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A letter from Alan Smith in Germany

June 29, 2012

Greetings from the forest outside of Kursk, Russia!

I am here, along with about 40 Roma children and the usual assortment of counselors, organizers, cooks and night watchmen for the annual summer camp experience. Unlike some other camps, which take place in old Young Pioneer camps dating back to the Soviet period, this is a tent camp. All of the tents belong to one of the Russian Baptist congregations in Kursk, which allows Pastor Andrey’s Roma church to use them for the week before their own camp begins.

All things considered, we are very well equipped here. There is a portable generator to power the inevitable sound system (and recharge numerous cell phones, cameras, and my computer). I have a USB modem, not exactly speedy, but the reception is reliable. The intrepid kitchen staff have a gas-fired stove as well as a military-surplus field kitchen. The tents are reasonably rain-proof, and there are ground pads and mattresses for everyone, as well as blankets. I don’t think there is a single sleeping bag in the camp, but no one has frozen to death yet, although the nights have been decidedly chilly.

Andrey’s church has no PC(USA) partner, and I am the only American staying here. In informal situations, like most children in Russia who live in the countryside, the kids here address adults as “Uncle” or “Aunt” So-and-So, so I have become “Dyadya Alan.” With the active conniving of the rest of the staff, I have been subjected to the same good-natured abuse as everyone else: on different days I have ended up with my face covered in flour and in egg. I’m probably lucky no one tried to make a pancake out of me. I did draw the line at participating in the annual mud soccer game, which takes place in a carefully prepared hog wallow, with predictable results.

After 10 or 11 years in various camps, one gets accustomed to a predictable pattern as far as food: some sort of porridge at breakfast, soup and a second course at lunch, and a light supper in the evening. Things are a bit different here in that you can’t necessarily tell what time it is from what’s on your plate. Soup at lunch is a given, but it’s probably the only given. We have seen some rice, some buckwheat (one of my personal favorites), some potatoes, and lots of macaroni not just at lunch and supper, but also at breakfast. I have yet to see any porridge. We had fish soup for breakfast, followed by macaroni, and I suspect but can’t prove that the fish in question were caught by one of the boys yesterday. We have been drinking lots of fruit compote, some rather unusual hot chocolate, and occasionally tea. When we have tea, it’s in individual cups with tea bags; not the usual way, but a great gift to those of us who take our tea without sugar.

The campers’ daily activities are pretty similar to what you would see in any other church camp, either here or in the States: Bible lessons, songs (with nearly impossible movements), games, crafts, skits, swimming. We have a borrowed trampoline, which is virtually never unused. Yesterday we had a brief visit from a team of Americans who were visiting one of the Kursk churches. The focus of their visit is orphanage and post-orphanage ministry, but they came to see a bit of Andrey’s Roma ministry as well. They brought a series of games and songs, all of which were popular, and a bag of gifts which were even more popular, and a pair of giant slingshots, with which they bombarded all and sundry with water balloons.

In some ways kids are kids, no matter where they live. Most are well-behaved, and one or two are confirmed scoundrels. Some have believing parents, some don’t. The difference in this camp is that all of the children come from economically distressed families. The Roma community here is never prosperous, and times right now are particularly difficult. Many of the adults are unemployed, most are under-educated. I have been talking with one young man who cannot find work because he doesn’t have a passport. Although he has been living in Russia virtually since the fall of the Soviet Union, he is ineligible for citizenship here. In Ukraine, where he was born, corrupt bureaucrats insist on a bribe before issuing documents.  It is a depressing situation for a young man who would like to marry and have a family of his own. The younger kids show the signs of never having enough—they find it very hard to wait patiently for food, for gifts, for their turn on the trampoline, for the attention of adults. Of course, all children have to learn these things, but it’s much easier when you can be sure that there will be enough for everyone in the end.

Alan

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 275 (Alan)
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 285 (Ellen)

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