(MCC Photo Collection)

Ukraine farmers harvest barley with a swather, sent from MCC, near Chortitza.

WINNIPEG, Man. – Relief and development are not just words to MCC – they formed and continue to shape what the organization is today. To understand, let’s go back to the very beginning in Ukraine – a place where MCC currently is responding to a different crisis with cash assistance, blankets, kits and canned meat.

Nearly 100 years ago, citizens of southern Russia were buckling under the weight of revolution, heavy Bolshevik taxes and a typhoid epidemic.

Four Mennonite men from the area set out to ask for help.

In 1920, the “Studienkommission,” as the group was called, traveled from southern Russia, what is today known as Ukraine, to western Europe and North America. They shared stories of the revolution, counter-revolutions and resulting struggles for the approximately 100, 000 Mennonites and other residents.

Their pleas convinced Mennonite relief commissions in Canada and the U.S. to consolidate. On September 27, 1920, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) held its first official meeting in Chicago, Illinois.

As people gathered there, the first MCC relief team – made up of Orie O. Miller, Clayton Kratz and Arthur Slagel – travelled to Constantinople, today known as Istanbul, with a shipment of material goods.

Tractors for Ukraine

MCC sent tractors and seeds to southern Russia (present-day Ukraine), to help with the harvest.

But southern Russia was in political turmoil and the delivery was delayed.

During this time, Kratz was arrested by the Bolsheviks and never seen again. Slagel and Miller were unable to distribute the assistance as planned. Meanwhile, the situation worsened.

Bolshevik taxes, which included large payments of grain and food, had started to take a toll. By the following year famine struck and people in the southern Soviet Union were crying out for help.

People began cooking anything they could find, including mushrooms and weeds, gophers, crows and sometimes even cats and dogs.

“Our food since last spring has been black tea and herring, and now dear friends, all of this is gone. If you can’t help, then we will die of starvation. On Central Street alone of our village, forty-two persons have died during the summer and most of them for want of food. We are in need, not only of food but also of clothing.”

- A letter from a Russian Mennonite in December 25, 1921 read:

Finally, after more than a year, the newly established Soviet Union allowed MCC into the region, under the condition they feed and clothe all people in need, not just Mennonites. Alvin Miller, the new MCC director in Russia, agreed and the first relief kitchen opened in the village of Rosenthal, Chortitza colony on March 16, 1922.

Local villagers helped run the kitchens that fed 800-1,000 people every day. By May that year MCC was feeding 24,000 to 25,000 people daily in 140 kitchens throughout the southern Soviet Union. They also opened food programs in parts of Siberia.

MCC workers soon recognized it was not enough to feed and clothe people. They also wanted to help people feed themselves.

Residents of southern Russia lacked many of the necessary materials to begin farming again. Many of the horses in the country had either died during the war or starved during the famine.

MCC coordinated two shipments of Fordson tractors, sent from Detroit, Mich., to help with the harvest. These, along with horses and cows, were provided to farmers on credit.

By 1923, Ukraine experienced a decent harvest, which enabled MCC to leave the region at that time.

MCC returned to Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union, at the invitation of a local Baptist Union. Today, the conflict in Ukraine has once again compelled MCC to respond by supporting local partners so they can provide food and supplies for displaced people.