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A letter from Alan and Ellen Smith in Russia

December 2, 2009

Dear Friends,

As many of you are aware, the great majority of our newsletters are written by Ellen. Al’s daily routine in the mathematical trenches would probably not make particularly interesting reading, and in some cases might bring back memories of trigonometry problems better left forgotten. Nonetheless, this month it’s Al’s turn, the immediate subject being the fifth annual meeting of those people involved in outreach by the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists to the Roma community in Russia. Although the first of these meetings occurred prior to our getting involved in Roma ministry, we have been directly involved in the last four and have seen a steady increase in the scope of the work being done.

Photo of 22 people standing in two rows to have their picture taken. They are inside, perhaps in a chapel or church. There is an (empty) wooden cross on the wall behind them.

The fifth annual meeting of the network of people in Russia who work with the Roma was held last month.

The primary reason for these meetings is to gather the relatively small group of people, both Roma and Russian, who are involved in this ministry to share experiences and ideas, and to plan our joint efforts for the coming year. For non-Roma people reaching out to Roma, there are cultural and practical nuances that are not apparent to the newcomer, but which can profoundly affect the success of one’s ministry. Additionally, it is not unusual to spend months or even years in reaching out to Roma before gaining any significant degree of acceptance, so support from others who have had similar experiences is essential.

Attendance at the annual meeting grew substantially over the first three years of our involvement, so that by 2008 we had over 60 people in attendance. Although the increased participation was a blessing, having so many people proved to be less than optimally efficient for planning purposes, and it also put a very heavy burden on our financial resources. We are thankful that we received a grant from PC(USA)’s Office of International Evangelism to defray the costs of this year’s gathering. As it happened, we ended up limiting our attendance to the most actively involved leaders, several of whom were unable to attend due to illness.

The conference took place on the premises of the Hope Baptist Church in the city of Ryazan, some 200 kilometers south of Moscow. After celebrating Thanksgiving with Emma on Thursday, Ellen and Al set off in the trusty Kia early Friday morning. Despite the relatively short distance involved, it invariably takes us over three hours to get to Ryazan, largely because of the time involved in getting out of Moscow itself. In this particular instance, we also lost a few minutes in a friendly discussion with the ever-vigilant traffic police at the checkpoint near the Ryazan city limit; Ryazan is a military town, and they like to check out strangers.

Shortly after our arrival at the church, the final group of participants arrived from Michurinsk, several hours south of Ryazan, and the conference began. Our agenda ranged from the strictly practical to a discussion of what we aspire to in this ministry. On the practical side, we discussed the importance of advance scheduling of evangelization efforts in order to reduce the burden on the two Roma teams of preachers and musicians who help with virtually all of our evangelizations. Our valued colleague Andrey leads one of these teams, but he is also the pastor of his own congregation and runs his own farming operation to support his family. As the Roma ministry expands, he has found that he needs to be able to schedule ahead, particularly during the summer months, so that all of the farming work can be accomplished.

Also on the practical side, we discussed our participation in the youth conference scheduled for next summer in Bryansk. Our past participation in Baptist Union conferences has not run as smoothly as we would have liked, with our allotted time slot eaten up by other speakers running over their allotted time, sound equipment not available, and other logistics issues. Next summer, it appears that there will be a separate venue devoted to outreach to smaller ethnic groups, which seems like an ideal opportunity for us. We have high hopes that our presence there will generate an explosion of awareness of and interest in Roma ministry, after several years in which it seemed no one other than the participants even knew there was a Roma ministry under the auspices of the Baptist Union. We even heard that the Baptist Union Web site now has a page devoted to the Roma, which at least puts us in the 21st century.

Other discussions centered on the area of education, specifically, on the need to establish a “college” in which Roma young people could remedy the shortcomings in their education and prepare for service to their people and the church. Unfortunately, many Roma are all but illiterate, having completed only a year or two of formal schooling, even though Russia has an extensive system of public schools. School attendance, like so many other things here, is tied to the “propiska,” a registration system that dates back to Soviet times: children go to school, get medical services, etc., in the region in which they (or their parents) are registered. Many Roma children, however, don’t even have a birth certificate, or their parents have long since lost their internal passport, or moved several times since their last registration. The net result is that many Roma children can’t legally go to school. Those who do are frequently segregated from Russian children, taught by teachers who expect nothing from them, and unable to get any help from parents who can barely read and write themselves. It requires no imagination to see what kind of prospects these kids have in the 21st century, in a society already disposed to look down on them.

Of course, the need for better education has been apparent for a long time. Several years ago, we thought we had a solution: the New Life Christian Academy in Moscow said that they were prepared to accept Roma students. Unfortunately, before we could work out any of the details for any particular candidate, New Life closed. Now we are discussing the possibility of a nine-month program, perhaps on the campus of the Baptist seminary in Kursk, where students could work on improving their academic skills while they learn about Christian ministry. The idea is still in the embryonic stage, with a host of details to work out, but it will be a blessing to many if we can make it happen.

One of the people we were hoping to meet at the conference is a missionary who works with the Roma in Belarus, but he fell victim to the flu. Two of our colleagues are planning to travel to Belarus this month to see what is being done there. We also heard from our friend Andrey that he is a part of an ecumenical group, including “unregistered” Baptists and Pentecostals, involved in Roma ministry in various parts of the former Soviet Union. The idea that Christians from different traditions can agree to work together in spite of doctrinal differences doesn’t sound too radical to Western ears, but here it represents a fairly significant development, and one we are very happy to see.

Photo of a young man sitting on a chair holding a guitar. His right leg is crossed over his left leg and his eyes are looking off camera to his left.

The young Roma musician, Kolya.

Finally, none of our gatherings ever happens without a certain amount of music. Andrey’s son, Kolya, always travels with his guitar, and I get more jealous every time I hear him play. It is fortunate for us that most of the songs have parallel lyrics, in Romani and Russian, since we’re getting a bit long in the tooth to be studying yet another language. Besides, with something like 26 dialects of Romani, how would we choose which one to study? Better for us to stick to Russian. Kolya is hoping to spend much of December in far-off Omsk, in Siberia, to lend a hand with their youth ministry there.

Our gatherings generally go on well into the night, but we had to drive back to Moscow because we’d left Emma and the household critters by themselves. Other members of the group planned to visit Roma settlements in and around Ryazan on Saturday. A young couple has been ministering there for several years now, working mostly with the children, reaching out to the parents through the children, and the visitors were anticipated with considerable impatience.

We are working our way through the last couple of weeks before heading back to the States during the Christmas holidays, with tests to be written, bags to be packed, gifts to be purchased, etc. We will also be applying for new visas while we are home, so we hope that we can get all of the paperwork turned in to receive the visas back before our return flight. It will be very good to spend time with Allison, Meg, and Al’s dad. We’ll also be trying to do whatever advance planning may be possible for Allison’s wedding in October, since time will be rather short by the time we get back for our interpretation assignment in August. By the way, if you would like us to visit while we are in the States, from August, 2010 to May, 2011, please let us know so that we can put you on our calendar. We would love to see all of you.

May God bless you with a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Peace and blessing,

Al and Ellen Smith

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

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