Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Story of Faith and Fortitude

I recently began reading Anne Applebaum’s book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.  It is the story of how Stalin, the premier of Communist Russia, used a famine caused by his own policies of collectivization to destroy the leadership of ethnic Ukraine and prevent any threat of its future independence.  Applebaum is an excellent historian, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  Her books are powerful, but also chilling.  Whether she writes about Communist Russia’s prison camps, the spread of the Iron Curtain over Europe or a deadly famine in the Ukraine, her stories are a dire warning about the power of government unrestrained by law and constitution.  They are also a reminder to us of the evils of Communism, especially in our day when Communism is becoming more and more attractive to the millennial generation.

But as I was reading Red Famine, something else hit me.  Although I did not realize it when I bought the book, my grandparents lived through the events Applebaum was narrating.  And in the midst of this turmoil and tumult, they kept their faith in Jesus Christ and passed down a legacy of endurance in the midst of difficulty to their descendants.

As some of you may know, my ancestry is Mennonite.  Both sides of my family originated from Mennonites who found themselves in the Ukraine in the days of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great.  My mother’s side of the family immigrated to Canada in the late 19th century and settled in southern Manitoba.  My father’s side of the family stayed in the Ukraine and lived through many of the events in Applebaum’s book.

The story that I was told when I was younger was that during the Communist Revolution in Russia, when my grandmother was about 12, my great-grandmother’s house was invaded by soldiers and she was shot before my grandmother’s eyes.  I had always assumed that the perpetrators were Russian soldiers, but according to Red Famine, they could have been members of any number of roving bands of soldiers and bandits that plagued the land at the time.  Applebaum tells stories of whole villages of Mennonites slaughtered during this upheaval.  My ancestors were at the mercy of whatever roving band was passing by.

Being hard-working farmers, my grandparents and their families were likely labelled as “kulaks” by Stalin and his followers.  A kulak originally denoted an individual who was wealthy, but as time passed the definition included anyone who opposed the effort to create collective farms or clung to ideas that were opposite to Communist ideals, such as faith in Jesus Christ.  Kulaks were killed, sent to the gulags in Siberia and exiled out of Russia.  Kulaks of German descent, like my family, were especially targeted.  The story my father told me was that his parents, now married, were sent to Moscow in about 1931.  They were told to board one of the two trains at the station.  The train they boarded exiled them from Russia, and paradoxically to freedom in the West.  The other train’s passengers were sent to Siberia.

My grandparents at my parent's wedding.
Their exile from Russia in 1931 spared them from the worst of the Ukrainian famine detailed in Applebaum’s book.  But it did not spare them from hardship.  Unable to immigrate to Canada because of health, they settled among other Mennonites in Paraguay. There they started with nothing, breaking virgin land, living in poverty and having 12 children, 9 of whom lived past infancy.  Their life was far from easy, and even after they immigrated to Canada in 1956 with their six youngest children (my father being the oldest of those six), they still did not have much.  But what they did have was a deep faith in Jesus Christ.

Sometimes I look at my life and I catch myself worrying about this and that, but in light of my grandparent’s story, my stuff seems so trivial.  I am sometimes concerned about finances, but in reality I have to admit I have more now than my grandparents ever did their whole entire lives.  I get concerned about the state of our country and its rejection of the Christian faith, but I do not have to face outright persecution and murder like they did.  I get concerned about health, but I have never been banned from immigrating to freedom because of it.  I get concerned about my kids, but I have not had three of them die in infancy.  My life is easy compared to the life of my grandparents.  And through all of that hardship and poverty, their enduring faith in Jesus Christ shines through.  In those times when I get concerned and struggle to trust God, I need to remember their faith amidst trials.  I am truly thankful for godly grandparents and the legacy of faith they passed down to their children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren.

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