Odessa church marks 20th anniversary, thanks God for LCC ties
UKRAINE – The Odessa congregation of the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches of Ukraine (SELCU) marked its 20th Anniversary on January 16 in a special celebration at Concordia Seminary, Usatovo, an Odessa suburb.
A young pastor from Kazakhstan, Rev. Dr. Viktor Gräfenstein, moved to Odessa in 1992 after his graduation from a Lutheran seminary in Riga, Latvia. At the same time he was named Superintendent (Bishop) of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (DELKU), and spent his early years preaching and establishing congregations in various locations in the country. Challenges came as many people seemed more interested in establishing ties to Germany, either as a source of funds or as a way to ultimately emigrate. In addition, the Bible-critical theology of the German state churches began to make itself felt. As a result, Dr. Gräfenstein resigned his post as DELKU Superintendent in late 1995 in order to devote himself fulltime to preaching and teaching. Soon he received a call from a group of people in Odessa interested in launching a new, Biblically-oriented Lutheran congregation.
The theme for the Odessa congregation’s 20th anniversary celebrations focused on God’s presence in the past, present, and future. Founding pastor and SELCU Bishop Emeritus Dr. Gräfenstein served as the first preacher for the event, highlighting the Lord’s help in the past and relating numerous stories of God’s guidance over the past two decades. The second segment saw current SELCU Bishop Aleksandr Yurchenko preach on the congregation’s present situation, including the challenges it faces today. The congregation’s current pastor, Rev. Oleg Schewtschenko, preached for the third and final segment about the church’s future and the strengths God has given to provide for it.
Rev. Schewtschenko noted, “It was a wonderful way for the congregation and guests to look back and give thanks to the Lord, as well as to look at the present and ask forgiveness for things we neglected.” The pastor also expressed gratitude for the presence of Professor Jonathan Kraemer of Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Edmonton, as a special guest at the celebration. Professor Kraemer was in Odessa teaching as a part of the Ukranian seminary’s current semester.
During the event, Dr. Gräfenstein spoke at length about the partnership Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) has had with the Ukrainian church. He related how two LCC pastors, Revs. Roland Syens and Keith Haberstock, came to Ukraine as missionaries in the early 1990s. Rev. Syens preached repeatedly in Odessa, and gave advice during the years when SELCU was first being established.
Dr. Gräfenstein went on to relate the stories of his first contacts with then-LCC President, Rev. Dr. Edwin Lehman. On a visit to Germany, Drs. Lehman and Gräfenstein met at the Frankfurt airport for the first time. Because of his initial experiences with church leaders from Germany, Dr. Gräfenstein approached this first encounter with some reluctance, but went on to say, “President Lehman was so humble, spiritual, and had the same values as ours. He asked me how LCC could support Lutheran work in Ukraine, and I asked him to help us train brothers for the ministry.” This meeting marked the beginning of a long partnership in Christ between LCC and SELCU, a partnership which continues to this day.
Dr. Gräfenstein went on to recall the many visits of Rev. Dr. Norman Threinen, first Rector (President) of the Ukranian seminary. Another faithful friend was Rev. Albert Schmidt, retired pastor of Edmonton, who came frequently and stayed for lengthy periods. Other partners included LCC President Robert Bugbee, as well as LCC mission directors Dr. Leonard Harms and Dr. Leonardo Neitzel.
“But this is not really just about those few people,” continued Dr. Gräfenstein. “It is about the mission-minded heart of your church and people who love our country, our people and our church, and who have shown this love by supporting us with their prayers and their gifts.” He asked Professor Kraemer to communicate his thanks to LCC for its support and love. “It is not a long time,” the former Odessa pastor concluded, “only 20 years, but they were years of God’s love and grace. During this time, the Lord used this congregation to start three other churches in our Synod. Thank you for being part of it, and for helping our pastor with his education.” LCC sponsored Odessa pastor Rev. Schewtschenko’s studies at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario from 2007-2010.]