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A letter from Alan and Ellen Smith in Russia

February 4, 2010

Dear Friends,

Warm greetings to you all from wintry Russia. At last, after several years of mild winters, we have a real Russian winter again — cold temperatures and adequate amounts of snow. Because it has stayed cold, and we have not had a mid-winter melt, it is very pretty.

Our family spent the Christmas season in Wisconsin, applying for visas, celebrating the holidays, and making plans for Allison’s October wedding. It was a busy time, but wonderful because we were all together. After Meg returned to college, I flew out to Denver to work with Dora Lodwick from Wellshire Presbyterian Church on a new handbook for Twinning engagement focused on trip preparation and travel to Russia. We hope to have that ready by the Russian Network Meeting, which has now been moved to October 7-9. There was a significant conflict that had to be worked around. We hope the change in dates does not inconvenience anyone.

At the end of January, I joined a group from Eastminster Presbyterian Church at drug rehabilitation center on the banks of the Volga — St. George’s monastic community. Some of you may remember the story of our walk across the ice with a team from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary three years ago. That team came late in the season. This team came during the Kreshensky Moroz (the Baptismal Ice — a typically frigid time around the liturgical calendar’s celebration of the Baptism of Christ on January l9). It was bitterly cold, so the ice was thick and we drove across. Frankly, I prefer going across by boat, but it was a wonderful visit. Father Mefodii, the other monks, and the young men in rehabilitation welcomed us warmly, we had time to worship with them, and talk deeply about theology and Russia. We watched an extraordinary film set in Soviet times and discussed the effects of those times on the Russian people. I hope to find a copy to bring back with us for itineration, in case any churches or groups would like to have such a film discussion.

Our colleague, Donald Marsden, from Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, arrived yesterday. We are headed to Kursk on Sunday to worship with the Roma church. We are currently working with Pastor Andrey on plans for a summer camp for Roma children in August. Others have had camps for Roma children, but the significance of this camp is that it will be lead by Andrey and his Roma youth team, and he is writing his own curriculum, consistent with Roma culture. It is a huge step forward and we are excited about the possibilities. The camp is scheduled for August l-l0.

Last week, the Moscow Patriarchy held the annual Christmas Readings, with a gathering on HIV/AIDS issues. It was my privilege to be present. There were many excellent presentations, including one on burnout issues. This is a critical topic, as too many volunteers in the church are beginning to suffer from burnout. When those volunteers are new Christians, think of the implications. We are working with both the Russian and Belarusian Round Tables, as they try to build awareness of the need and develop a model for intervention.

After the Christmas Readings seminar, Bob Bronkema and I had a meeting with Mikola Matrunchek about a summer camp we have been working on. It will bring together Belarusian youth from both the Orthodox and Lutheran churches, and American youth from Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy for a three day inter-confessional camp in Belarus.

The work on the Smolensk Camp/Retreat Center continues, in spite of the cold. It took more time and effort and expense than they expected, but they finally managed to get the roof frame in place and the buildings sealed for the winter. Now that both buildings are sealed, they are working on plastering in the smaller building, and will soon begin work on the floor heating system. Thanks to the generous donations of many Presbyterians at the end of the year, they now have sufficient funds to buy the windows for both buildings. The churches in Smolensk continue to give sacrificially to this construction, and so many of you have come alongside them in their efforts. We are deeply grateful for your gifts and for your prayers. We have seen the Lord’s provision again and again, as needs have arisen and been met. The reconstruction will continue throughout the spring and summer. We hope that the construction will be done by November, for a conference on post-orphanage ministry. With support from the Outreach Foundation, we will be gathering folks from churches across Central Russia to share experience and help develop a guide for others that are interested in engaging in this vital ministry.

Just to remind you, our family will be returning to the States in August for ten months of itineration. We will be living in Green Bay, Wisconsin, during this time, as we have family in that area. If you would like us to visit sometime during those months, it is time now to be getting on our calendar. We already have several visits planned. It will be helpful if we can group visits regionally. Please let us know if there is a time that you are interested in.

We would ask for your prayers in several areas. Please pray for the work in burnout recovery. It is a critical piece. Please pray for the work in developing a Roma camp model. Please pray also for Pastor Andrey’s family. We just got word that his brother died in the Ukraine. Please pray for those working at the Smolensk Retreat Center as well. The cold and snow are wonderful, but it does add real challenges. Unfortunately, we continue to have visa challenges. We would ask for your prayers for this as well. 

We wish you all the peace of our Lord in these rocky times. We will hope to see many of you when we return to the States next year.

Love and blessings,
Ellen & Al

The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 195

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