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A letter from Alan and Ellen Smith in Russia

July 1, 2009

Dear Friends,

We thought that it was high time for an update on our ministry to the Roma (Gypsy) people of Russia, especially in light of an important step forward last month.

As most of you know, the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, a validated mission partner of PC(USA), is involved with outreach to unreached people groups throughout the world. About a year ago, our friend and colleague, Donald Marsden, left Moscow and his ministry here to take up a position with PFF, but he has been back on several occasions in connection with his work with some of the indigenous peoples of Siberia. Somewhere along the line, we realized that the Roma in Russia have all the characteristics of an unreached people: they have preserved their own language and culture, in spite of hundreds of years of living among Russians, and they have historically had little exposure to the gospel in their own language. Although virtually all Roma here can speak Russian, many are essentially illiterate, both in Russian and in whichever of the numerous Romany dialects they speak among themselves.

After considerable planning, Donald was able to devote part of his most recent trip to exploring the ongoing connections between PC(USA), the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, and several Roma groups in and around Kostroma, some 400 kilometers northeast of Moscow. Kostroma is home to our friend and colleague Pyotr Romme, who has worked tirelessly on outreach to the Roma for about ten years. Donald and I were joined by Pyotr Tokar, a Baptist pastor from Kursk, who is also committed to working with Roma. So it happened that one week after closing up my classroom for the summer, I picked up Pyotr Tokar at our local metro station, grabbed a quick breakfast at the apartment, then hurried off to meet Donald at the airport after his flight from Siberia. From the airport, we departed for Kostroma in order to arrive there by late afternoon.

That evening, we were guests in the home of “Uncle Kolya,” a leader of a group of Roma living in Kostroma. Pyotr Romme has been visiting Uncle Kolya and his family for many years now, and it is clear that he is an honored guest. Uncle Kolya is rather atypical, in that he continues to live in the same house he was born in, together with children and grandchildren. The family earns a living by raising livestock, and is, by Roma standards, reasonably prosperous. Kolya’s granddaughter is a top student in her class, and it is very clear that Kolya wants his family to have the “normal” education that he missed. The conversation was animated, with Kolya explaining many aspects of Roma culture and practice.

The following day, we drove about 120 kilometers to the small city of Privolzhk, not far from the Volga River, where we had the great pleasure of meeting Sasha Kondrachuk and his family, who are Baptist missionaries there. The dedication of this family to Christian witness almost defies belief. Ukrainians by birth, they were originally sent to another community, but ran into fierce opposition from the local population, who objected to having a Baptist missionary among them. Sasha’s son was repeatedly beaten up at school and ended up requiring hospitalization. The family was forced to move to Privolzhk, where they are living in a small apartment in a dilapidated wooden apartment house. Fortunately, they have been allocated a plot of land on which to build a house, if they can raise the necessary funds. In the meantime, they continue to work in their ministry, which includes several Roma families.

We visited one of these groups together with Sasha. When we arrived, none of the men were about—it seems they were out somewhere drinking. As a result, we had quite a long and deep conversation with the various women who were present, which could never have taken place if the men had been there. Roma culture is extremely paternalistic, and it would be unthinkable for the women to insert themselves into our conversation with men present. Indeed, even at Uncle Kolya’s house, the women said virtually nothing during our entire stay.

There are many other places where our Baptist friends are working with Roma, but time didn’t permit more visits. The day after our visit to Privolzhk, Donald and I had to return to Moscow so that he could catch his plane back to Richmond. We have great hopes that, together with PFF, we will be able to expand our Roma outreach.

During Ellen’s recent visit to Belarus, the head of the Baptist Union asked if we could help them with connections in their very new outreach to the Roma. We hope that Pyotr Romme, Pyotr Tokar, and Andre Bezkorovainiy (the one Roma pastor in our network of churches working with the Roma) will be able to visit in July and then we hope to invite their missionaries to the Roma Network meeting in November. We are also working on a trip to Carpath Ukraine to visit Dick and Carolyn Otterness (Reformed Church of America) and their colleagues, Otto and Bela, who all came to the Roma Network meeting last November. It would be wonderful to include the Belarusians in that visit as well.

We will all be heading to the States at the end of July and early August so that we can get Meg settled in college. While Emma and I return to Moscow for the start of the school year, Ellen will remain in the States to participate in World Mission Challenge. Ellen and Pyotr Romme will be one of five teams that include an International Peacemaker (Pyotr) and a mission co-worker. They will tour four presbyteries between September 21 and October 20.

For now, we turn our attention to the summer camp season. The first of there teams arrives the day after tomorrow.

Peace and blessings,

Al and Ellen Smith

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

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