Impressions of Odessa
It is an usual January in Odessa with little snow and few bone-chilling nights so far. Inside the Seminary/Mission Centre activities are beginning to return to normal after the Christmas, New Year, Orthodox Christmas, and Old New Year celebrations. Despite the preponderance of Orthodox churches, the long Communist rule erased most vestiges of religious observances. Stores are open every day and New Year’s celebrations come closest to Canadian Christmas ones. The Communists can also be thanked (if you choose to view it that way) for the practice of having at least two sermons in most Sunday services. As Pastor Oleg Schewtschenko explained, since there was a severe shortage of pastors under Communist rule, and since no one knew when another brother would be arrested, congregations would ask at least three people to preach, and pray that at least one of them would be able to do so. Sometimes a brother was simply held overnight to prevent him from preaching. Others were sent away for between 7 and 17 years for preaching or just for having a Bible (usually German) in the house. At one point there was only one pastor for 2000 congregations!
My orientation to Odessa began as Pastor Schewtschenko greeted me at the small airport. The first surprise was to learn that the Odessa seminary is not in Odessa at all, but in an almost rural suburb. This made the building costs a lot lower, and activities have operated out of this location for only the last year and a half. I had arrived a few days early to get oriented and discovered the centre’s rooms were mostly occupied by young people from all across the Ukraine. Bishop Viktor Gräfenstein had organized yet another social outreach effort. Over the course of five days the young people would distribute bags of candy and treats (each also included a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste) to children in orphanages both near and farther away. Social ministry is a big part of the outreach. Class was cut short Thursday, 12 January, to allow students and professor to help unload a large truck with donated clothing, hospital equipment, toys, etc., donated from people in Sweden and finally cleared after three months in customs here.
The six seminary students are much like students in St. Catharines or Edmonton. Some are young and single, others more mature and married. And, of course, with a variety of backgrounds. Most have already been assisting in congregations in one form or another. At present there is only one class. When these have finished, more will be recruited for a another round of courses.
Class dynamics are pretty well the same as in Canada: engaged discussion, disagreements with one another, and light-hearted humour. The main difference is that everything has to go through a translator. One surprise here is that sometimes the same Russian word is used for two different concepts, and the lack of a definite article sometimes renders Bible passages less clear than the Greek or even the English versions. The lack of theological materials in Russian, especially Lutheran ones, means students have to rely more on what the professor says. The other major challenge is remembering that the culture and history are much different from what we are used to in European or North American settings, and that the challenges for ministry here are quite different from what we are used to.
After a brief stop in Germany to check up on our CLTS student there, I will return to St. Catharines at the end of the month.