by James Dimitroff
May Day greetings to all from the heart of Odessa, Ukraine! May Day used to be the big political holiday with parades and fireworks. Now things are far more quiet.
Arrival here from Toronto via Istanbul was hectic and slightly confusing. The Concordia Seminary, where I am to teach beginning tomorrow, was closed for the Easter holidays. All the students went home to villages and other cities for a few days’ rest with family. Only one student, Valery Verba, returned early to meet me at the Odessa airport. We had never seen one another, but amid the wild crush of frantic Odessans trying to return home from Turkey, Valery somehow found me easily.
The Ukraine immigration inspector was more officious. He demanded to know exactly how much cash I was carrying at that moment and the reason for my coming to Ukraine. I told him I was the Concordia Lutheran Seminary instructor but he heard only the word “seminar” and let me through with little trouble.
Odessa is in bloom—all the flowering cherry trees, apple trees and linden trees declare the glory of God’s creation. On the surface, it is a charming seaport with more than 1 million people living in and around the coastal areas. Pre-trip reading of a new book just released in 2011 (Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams) spells out the tragic history of this major Ukraine metropolis. True, there were decades of great export deals, a large Jewish cultural influence and the special flavour of Odessan humour. But so much was lost during the war years. Odessa was occupied by Fascist Romania as a “gift” from their Nazi allies. Horrendous pogroms and deportations followed.
When the Soviets regained control in 1945, they proclaimed Odessa to be a “Hero City” because it had resisted the Nazis for 87 days. There were only a total of four original “Hero Cities” that earned this special mention. This is important because next week, on May 9, Odessa will celebrate “Victory Day” as a national holiday along with many other former republics of the former Soviet Union.
Concordia Lutheran Seminary is a beautiful example of cooperation in international mission. The brand-new building, dedicated in August 2010, is comfortable and clean. Its location on the outskirts of Odessa means there is a haven of peace and quiet for the seminarians to study and apply themselves.
This morning, I visited the Lutheran congregation pastored by Rev. Oleg Shewtshenko in downtown Odessa. As Oleg is away in Germany for a few weeks, the main sermon was given by Valery Verba, the only student I’ve met so far. Seminary students fill in at this congregation from time to time. That church too has been beautifully and tastefully rebuilt. It is the landmark St. Paul’s Lutheran, which towers over the city from one of its highest hills. For almost a century, ships arriving at the Odessa port would use the light from St. Paul’s steeple to be their beacon for navigation.
Our beacon is Jesus Christ. This morning’s sermon dealt with Our Lord’s powerful words to Thomas and Thomas’ subsequent declaration of new-found faith. In his sermon, Valery Verba asked the parishioners to examine their faith too, so that it is not found to wobble in the face of “Reason’s” so-called challenge.
Once again, may I wish you a blessed May Day from the Instructor’s Room in Concordia Lutheran Seminary. Keep the Odessa seminary and its students in your fervent prayers as they prepare for a lifetime of faithful ministry to the Lord and Beacon of our life, Jesus.
Rev. Jim Dimitroff is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.