In the nineties of the previous century, after Ukraine became an independent country, a successful surgeon and academician, Roman Korniiko, was active in Kyiv. He was not willing to live with the fact that hundreds of orphans were languishing homeless on the streets of the city, so he started seeking help for them. He would look for married couples that would be able to take care of them and he also tried to raise awareness of the issue. The attitude of the authorities was disapproving. He was often interrogated by the police and beaten several times. Yet he did not give up and managed to build up a group of like-minded Christians with whom he constructed a house to accommodate the orphans with their foster parents.
They named the house, located in a village on the suburbs of Kyiv, the “Father’s House” – the house of our Father in heaven. It is almost hard to believe how many hundreds of children lived there and found their new families thanks to this project. Married couples, either childless or with children, sometimes already adults themselves, would take orphans from the streets to be a part of their families. A school was also founded in the house. Today, parents from the village strive to have their children enrolled at the Father’s House. Later, another building was added to the beautiful, colourful and joyful house. The newer building provides other care for the children, such as medical care, physiotherapy, or a psychologist.
I had a chance to visit this wonderful community in the summer, on my way to see our Protestant compatriots in Bohemka and Veselynivka. Originally, we were supposed to go there with Jan Dus. When war was starting at Donbas, Jan Dus, head of the ECCB Diaconia’s humanitarian centre at the time, helped acquire some shipping container housing units for the Father’s House, which were transported from Zlín. These living units helped to accommodate migrants from East Ukraine, primarily mothers with children from Donbas – some of them still live there at present. In the end, Jan Dus didn’t come with me to Ukraine. Diaconia asked him to be in charge of coordinating the necessary aid in one of the Moravian villages hit by the tornado – Hrušky.
We travelled to Ukraine with Pavel Kalus, minister at the Prague-Žižkov congregation, and with his son, Jan. We did not cancel our planned visit at the Father’s House and we are still moved by the warm welcome we received. One of the ladies living at the housing units from Zlín is actually part of the management of the Father’s House today and it was her who took care of us throughout the two days and showed us everything the Father’s House provides.
An oasis for children from the street
I was amazed at what the founders were capable of creating despite the adversities they were facing at the beginning. Roman says they would not have been able to achieve any of it without help from above. They put together a team of people that knows how to work with children. It is not necessary to mention the friendly atmosphere of the House: it was quite apparent all around and it was clear that the work here has been successful for over 20 years now. Many of the “kids” who once found a home here are now employees or assistants of the House and of the entire community. Roman refers to them as “graduates”.
Many people found it hard to understand how somebody could possibly give up their academic medical career to work with kids from the street. Roman told us that when they were starting out, an armed response unit was sent to the House to search the entire premises. The next day, the head of the operation came to apologize and said they had been ordered to install drugs around the house. He couldn’t do it.
Gradually, the public opinion on the House began to change. Nowadays, you will find several awards hanging on the wall, for example “Hero of the Republic of Ukraine”.
This year, an overall renovation of the first house is taking place. The kids are currently accommodated at the huge premises of the presidential residence. The President, Volodymyr Zelenskyj, is letting them use one of the older pavilions of the residence. The children are also allowed to have a summer camp by the residence’s lakes. We were taken for a tour of the premises, which stretch for several kilometres and are guarded by the military. In the courtyard of the Father’s House, we could clearly see how much the children love Roman and how naturally gifted he is at communicating and dealing with the kids.
When observing Roman Korniiko’s charisma, based on a sincere faith in God, which inspires congenial ideas for arranging help in difficult situations and creates and atmosphere of trust, I was reminded of the work of Přemysl Pitter in Czechoslovakia.
We looked at the fruit and vegetable gardens where the kids help with the gardening work and we also saw the large construction site of the future Centre, sold to the Father’s House by the municipality along with the adjacent plot of land. They are planning to create new space as well as a training facility for educational assistants. So far, they are storing donated clothes in the basement and the ground floor hosts an improvised church for the children, which is attended by as meny as 200 people on Sundays, including inhabitants of the town. The sermons are preached in a language that children understand.
Jan Dus received a very nice gift from the kids – a ceramic mobile phone holder made by the kids themselves in recognition of the aid Diaconia is providing to the Father’s House.
Worship in a Garage
Filled with energy from the Father’s House, we hurried on to meet our friends and compatriots in the local Czech communities. We first went to the town of Pervomajsk, where a group of natives from Bohemka lives. We met once again on Saturday in Václav Jančík’s magic garage. There were 17 of us at the service, celebrating the Lord’s Supper. We were happy to see each other again after a year and a half apart. We went on talking for a long time at a table full of excellent food.
The previous night, we had discussed everything with the Kučera family who let us spend the night and showed us great hospitality. Ludvík Kučera is a specialist in boat engines, he has sailed just about the whole world on boats.
On Saturday night, we were welcomed at Bohemka. Pavel Kalus had another chance to see the church, the Bethlehem Chapel, that he helped establish a quarter of a century ago together with Václav Hurt. Thanks to his teacher at the Constructional Technical School in Brno, Petr Pirochta, he was able to acquire a construction project for Bohemka.
Given the time gap of a whole generation, Pavel had a chance to see the enthusiastic beginnings of a renewed congregation building a church, as well as the many people who sat in it back then and are no longer with us today. His Sunday sermon was full of hope, preaching about Jesus the shepherd. The theme of the shepherd is a truly relatable one for the inhabitants of Bohemka and Veselynivka as they see the shepherds taking their livestock to the pastures every morning and bringing it back to their cottages every evening. In the past just as today, in Bohemka, Veselynivka, and in the Father’s House, we may rely on the fact that there is a Good Shepherd taking care of us, whatever our picture of Him might be.
Personally, I was most happy about the fact that in the course of the year and a half when I was unable to visit Bohemka due to the covid-related restrictions, the town has been living its life. Sunday services have continued thanks to three brave women. People still gladly attend the congregation and the number of its members has not decreased significantly. After a year and a half, we had a chance to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. On Monday night, a group of women came to the parsonage for a meeting of the “sandwich generation”. You could see how glad they were to see each other, to meet and talk about a Biblical story in the midst of all the hard everyday work. Pavel and I presented a book Parabible and an original version of the parable of the workers in the vineyard in a story called “Samé jedničky”. However, we spent most of our time singing. We sang songs from the Svítá songbook as well as national songs. Most of the participants are Bohemka’s “frajarky” and they wanted to finetune some intonational details for their group’s performance.
We missed Ola Andršová, the former chairwoman of the association of compatriots. She moved to the Czech Republic with her family in the spring. However, her successor, Aljona Hortová, is doing a very good job.
The bumpy road to Veselynivka
On Wednesday, we set off for Veselynivka, travelling on bumpy, winding roads. This village in the midst of fields is also bustling with life. This time, it was full of natives who had previously moved to Czechia and now, after many years, came to visit their hometown. That was also the case with our host, Marie Provazníková. Her daughter Ola and granddaughter Dáša have left, but her granddaughter Marína from Liberec was here with us. Two girls, students from the Czech Republic, were active in the congregation. They had come here for three weeks to help the Veselynivka kids perfect their Czech.
I was very glad to meet again with Maria’s “girls”, as she likes to call the women who come to church. Most of them are her age.
In the afternoon, the whole village gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the village’s founding. Valentýna Gavrot, a teacher, prepared a programme with the local kids and with the Zlatá rosa group. Inhabitans, both present and past ones, had a chance to watch the talents that the children and adults were gifted with. What I personally find the most touching is when Ráďa Provazník sings. He is the only adult who has no sign of stage fright and sings a moving Ukrainian song in a strong, captivating voice. The evening continued with people eating and drinking together and dancing in the streets until morning. However, we could not take part in that as we were leaving at 4:30 in the morning with Pavele, Honza, Šárka and Tereza towards Lviv and then home.
I was leaving “our” villages pleased and encouraged by how well our friends were doing. I must admit that every time I come here, I am again touched by the fact that so many skilled people are leaving this place to go work in the Czech Republic. I understand and I am happy for them, but they are missed in the local villages.
David Mašek, our deputy consul in Kyiv, with whom we met for a while in Kyiv, wrote to me saying how glad he was that the villages still exist despite the depopulation. “I wish things would take a trun for the better and that the villages would be able to find work, see some perspective. Possibly if a Czech investor was willing to start a business here, maybe in the food processing industry, that would help, I think.”
Veselynivka and Bohemka would certainly deserve this type of help.