In the late 1700s the Russian leader Catherine the Great issued a decree inviting Europeans to come settle the newly conquered lands of the Russian Empire in present day Ukraine. German speaking Mennonites answered the call. They had previously fled persecution in the Netherlands and viewed this as an opportunity to build a self-sufficient community. As pacifists they were also drawn by promised military exemption.
Mennonite colonies in Ukraine were built among the Nogais, semi-nomadic pastoralists who trace their lineage back to Genghis Khan. It was a tense relationship at times and by 1860 the Nogais had either emigrated away or been deported. Despite a wave of immigration to North America in the late 19th century, by 1914 Mennonites had established over 40 colonies in Ukraine and numbered 100,000 (Mennonite Church USA currently has around 62,000 members).
World War 1 and the Russian Revolution that followed devastated these communities through land confiscation, disease, and famine. North American Mennonites formed an organization in the 1920s called Mennonite Central Committee to bring aid to the starving Ukrainian Mennonites. As the situation stabilized, more were able to immigrate to North America, although a small population remains there today.
Now it appears the current Russian President desires an all-out war in Ukraine. It could be devastating.
Even though few of us at Columbus Mennonite trace our family history through this particular trajectory (I don’t), I wonder if it might serve us in one of the most basic acts of peacemaking – to count as kin a people and geography that might otherwise be Other and distant.
This story invites us to look inward at ways we have and continue to benefit from violence and dispossession of native peoples. It also invites us to respond out of the best and bravest of our tradition. Mennonite Central Committee continues to partner with peacemakers around the world and invest in conditions that promote justice and form bonds of peace.
Each day abounds with opportunities to plant seeds of peace.
One way to keep this in front of us could be to extend our practice of the peace candle into household meals. If you would like to do this and wish to use some or all of the words of our updated Peace Candle liturgy as a prayer, here is the language:
As we gather today (Or, As we eat this meal), we light a Peace Candle and lament all forms of violence. We remember that we live and worship on land where Miami, Shawnee, those known as the Hopewell, and other Indigenous peoples have lived and labored, fought and loved. We join our hearts with one another, with our sister church in Armenia, Colombia, and all those who yearn for peace with justice. We commit our hands to this good work. (Pause to mention out loud people and regions for whom you pray) May the flame be a sign of this bright hope: Peace within us, among us, to the ends of the earth.