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story.lead_photo.caption 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 minister from Texas, has been cleaning Jewish cemeteries and erecting memorial plaques at mass grave sites in Poland, and recently Ukraine.

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."

Information for this article was contributed by Randy Herschaft of The Associated Press.

Religion on 11/10/2018

Print Headline: Baptist pastor finds calling in post-Holocaust cemeteries

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