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A letter from Alan and Ellen Smith in Russia

May 25, 2009

Dear Friends and Family!

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

On this last Sunday of the Easter season, I sit down to start a letter that I have tried to draft repeatedly. I actually finished one draft as I flew from Moscow to Perm to meet our second group of the Easter season. The letter was, of course, about the first group of the season. That letter never made it from my little notebook to email. I wrote to share about the visit from our home church (MacPherson Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina) to their partner church in Oryol for Russian Easter, which falls this year one week after Western Easter.

Judy and Kristen arrived the Friday before, and on Saturday we headed with Meg to Oryol carrying two cases of handbells (a gift many years in the gathering). Because of the bells, we drove down in our car. Judy and Kristen were pleased to travel in a car for once and looked forward to the “adventure.” I warned them about wishing for adventures in Russia: one usually gets more than one asks for.

Some twenty miles from Oryol, we had a flat tire. I am embarrassed to say that I have never changed a tire before and did not know how (I do now). As I jumped out of the car to check the damage, I told Meg to call Pastor Valeri. She called her dad instead, and he called Valeri for us. After unloading all the luggage (including the bells) to get at the spare tire, Meg and I watched the road and speculated on who might come to our rescue, and which of our many friends would laugh at us the least. Valeri and his son Anton arrived, and Anton changed the tire quickly while his father kibitzed over his shoulder.

The rest of our long weekend was delightful, with only hints of “adventure.” On Easter morning, we were up early and busily running back and forth between the church’s guest quarters and the sanctuary, trying to get the bells laid out for presentation. As I ran to get padding for the tables, everyone I met greeted me with “Christos Voskres!” (Christ is risen!), to which I responded “Voistinu Voskres!” (He is risen, indeed!) I felt the Easter message in a new way. We were all running to share the news, to be first in fact with this glorious news. It felt like an experience of the early church.

Meg returned to Moscow on Sunday night. Judy, Kristen and I stayed on till Tuesday. This was their first visit to Russia outside of the summer camp season. Between Sunday and Tuesday, we worshipped four times and listened to eight Easter sermons. With each service a different choir performed, and after one service the church’s puppet theater even performed.

In all these presentations we saw the fruit of the summer camp ministry that MacPherson has been so much a part of for the last 10 years. The counselors of the early camps are now parents of the next generation. The children of the early camps are now involved in the youth choir and the puppet ministry team. In the midst of all this, one child stood out more than all the others—Masha. Masha began coming to the camp about four or five years ago. She and two brothers had been adopted by a woman in the community, and the church was trying to support the family. Masha and her brothers were loud and aggressive. It took great patience to work with them that first year. They have continued to be a part of the camp each year, and have only gradually softened, but they have softened. On Easter, Masha stood before the congregation, a member of the children’s choir, and sang a solo. It was as beautiful a performance as I have ever heard. After all these years, a gentleness has come to this child that only the love of Christ could bring about. I cannot tell you how important the summer camp ministry is in Russia, but Masha summed it all up in her solo.

Shortly after Judy and Kristen headed home, I caught a flight to Perm (a city on the edge of the Ural mountains). I was meeting a combined group from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and Peachtree Presbyterian Church from Atlanta. Members of the two congregations had met at the Russian Network Meeting this last fall. Hearing that they had partners in the same city, they began planning a joint trip. They flew directly to Perm through Frankfurt.

For the members of Westminster, it was a new partnership, which meant spending time getting to know one another. Peachtree has had a partnership in Perm for many years. We spent most of our time with Westminster’s partner, in fellowship and worship and ministry, though Laura Poe (from Peachtree) and I found time to meet with the pastor of Peachtree’s partner church. Our Russian brothers and sisters had planned our visit beautifully, balancing sightseeing with the ministries of the church. We traveled to an ice cave near the city of Kungur, and a monastery in the Ural mountains. We also visited an orphanage and an intake facility. We met the leadership of several daughter churches and worshipped with one of them. A highlight for most of the group was the banya (sauna), a truly Russian experience.

From Perm, we all traveled back to Moscow by train (21 hours and 17 minutes, but who’s counting). The group was ready for the “adventure.” I warned them about that word, too! Russia is enough of an adventure without inviting anything extra. The train ride, however, was simply pleasant and restful. We spent two days in Moscow, seeing different sights. Unfortunately, as the group prepared to depart, one member of the team, Laura , fell seriously ill and was not able to leave as scheduled. As the rest of the group flew out of Moscow, I got Laura to a clinic. She was transferred to a Western medical center where she underwent emergency surgery. After nine days of recovery, she was able to fly home last Sunday, accompanied by a medic. She is still recovering, but at least she is now on the right side of the Atlantic. We would ask for your prayers for Laura as she continues to recover.

Laura was a veteran visitor, this was her sixth trip to Russia. We are all deeply thankful that she had medevac insurance. We have had only two medical emergencies in eight years, but both times medevac insurance was needed. Both were crises that could have happened anywhere at any time, and neither was a result of coming to Russia as such. The cost of evacuation is astronomic, so medevac coverage is not really optional.

Our eldest daughter, Allison, arrived yesterday for her first visit in three and a half years. Meg graduates from high school this Friday. We are delighted to be together and celebrate this occasion as a family. Meg will return to the States in August to start at Hastings College, a Presbyterian school in Nebraska. Between now and then, we have a busy summer ahead of us. I head to Belarus next week with fellow PC(USA) mission co-worker, Bob Bronkema. After that, Al and I hope to travel with Piotr and Olga Romme to Hungary and the Ukraine to visit Roma (Gypsy) ministry projects. Then we will be jumping into the camp season in July.

For now, we wish you all God’s peace.

Love and blessings,

Ellen and Al

The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 177


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