Bap­tist pas­tor finds call­ing in post-Holo­caust ceme­ter­ies

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - VANESSA GERA AND DMITRY VLASOV In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Randy Her­schaft of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

ROHATYN, Ukraine — Steven Reece pulls a shield over his face, takes a weed whacker in hand, and be­gins trim­ming tall grass in an over­grown, tick-in­fested Jewish ceme­tery in western Ukraine where tomb­stones lie top­pled and bro­ken.

For years now, Reece, an or­dained South­ern Bap­tist min­is­ter from Texas, has been clean­ing Jewish ceme­ter­ies and erect­ing me­mo­rial plaques at mass graveyards in Poland, and re­cently Ukraine. The re­gion, once Eu­rope’s Jewish heart­land, saw mil­lions of Jews shot and gassed by Nazi Ger­man forces dur­ing World War II, some­times with the help of lo­cal col­lab­o­ra­tors.

The 63-year-old says clean­ing up old ceme­ter­ies is his way, as a Chris­tian, of hon­or­ing Holo­caust vic­tims while sup­port­ing the sur­viv­ing Jewish com­mu­ni­ties here.

“To me it means sim­ply bring­ing to­gether peo­ple who are sep­a­rated by dis­tance, by space, by con­flict,” Reece said, tak­ing a break dur­ing a re­cent clean-up op­er­a­tion in Rohatyn, Ukraine, which be­fore the war was part of Poland.

“I saw the Jewish ceme­tery as a way to bring Jew and Chris­tian to­gether in a com­mon place where they could work to­gether with one an­other.”

Reece, who grew up in Texas and is now a res­i­dent of Peachtree Cor­ners, Ga., says he is driven by a de­sire for jus­tice that has been with him since his boy­hood in the Amer­i­can South, where the mis­treat­ment and seg­re­ga­tion of black peo­ple was in­sti­tuted in law.

“I was in the sev­enth-grade when Mar­tin Luther King was as­sas­si­nated. That made a tremen­dous im­pact upon me,” Reece said. “And when I en­coun­tered the is­sue of Jewish Pol­ish his­tory, due to what hap­pened here, I saw that there is a great in­jus­tice.”

In 2010 he founded an At­lanta-based char­ity, The Matze­vah Foun­da­tion, which takes its name from the He­brew term for head­stone. The foun­da­tion takes vol­un­teers to Eu­rope from the Brent­wood Bap­tist Church in Ten­nessee and part­ners them with Jewish de­scen­dants to care for their an­ces­tral ceme­ter­ies.

Since 2012, his or­ga­ni­za­tion has car­ried out 28 projects in 14 dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions with the help of nearly 1,000 vol­un­teers, in­clud­ing some 250 Amer­i­cans, but also Is­raelis, lo­cal Poles and Ukraini­ans.

The re­cent work in Rohatyn was or­ga­nized by Jewish Rohatyn Her­itage, an or­ga­ni­za­tion run by an Amer­i­can cou­ple, Marla Raucher Os­born and Jay Os­born, who have been gath­er­ing Nazi-dam­aged head­stones scat­tered in the town and tak­ing them to the ceme­tery in Ukraine.

Reece first went to the re­gion in the late 1980s when he was on as­sign­ment in Poland as a photo re­porter. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing sem­i­nary, he served for 12 years as a pas­tor in War­saw and nearby Ot­wock, learn­ing Pol­ish and gain­ing a deeper un­der­stand­ing of what hap­pened in Poland dur­ing WWII.

The coun­try was in­vaded from the west by Adolf Hitler’s forces and from the east by Soviet forces. More than 5 mil­lion were dead by the war’s end. Un­der the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion thou­sands of Chris­tian Poles risked their lives to help Jews, but many did not act, and some joined the plun­der and de­struc­tion.

Reece, no longer a min­is­ter, says he wants to help lo­cal Jewish au­thor­i­ties strug­gling to main­tain 1,400 ceme­ter­ies across Poland — a legacy of a coun­try once home to the largest Jewish com­mu­nity in the world. That pop­u­la­tion has dwin­dled from 3.3 mil­lion on the eve of Ger­many’s in­va­sion, to 20,000 to­day.

Mass grave sites con­tinue to be dis­cov­ered, and the chal­lenge is made more dif­fi­cult as Poland’s econ­omy grows and con­struc­tion booms across the coun­try.

Reece said some in the Jewish com­mu­nity at first wrongly sus­pected he was seek­ing con­verts.

“I don’t deny who I am — I am a fol­lower of Je­sus — but that’s the not the point of what I do,” he said. “The point of what I do is to rec­on­cile.”

Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schu­drich said that ini­tially, some were puz­zled by Reece. “Steven is so unique, we’re not used to peo­ple like that,” he said.

“But as soon as I met him I re­al­ized that he was the real thing,” Schu­drich added. “There are spe­cial, unique, saintly peo­ple in the world. It tran­scends re­li­gion, na­tion­al­ity, and eth­nic­ity. Steven Reece is one of them.”

AP/YEVHENIY KRAVS Steven Reece, an or­dained South­ern Bap­tist min­is­ter who lives near At­lanta, cleans an old Jewish ceme­tery in Rohatyn, the site of a Jewish Her­itage project, close to Lviv, Ukraine. For years now, Reece, an or­dained South­ern Bap­tist mini

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