A letter from Alan and Ellen Smith in Russia
October 30, 2009
Dear Friends and Family!
Greetings to you in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ! At last, I write you from Russia, having returned this past Monday. Al and Emma were as glad to see me, as I was to see them. I have spent the week helping with a group visiting from Wellshire Presbyterian Church in Denver and catching up with partners. Today, I plan a quiet day at home.
My time in America has been remarkable. After a month taking Meg to college and visiting partners and potential partners, I joined Piotr Romme, with whom we are involved in the Roma ministry, for World Mission Challenge. He and I were one of five pairs, each consisting of an international peacemaker and a mission co-worker, that participated in WMC. In all, there were 45 mission workers and 5 international peacemakers, and we visited 152 of PC(USA)’s 173 presbyteries in 24 days.
Piotr and I crossed the country, visiting presbyteries in New York, Wisconsin, Idaho, and California. We began and ended our journey in two different gatherings with colleagues from across the globe—mission co-workers and international peacemakers preparing to go out and share with Presbyterian churches across the United States about how we see God at work where we serve.
It was a gift to reconnect with colleagues with whom we began service almost nine years ago and to connect with colleagues we have read about through the years. Many of us read each other’s letters on the Mission Connections Web site. Piotr had the chance to get to know fellow peacemakers from Guatemala, Colombia, India, Sudan, Iraq, Congo, the Philippines, Armenia, Zimbabwe, and Vietnam. It was a privilege to hear about each other’s ministries.
Piotr and I were blessed by the schedule prepared for us. We visited four different regions of the country and within each presbytery we visited a variety of churches, including urban, suburban, and distinctly rural congregations. We even had the pleasure of visiting a new church development—what an exciting congregation!
We were hosted by a multi-church gathering of Presbyterian Women. We spoke with classes at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where we also met missionaries from the Church of Scotland serving in Africa. We saw Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, and the Great Salt Lake. We came close to seeing the Tetons, but clouds covered the peaks. We visited an orchard in western New York, an historical park in Wisconsin (Old World Wisconsin), lava fields in Idaho, and the California Museum of Native American cultures. We saw many different models of outreach from local congregations across all four presbyteries. What a gift! For his first trip to America, Piotr has had an amazing introduction to our nation and to our churches. We have experienced only the best of American hospitality and the warm fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ.
We shared about ministry among the Roma people in Russia and how the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has come alongside the Roma in partnership. The roots of the ministry were in Siberia near Lake Baikal. In 1993, a young Roma named Pasha came to Piotr’s church. Piotr offered him a Bible, but Pasha said he couldn’t read. Piotr was taken aback—16 years old and unable to read? But Pasha said, “I’m Roma, what do I need to read for?” Pasha knew his letters, and with Piotr’s encouragement Pasha taught himself to read using that Bible. Still, Piotr had no interest in reaching out to other Roma. Like so many people, he was afraid of them.
About a year later, an American missionary (Frank Dawson) came to visit, and he challenged Piotr to pay attention to Christ’s teachings—“Go ye unto all nations….” The Roma are a nation. Understanding this in a new way, Piotr turned his heart to the Roma and began to reach out with the good news.
Frank and Piotr began an extraordinary ministry that included worship, evangelization, and summer camps for children. In 2000, Piotr and his family were forced to leave Siberia. They moved to Kostroma, where they again began to reach out to the Roma. It took a year of going door to door in the tabor (the name for a Roma community) before a door actually opened, and then six months later an event in the tabor (unrelated to his outreach) closed the door again, but Piotr is very persistent. With the help of Roma Christians from another community, Piotr and Frank were able to do an evangelization which opened the doors wide throughout the tabors in Kostroma.
Piotr and Frank organized a network of churches that reached out to Roma across central Russia. Nine churches were in the network when Frank and his family suddenly needed to leave Russia. I had visited Kostroma earlier to see if the church there was ready for a partnership, and had decided they were not. But the Lord does not always let me say “no.”
A year and a half after Frank left, we were asked to return to Kostroma and take a second look. On this second visit, we stayed with Piotr and visited his church and saw his ministry with the Roma. We talked deeply over the weekend, and Piotr asked us to help. The network was slipping away. We invited Burkhard Paetzold, the PC(USA)’s Roma specialist, to come and help us determine whether this is a place that we should engage. Ever since that visit we have been engaged in partnership with the church in Kostroma and with the ministry to the Roma in Russia.
The month traveling together was very valuable for Piotr and me. We had time to talk at length about where the ministry needs to go. We hope to find churches that will partner with the churches engaged in Roma ministry. We plan to begin the summer camp ministry again this summer with the hope that in a few years it will be possible to develop courses in leadership training. At some point, we hope that it will be possible to develop a women’s ministry program.
It is good to be home. The Wellshire team is heading home. Tomorrow, a team arrives from White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Presbyterian Church of the Cross in Omaha, Nebraska, to travel to Smolensk. We will spend next week helping with reconstruction of the camp that burned last year. The following week, a group from First Presbyterian Church Nashville arrives to visit their partner in Tula. It’s a busy time, but that’s OK. We have so very much to be thankful for. I owe so many people notes of thanks for their love and care over the last three months. For now, please know how much you have all touched our lives.
Love and blessings,
The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 177