This is a reading about how the 1920-1923 famine in Soviet Russia affected the Mennonites there and how MCC’s aid helped them. It was compiled from letters, diaries and books for a June 2019 meeting of the MCC Canada and MCC U.S. boards of directors. In some cases, words within excerpts have been removed for length and clarity and punctuation was adjusted. Pronunciation of less-familiar names is given in square brackets. Scripture passages are from the New International Version (NIV).
MCC photo by A.W. Slagel
For three readers: Narrator, Reader 1, Reader 2.
Narrator: War . . . pillage . . . typhus . . . hunger . . . death . . . Between 1914 and 1923 millions of people in Russia died due to war, epidemics, revolution and starvation. Among those who suffered were Mennonites living along the Volga River and in south Russia, a region that today is the country of Ukraine. Among those who brought help were Mennonites from far away. Listen to a few of the Mennonite voices from that era. What do they have to say to us today?
Reader 1: From Gerhard Schroeder [ SHROW-der], who lived through the suffering in south Russia: I do not remember when we had read so much from Lamentations as at this time. It seemed to me the same experience we had in Russia during this time had been the lot of those living at Jeremiah’s time.
"I do not remember when we had read so much from Lamentations as at this time."
- Gerhard Schroeder
Narrator: From Lamentations: How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! . . . “Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth?”
Reader 2: From the October 16, 1920 diary entry of Orie Miller, one of three MCC volunteers who came to Russia to assess the situation: In the evening the villagers gathered in and we heard the usual sad story of the village. How all the homes had been repeatedly robbed by occupying armies. The people only have the clothes left that they carry on themselves and cannot buy others, have no soap to wash either these clothes or themselves, have no horses left with which to put out crops, and hardly enough food ahead for the winter. They are not at all sure that the worst is over.
Reader 1: A letter from south Russia, 1921: Dear Brethren! Help us, we are perishing! The famine is raging more and more and suffering is increasing daily, yes, hourly.
Narrator: From Lamentations: My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within, my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city.
Reader 2: From A.J. Miller, director of American Mennonite Relief, the name of the service unit directed by MCC in Russia: As we visited the Mennonite villages, we were made vividly aware of the terrible conditions. The quiet of death hung over the clustered houses like a pall. Not a dog barking, for the Mennonites had eaten their dogs [and] their cats, too . . . 
"Dear Brethren! Help us, we are perishing! The famine is raging more and more and suffering is increasing daily, yes, hourly."
- Letter from south Russia, 1921
Narrator: From Lamentations: The hearts of the people cry out to the Lord. . . . let your tears flow like a river day and night; give yourself no relief, your eyes no rest. Arise, cry out in the night . . . pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord.
Reader 1: A.J. Miller wrote in 1922: At the railroad stations, the sight was appalling. The moment the train halted it was besieged by living skeletons. Not with a rush did they come, but slowly, weakly; too starved to hurry, too famished even to demand, but the eyes haunted by fear; from out of the rags were lifted their bare arms, the wasted fingers extended towards the car windows in entreaty for food; slowly, haltingly, piteously muttering the one sentence that was being wailed despairingly by millions in Russia: “Bread, in God’s name, bread!”
Narrator: From Lamentations: Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed. . . . Because of thirst the infant’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth; the children beg for bread, but no one gives it to them.
Reader 2: More words from A.J. Miller: Seldom was there a note of hope and courage, but one such will ever remain stamped indelibly on my memory. On Sunday in the large church in Chortitza [HOER-teet-zah], Bishop Jacob A. Rempel from Gruenfeld [GROON-feld] preached a sermon of power—calling on the people to trust in God, to share with each other to the last.
Narrator: And, at last, a little help did come, beginning in December 1921 to the Mennonite “Trakt” [TRAHKT] settlement on the Volga.
"It was a Christmas gift such as none of them, or us, had ever seen before.
Not candies, or sweets, or nuts, or fruits, or toys, but that for which every man, woman, and child in those villages was most earnestly wishing – BREAD! Just Bread.
It came almost miraculously from far away America, from friends they had never seen or known. . . .
It was love reaching out its strong hands across the waters and the plains; across oceans and continents."
- A.J. Miller
Reader 1: A.J. Miller wrote: It was a Christmas gift such as none of them, or us, had ever seen before. Not candies, or sweets, or nuts, or fruits, or toys, but that for which every man, woman, and child in those villages was most earnestly wishing – BREAD! Just Bread. It came almost miraculously from far away America, from friends they had never seen or known, from someone who wished them well. It was love reaching out its strong hands across the waters and the plains; across oceans and continents.
Narrator: In March 1922 in Ukraine, American Mennonite Relief began to function until, at the peak of the feeding in June 1922, 25,000 daily rations were being served. Mennonites were fed, but also Russians, Ukrainians, German-speaking Lutherans and Catholics, Bashkirs [Bahsh-KEERS] and others. Feeding continued until the harvest of 1923.
MCC photo by D.R. Hoeppner
Reader 2: From Gerhard Schroeder: In my diary, I find these words written, “Hooray! Three carloads of American food at the railroad station.” Many of us went to see these railroad cars. When they opened them and we could see the products, we rejoiced in our hearts. The following day we had a wonderful prayer meeting with many praises and thanks expressed because of the help sent from abroad.
Reader 1: MCC worker Arthur Slagel wrote in 1922: The village committee arranged for the kitchen, chose the neediest people, procured food supplies from the warehouse, and proceeded to issue to those needy people their one cooked ration daily. This consisted, for the most part, of bread every day, cocoa twice weekly, beans once or twice weekly, and the rest of the time rice or corn-grits cooked with sugar and milk.
Reader 2: From Gerhard Schroeder: March 16th was the first day we received some food from the American soup kitchen. It was somewhat cold and we had to stand in line for quite a time to get our share of about one-third of a pound of white bread and a dish of soup. It was hard to stand there in line for a long period of time, but we were happy and thankful to God for this help.
Reader 1: Arthur Slagel described that day in his diary: The first kitchen in the whole Ukraine began to function today. One wishes there were a thousand of them. At eleven o’clock, the time set for the meal, the chairman of the village committee opened the door and the children crowded in, each with his plate and spoon and enormous appetite. And how they did eat!
Narrator: From Lamentations: I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
Reader 2: A letter from the village of Orekhovka [Oh-REH-hove-kah]: We thank you for the immense help that you have sent. You have saved us from starvation. … Thank you from our hearts for all your reliable help – Marfa, Aleksandra, Liubov [Lew-bohv], Elizabeta [Eee-lee-zah-BEH-tah], Mikhail [Me-hah-EEL], Peter, Nikolai [Nee-coh-LIE], Anastasia ah-nah-stay-SEE-uh . . . (and many others).
Reader 1: The chairman of a relief kitchen committee in Marieyevka [Ma-ree-YAH-eev-kah] wrote in 1922: Our village is one of the villages that have suffered most on account of the famine . . . About 300 cases of death from starvation are registered. At present more than half the population is getting its food in the [American Mennonite Relief] kitchen and from the Red Cross. Considering all this, the Committee of the Kitchen No. 5, at the request of the beneficiaries, transmits to you their sincerest thanks, knowing well that you have saved them from starvation.
"We thank you for the immense help that you have sent. You have saved us from starvation. … ."
- A letter from the village of Orekhovka
Reader 2: P.C. Hiebert, Chairman of the MCC Executive Committee, wrote: I had never in my life heard anyone pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” as these people did with tears running down their haggard faces.
Narrator: From Lamentations: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Mary Raber worked with MCC in various capacities from 1981 to 2007. At present, she is an international service worker with Mennonite Mission Network, based in Odessa, Ukraine.
This reading also is part of MCC's centennial collection of worship resources, "With thanksgiving, we are reconciled for ministry," which is available online, mcc.org/centennial/worship-resources (link live by Jan. 1), and includes litanies, prayers, sermon starters and other resources from MCC's 100 years of ministry.
 Gerhard P. Schroeder, Miracles of Grace and Judgment (Lodi, CA: By the author, 1974), 201.
 Lamentations 1:1; 2:15.
 MCC Archives.
 P. C. Hiebert and Orie O. Miller, Feeding the Hungry, Russia Famine 1919-1925 (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1929), 31; the date of this particular letter is not known, but is here dated 1921 because it is published together with another letter of that date.
 Lamentations 2:11.
 A. J. Miller, “Unsealing the Closed Door,” in Hiebert and Miller, Feeding the Hungry, 200.
 Lamentations 2:18-19.
 A. J. Miller, “Unsealing the Closed Door,” in Hiebert and Miller, Feeding the Hungry, 198.
 Lamentations 3:48; 4:4.
 A. J. Miller, “Unsealing the Closed Door,” in Hiebert and Miller, Feeding the Hungry, 201.
 A. J. Miller, “Unsealing the Closed Door,” in Hiebert and Miller, Feeding the Hungry, 192.
 Cited by Arthur Slagel, “Organizing Feeding Operations,” in Hiebert and Miller, Feeding the Hungry, 220.
 A. J. Miller, “Unsealing the Closed Door,” in Hiebert and Miller, Feeding the Hungry, 192.
 Arthur Slagel, “Organizing Feeding Operations,” in Hiebert and Miller, Feeding the Hungry, 217-218.
 Schroeder, Miracles of Grace and Judgment, 212.
 Quoted by Myrna Slagell Park, “Arthur Slagel and MCC: A Belated Recognition,” Illinois Mennonite Heritage, Vol. XXII, No. 2 (June 1995): 35.
 Lamentations 3:19-22.
 1X-01-01, MCC Archives, “Brief aus ORECHKOVKA,” trans. Mary Raber.
 1X-01-01, MCC Archives, “Mr. Slagel.”
 P. C. Hiebert, “Report of the Chairman’s Trip to the Field of Operations,” in Hiebert and Miller, Feeding the Hungry, 75.
 Lamentations 3:22-23.