast, they would all pile into his van to be dropped off before classes began.
Their sweet faces disguise the struggles the boys encounter in daily life, the fight to survive the consequences of their parents' choices, their environment and occult powers. Their challenges, both in belief and in life, are just beginning.
Two of the young teens, including Sergei – the group leader – are now in an isolated tuberculosis sanatorium for at-risk children. Tuberculosis, an opportunistic disease, becomes a serious health concern in areas like the Ukraine, where HIV/AIDS infection is high.
“Now, the other boys don’t come around as much,” said Dueck of Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness.
In a region where no official records of HIV/AIDS statistics exist due to societal taboo, up to 60 percent of the population may be infected with the virus.
“People living with tuberculosis are told that they have asthma and people with HIV are told that they have some other disease,” Dueck said.
Because most of Dueck’s breakfast buddies show symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and have open records with the police, he continues to walk closely with the youngsters since they made a decision to follow Jesus on Feb. 16.
That Saturday, the seven boys sauntered into the Kherson Mennonite Church exuding trouble, just as worship was about to begin.
“We know them well,” said Dueck, who has related to most of the boys since they were children and meets with them every Thursday. “They are all involved in the occult and the spirits that they submit to always mock our worship with hysterical laughter.”
Dueck and Vasya Shevchenko, a young pastor, consulted quickly. They didn’t want to ask the boys to leave, but if the boys stayed, no one would be able to concentrate on worship.
While Shevchenko began the service, Dueck led the boys into another room. Dueck asked them why they came to church. They said they had come to worship.
“Okay, then, let’s do that,” Dueck said.
They gathered in a circle and Dueck proposed that each person select a song and pray. When it was Dueck’s turn, the commotion began.
“The evil spirits did their best to disrupt my prayer,” Dueck said. “I stopped trying to pray and started a discussion about witchcraft, black and white magic, poltergeists and Christ’s power.”
Dueck reports that involvement with the occult is the most common form of spirituality in the Ukraine. Three of the seven boys admit to direct contact, or live with people who have direct contact, with the spirit world.
“One boy's sister is preparing to be a witch. The mother of another boy practices white magic. She has anointed the boys many times in a certain ritual. After the anointing – which they thought was a part of Christianity – they are driven to steal, drink, smoke and skip school,” Dueck said.
After talking with the boys an hour and a half on Feb 16, all seven made a decision to follow Jesus.
The boys returned every day for prayer. During the week following their conversions, the boys brought three friends to talk with Dueck. One of them also decided to follow Jesus. One refused.
The third, Artur, from a Muslim family said, “I would like to receive Christ, but I choose not to unless my parents receive Christ.”
Dueck respected this response, but prayed with Artur requesting that God would open a way to share the gospel with his parents.
Through the daily prayer breakfasts, Dueck attempted to give the young believers a good start on their day in an environment that is so hostile to spiritual and physical health.
“The boys are being pulled in two directions. When they don’t pray with me for a few days, it hurts their personal spiritual development immensely. They often end up back where they were before,” Dueck said.
In 1998, Dueck felt led by God to Kherson. There he met, Natasha Shevchenko, who would become his wife in 2000. Four months after their marriage, they began to serve as pastoral couple for the newly planted church in Mis. This congregation has grown to 20 members over the past seven years.
Each week, between the two of them, the Duecks lead two worship services (one on Saturday and one on Sunday), Sunday school in two locations, four Bible studies and a mid-week prayer meeting. They are assisted by Natasha’s older brother, Vasya Shevchenko, who was ordained on March 30, and her younger sister, Luda Shevchenko.
Motivated by their strong concern for young people, the Duecks help organize youth clubs, summer camps, Sunday school and Bible studies. Cliff Dueck is also involved in a loan fund sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee which assists entrepreneurs, most of whom are members of the Baptist Union, the largest Protestant group in the Ukraine claiming 500,000 members.
The Duecks have two pre-school age daughters, Margarita and Abigail. Steinbach (Manitoba) Mennonite Church is their home congregation.