Alan and Ellen Smith (PCUSA) - November 2014 Update
Regional Liaison Eastern Europe
Dear Friends and Family,
Greetings to you in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ! After many weeks on the road, I am finally able to pause and reconnect. I have a lot of catching up to do.
Our summer was intense to say the least. All three of us were in Russia for the month of July so that we could support the many groups that visited in spite of the media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis. We stayed in communication with both sides throughout the spring, and thankfully the U.S. teams trusted the reports we sent and came ahead. It was a powerful witness to the Russian partners of trust and steadfastness in the relationship even in troubled times. Without exception, the teams had wonderful visits with their partners. At one point during the summer, we were outnumbered by teams. Emma was with one team in the city of Oryol; Al was with another team between Moscow and Rzhev, leaving me with two teams heading in very different directions. We enlisted support from two young women, an American from one of the sister churches, who has lived and worked in Russia for the last two years – Hart, and a Russian friend, fluent in English – Ksenia. With each of them in one location, I was able to move between and spend time with both teams.
Nearly every team this summer was involved with summer camp. The two teams that I moved between were in very different contexts, and yet there were common threads. A team of adults from First Presbyterian Church Ann Arbor, MI, which included a member of First Presbyterian Church Asheboro, NC, arrived to visit the Orthodox parish of Davydovo and their camp for families with special needs children. This is a new engagement for both congregations, though two members (one from each church) had visited Davydovo briefly as part of other travels. In advance, we shared as much as we could about the community, but none of us knew exactly what to expect from the camp experience. Likewise, the Russians did not know entirely what to expect from the American volunteers, but many of the Russian volunteers in the camp were English speakers and ready to help where they could.
The witness of this visit was powerful. The mothers of the special needs campers are used to being isolated in their own communities, because in early Soviet times all special needs individuals were institutionalized: the society is not used to seeing them and can react in unkind ways. To have Americans come to be in fellowship with them and their children meant a great deal. The team often helped in the kitchen, as part of a rotating group of volunteers. The kitchen staff was deeply moved by their readiness and their joyful engagement. Some of the Russian teen volunteers were more reluctant. One evening, we had dinner with the folk music group of Davydovo. During the meal, one of the musicians stood up for a toast. He shared that the musical group had traveled to Germany one year, visiting communities in Bavaria. Some of the communities welcomed them and wanted fellowship with them, others kept their distance. His hope was that having spent time around the table and in work and play with the people of Davydovo, when they returned home and saw the news about Russia, they would think, “I have brothers and sisters in Russia. They aren’t these kinds of people.”
The second team, also engaging in camping ministry, was a group of high schoolers (with adult chaperones) from one of the oldest partnerships – between White Memorial Presbyterian Church (WMPC) and Central Baptist in Smolensk. This was the third youth team that WMPC has sent to the Rodnik summer camp through the years, and the first to the new camp (rebuilt after a fire in 2008). Hart, a member of this church, was on one of the previous youth trips. Because of the shared history between the two congregations, they had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but it was a first trip to Russia for everyone on the team. The Russians found ways to creatively include the American team, dividing them up with each age group of campers, making sure there was an English speaker among the Russian leaders of each group. Again, the willingness to make the journey in spite of media portrayals of Russia, the joyful engagement in all the activities, and the willingness to wash dishes and clean were powerful witnesses to their Russian brothers and sisters.
In August, our family returned to the States for a vacation before the Russian Mission Network (RMN) meeting. This year that gathering was in Ann Arbor, MI. Each year, the leadership of the RMN is taken on by the hosting church, including choosing the theme and planning the sessions. There is a leadership team that helps, but the hosting church sets the course. This year, because of Orthodox connections in both Russia and neighboring Dexter, MI, FPC Ann Arbor decided to focus on Russian Orthodoxy, gathering a panel that included Dr. John Burgess, professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Father Gregory Joyce, rector of St. Vladimir Orthodox Church (ROCOR) in Dexter, MI, and Dr. Laura Kline, professor of Russian and Russian Studies at Wayne State University. As the Ukrainian crisis evolved through the spring and summer, the leadership team asked that the panel also address the Russian/Ukrainian crisis. The program was outstanding. Our only regret was that more people did not join us. I would like to challenge everyone that has an interest in Russia and the ministry that we are engaged in to consider attending next year. There is always room at the table for more. To find out more about the Russia Mission Network and to receive news of the 2014 meeting, contact Deb Burgess at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are already well into fall now. I have spent the last month traveling with Viktor Ignatenkov for the International Peacemaking Program, but that is another letter, one that I hope Viktor and I will write together. For now let me say that in these challenging times, we must all be bridge builders, whether that means making the journeys to distant places or deepening our knowledge and understanding. We are ever grateful for your continuing support, through your prayers, your notes and your financial gifts. Presbyterians do mission in partnership. We are all in this together.
Love and blessings,
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