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A letter from Ellen Smith in Germany

April 2012

Dear Friends and Family!

On the verge of the Russian celebration of Easter, we wish you joy and peace! Last year we celebrated Easter on the same day. This year our celebrations are one week apart.  Next year, our celebrations will be five weeks apart. We do not use the same calendar, but we celebrate the resurrection of the same Lord! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

I returned from my most recent trip just in time to celebrate Easter with Al and Emma at the Anglican church in Berlin. I must admit that I missed celebrating in the midst of our Russian brothers and sisters, who run to greet one another on Easter morning with Христос Воскрес! [Christos Voskres! Christ is risen!] The response is joyful, with an enthusiastic Войстину Воскрес! [Voistinu Voskres! He is risen, indeed!] Our Russian brothers and sisters will continue to greet one another throughout the Easter season with these words.

My time in Russia was, as always now in the new mode, very busy. I arrived with Gary Payton, who had stopped in Berlin with us en route. Amgad Beblawi, Area coordinator for Europe  arrived the next day for his first visit to Russia. We hit the ground running, with a full schedule of office visits before heading out to visit churches. The three of us traveled together to Smolensk, Davydovo and St. Petersburg. From St. Petersburg I flew back to Moscow to meet a team from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C., and fly together to Perm for a visit with their partner. My trip ended with them in St. Petersburg once again. It was such a full trip that it is difficult to share it with you. A week removed from the trip, three conversations stand out most boldly.

In Smolensk we were able to stay at the new camp, in the smaller building (kitchen, infirmary and caretakers facility). We were there for Women’s Day, so Victor and Nadya, and Olya, their daughter, were able to spend the day with us. We saw the progress on the camp, saw sites in the city, and spent time around the table talking. The table moments are the most important. Gary asked a question about changes in the life of the church. I wish I could have written down Victor’s response word for word. He talked about how in Soviet times, when things were so difficult, the church was what held everyone together and fellowship was deep and rich. As life has gotten easier for people, the church has recognized that they must be intentional about engaging people in the fellowship. On Sunday mornings after worship they provide soup and bread for every member of the church and have many activities scheduled for the children, keeping the parents present and in fellowship. They no longer have an afternoon worship service, but they use the time for lectures, children’s concerts, films from their television studio about church’s outreach—something interesting to keep people engaged. They focus on the spiritual development of the youth and activities that keep the youth present, so that the church becomes their second home. I have felt that we are losing the fellowship I once knew in our own churches. Soccer season pulls families away from church activities. Life is so busy in the U.S.  In what ways can we be more intentional about keeping people engaged?

In Davydovo we spent time seeing sites in Rostov, the ministries of the community, and in fellowship around the table. Father Vladimir showed us a new project that they are developing for their work with the handicapped and for some support to the ministry of the community. They have bought woodworking tools to cut the pieces for miniature log homes (traditional Russian homes). The handicapped adults will be able to help with sanding and perhaps construction. They hope to sell the structures to raise money for the ministry. As Father Vladimir drove us to the train station for our departure he and I had a conversation that I will hold on to. Somehow our conversation turned to why I come back to Davydovo. I return because what I find in this place is spiritual sustenance, food for the soul. Father Vladimir shared an Orthodox prayer with me:

PRAYER OF THE OPTINA ELDERS

O Lord, give me strength to face with serenity everything that this day will bring. Grant me to entrust myself fully to Your holy will. Every hour of this day teach me and support me. Whatever news I may receive during the day, teach me to accept it with peace of mind and with firm conviction that everything is according to Your holy will.

In all my words and actions guide my thoughts and feelings. In all unexpected events, do not let me forget that everything is sent by You.

Teach me to deal sincerely and wisely with every member of my family, bringing confusion or sorrow to none.

O Lord, give me strength to bear the weariness of the coming day and all the events of this day. Guide my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to endure, to forgive and to love. Amen.

He shared this prayer with me because it speaks to him that nothing is accidental. I am grateful that he found the English translation of it for me. It was good to be in Davydovo again.

In Perm we had three days with the orphanage ministry team of the church putting on a VBS program for two orphanages. It was good to work together, and working with the orphans gave all of us a deeper understanding of the challenges they face and the importance of the ministry to them. We had dinner in various homes, deepening the connections with members of the church. On one of our last days they took us 100 km from Perm to a museum of the Gulag—Perm 35 and Perm 36. These are camps that remain intact. We were all, Russians and Americans, shocked to learn that these camps continued to function into the late '80s. The conditions of Perm 36 were particularly brutal, cutting prisoners off from one another and from the outside world. The small cells had shuttered windows. They were allowed out for exercise only at night, and then in a very small space. High walls surrounded the prison, so that they could never get a glimpse of forest or field. It was a stark reminder of what this society endured.

After three and a half weeks in Russia, it is good to be home. While in Russia I missed Emma’s first school play. I have seen only some of the pictures. I hear it went very well. Sometimes all of our efforts to schedule carefully fail. She understands. This coming week I apply for my first visa through the Russian Embassy in Germany. I would be grateful for your prayers. I am busy now getting ready for the women’s group in May. I look forward to traveling with them.

May the peace of our Lord be with you, this day and always.

Love and blessings,
Ellen

Ellen: The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 285

Alan: The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 275

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