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A letter from Alan and Ellen Smith in Russia

September 3, 2009

Dear Friends and Family,

Greetings to you all from this side of the ocean. I have been in the States since August 1. Al and Emma were here but have already returned to Russia for the start of the school year. I will not return until the end of October, after World Mission Challenge 09. Piotr Romme, one of Al’s colleagues in the Roma ministry, will be traveling with me to visit four presbyteries across the northern half of the United States—Genessee Valley Presbytery in upstate New York, Milwaukee Presbytery, Kendall Presbytery in southeast Idaho, and Sacramento Presbytery. We look forward to sharing about the life of the church in Russia across the four weeks of the program.

We have had a full and exciting summer, with three groups visiting us in July. Two of the teams came to work in summer camps, and one to visit the project in Smolensk for rebuilding their summer camp, which burned last fall. I had not been down to Smolensk since March. We were all astounded with the progress that the church members have made with the relatively meager funds that have been available to them. They have done all of the work themselves, volunteering their time and energy. The week before our visit, the youth of the church had spent a week at the camp helping with the building project. Funds are badly needed at this point for the purchase of more materials, but they move forward in faith so that they might begin their camping program again next summer and develop a year-round program with the new facilities.

MacPherson Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and First Presbyterian in Columbus, Georgia, sent teams with high school students to participate in their partners’ camps. We love it when the youth come, because they give so much and gain so much. What an extraordinary opportunity in their faith journeys to come across so many boundaries (geographical, linguistic, cultural, historical, denominational) and discover that Christ is enough to bind them together in powerful ways. The adults that came made great contributions as well. Three men from MacPherson helped with renovations of a house their partner church purchased as a base for their tent camp. The leaders of the FPC team helped in the kitchen and with the craft ministry of their camp, and every time other assistance was needed, they stepped right in.

I had not been to Smolensk since March. I drove down with two members of White Memorial Presbyterian Church. We were all astounded with the progress the church has made with the relatively modest funds available to them. They have done all the work themselves, volunteering time and energy. The week before our visit, the youth of the church had spent a week at the camp working. Funds are badly needed at this point for the purchase of more materials, but they move forward in faith, working to enclose the building before winter, hoping they might begin their camping program again next summer. With the new building, they will be able to develop a year around program.

Presbyterians have helped with camps all over Russia this summer through gifts to Russian ministries. These gifts made a camp for orphans and at-risk children possible in the Perm region. They helped camps of several small churches across the Oryol region. The gifts sent orphans to a large Christian camp in Belarus.

The global, economic crisis has hit Russia hard. At the end of June, as we were gearing up for the arrival of teams, I had a call from one of the pastors that Al works with in the Roma network. Last year, your gifts helped his church send youth to a regional camp. This year, the regional camp was in dire straits for funding. Promises for assistance turned to air, and they did not know how they could even buy food for the camp, let alone supplies. I told Igor I thought I could help, but I didn’t know how I could get the funds to them (a constant challenge). That problem was solved by Valentina Nikolaevna, director of the camp, who traveled eight  hours by train to meet me, sharing pictures and the history of their camping ministry. With our relatively modest gift in pocket, she hopped on another train for the eight-hour trip back, asking that I come visit. She had to hurry so that they could buy food before the camp began in two days.

Our Russian colleagues do a lot on faith with prayer. Valentina had been at the end of her rope when Igor called to see how camp plans were going. Your support was an answer to many prayers. I did make it to Kursk for the last day of camp. It was the humblest camp I have been to. They were using old army temps (without floors) for the campers and an old army kitchen to prepare food. They cut every corner to make the funds go as far as possible. I had not given more than the minimum, but as they quickly moved forward with their hurried preparations, other people came forward with modest gifts that added up to enough.

The camp in Kursk is a powerful witness to the importance of Christian camping ministry in Russia. There were 100 children at the camp, many from families of non-believers. Twenty-seven of the children were Roma. Given the relations between Russians and Roma, this is no small thing. It is a witness to the children, staff, and families that we are indeed one body in Christ. The Christian camps are profoundly important outreach to non-believers. It is often through children that parents come to Christ. Valentina has seen that even when the children do not begin attending church their lives are changed by having spent time in Christian community. When they see Valentina, they are ashamed of their wild behavior and remember the camp experience. Seeds have been planted.

While I was at the Kursk camp, Pastor Andre (the only Roma pastor we know—he works with Al in the Roma network), came out to meet with me. He had an idea he wanted to discuss. Twenty-seven Roma children attended the camp, but many more would not come because their parents were afraid. They had heard rumors that the Russians would sell their children. Andre wants to put on a camp just for Roma children next summer. If he is there as the director, the Roma families will allow their children to come. Andre plans to write a curriculum that’s appropriate to Roma culture. He has enough youth in his church to staff the camp, and Valentina has offered her organizational skills. Al and I are more than ready to work with Andre on this. Andre would also welcome an American team to work with him in this camp. If you know a church that would be interested in partnership with this Roma congregation, or at least participation in this camp (it will be on the rustic side), let us know.

In mid-August, White Memorial PC hosted the fifth annual Russian Mission Network meeting. It was a wonderful event, but I’ll wait for another newsletter to share about that.

I am now on the campus of Hastings College, where Meg is beginning her freshman year. I will preach at their chapel service this week. We are all very excited for her as she begins a new journey. We are confident that she is in the right place for it.  

Peace and blessings,

Ellen

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

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