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A letter from Alan and Ellen Smith in Russia

June 8, 2009

Dear Friends and Family,

I write from a train in Belarus between Minsk and the city of Vitebsk. Bob Bronkema and I traveled last Sunday night to Grodno, on the Belarusian-Polish border, where we met up with Vladimir Tatarnikov, a newly ordained Lutheran pastor who served as intern last year for the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, Bob’s congregation. Vladimir is now pastor of two congregations in Belarus on opposite sides of the country, one in Grodno (west) and the other in Vitebsk (northeast). He is the first seminary-educated, ordained pastor in the Lutheran churches of Belarus since before World War II. We have known Vladimir for a number of years. He was a student at the Lutheran seminary in outside of St. Petersburg, where he studied under Joe Kang, another PC(USA) colleague.

My purpose in coming to Belarus was multifold (1) to evaluate Vladimir’s congregations to see if either is ready for a twinning relationship (2) to help Vladimir connect with the Belarusian Round Table, now called the Interchurch Mission Christian Social Service (IM-CSS), with whom we have partnered for seven years (3) to visit several existing partnerships and projects and (4) to explore new possibilities for engagement.

The Lutheran Church in Belarus has suffered terribly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The churches were all a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia and Other States (ELKROS), but in the early 1990s Western missionaries lured one of the larger congregations out of the ELKROS union, and from that point the union began to splinter. A union that once included some 20 congregations now has only four.

There are many problems in Grodno, not least of which is a large and decaying church building—an eighteenth-century structure that once housed a thriving Lutheran congregation. During Soviet times, it was used as an archive for historical documents. As such, it saw no renovation for 70 years. When the Lutheran church regained their building after Soviet times, they worked hard to renovate the interior of the sanctuary and the attached parish house, but they have long since run out of funds to continue the renovation or address new structural problems. They are under pressure from the local authorities to complete the work, but have no way forward. There is also a fair bit of tension within the congregation, perhaps in part as a result of the stress and frustration. There are also personality issues, something many churches can relate to. Vladimir is spending most of his time with this congregation, trying to rebuild spiritual life and church community. We both agree that this congregation is not ready for partnership.

From Grodno, the three of us (Bob, Vladimir, and I) traveled to Minsk, where we were met by Mikola and Tatiana Matrunchek, old friends now and an extraordinary couple. Mikola is director of the IM-CSS. Tatiana works alongside him. We had an important meeting with Mikola at the very beginning to see what any of us could do to help this fragile union. The ELKROS churches have been a part of the IM-CSS from its inception, but there are now outside efforts to break that relationship. None of us want to see that happen, but it is not a simple thing to resolve.

We next visited the village of Tarasava, where we have had a congregational partnership with an Orthodox church for several years. There was a church in this village before the revolution, but in the late 1930s the old priest who served it was arrested and shot as an enemy of the people. The church was destroyed and a school built on its foundation. In 1994, Father Sergei was sent to Tarasava to build a new church. Even before the church was finished, they began building a house that they hoped to use as an orphanage for special needs children and adults. As they completed this second building, they discovered that, because of government regulations, it could not be used as planned. It took some time to regroup and figure out the next steps, but they came up with an excellent, new program. The house provides one-week programs in self care and work skills for special needs children. They also provide programs for children with their parents and respite care for parents who need hospitalization or have other urgent needs. Presbyterians helped the church in Tarasava establish an orchard to provide fruit for the house and work experience for the children. After five years, the trees are bearing fruit. Father Sergei would like to be able to finish the third floor of the house as a space to hold for seminars for the parents.

On Wednesday, I visited one of the Baptist churches partnered with a PC(USA) congregation and catch up on the life of that church. I have not been to Belarus for at least a year and a half, and I hadn’t been to visit this congregation for a couple of years before that. It was very good to reconnect. In the evening, the head of the Baptist Union came out to visit with us at Koinonia House, and on Thursday he took us by their seminary. It was a good connection for Vladimir. In spite of the difference in size between their two unions, they face similar problems, and I think the Baptists will be good friends for him.

On Thursday, we caught up with another Orthodox church in the partnership program, a small congregation in the village of Novy Dvor. I then spent the afternoon with Tatiana Matrunchek visiting the homes of special needs children that a project from Salem Presbytery assists. Salem Presbytery has had a hunger project in Belarus for several years, and part of the funds from this project assist these families, who often struggle to meet basic needs. Too often, fathers leave the family when there is a special needs child, but even when they don’t, families struggle because the mothers are not able to bring in a salary. When only one parent remains, they must make ends meet on a small pension. We visited one family in which the mother died six months ago. The father and grandfather take turns caring for Dima, a 23-year-old who paces the floor constantly. We visited another family where the father and both children have special needs.

In the evening, we joined Mikola and Tatiana at their dacha. Mikola is a gardener and took time to show us the different plants and trees he’s planted, some 2,000 different varieties. We even helped to plant some new ones. They spread a wonderful table for us, over which we laughed and talked for hours. After a while, we took a walk and discussed the idea of an inter-confessional youth camp that would include Orthodox, Presbyterian, and Lutheran. We walked to the end of the village, where a stork in her nest watched over a vast field perfect for tents. There we built a dream for next summer. If the idea is appealing to you, let us know. We have in mind an event for 16- to 20-years-olds.

Now we travel to Vitebsk, to visit Vladimir’s other congregation. This is the stronger of the two, and is probably ready for partnership. They are looking at ways to get involved in social ministry and would welcome the fellowship of a partner church.

Bob and I take the train to Moscow on Sunday evening. Al has held the fort this week. When I return, he will set out with Donald Marsden (now of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship) to visit Piotr Romme and the Roma ministry going on in Kostroma.

Please continue to pray for Laura Poe’s recovery. It has been a very difficult time.

We wish you all God’s peace.

Love and blessings,

Ellen

P.S. We returned to Moscow early this morning. I was impressed with Vladimir as a pastor. He has good leadership skills. The congregation was very welcoming, and they are making good steps forward. I think they are ready for partnership.

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

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