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A letter from Ellen Smith in Russia

November 2010 (2)

Dear friends in Christ!

I send you greetings from your Roma brothers and sisters who gathered in Kursk for the annual Roma Mission Network meeting. They are thankful for the Presbyterian support that made this gathering possible.

This meeting was something new and shows the marked growth of this network. This is, at least in part, in response to a great need seen among the churches engaged in Roma ministry. People are burning out, and groups are holding on by a thread, if indeed they are holding on. When we began planning this year’s meeting, Andre told us he did not see the point in repeating what we had last year — a one-day meeting to catch up with one another, and then go home only half filled. He asked us to consider biannual conferences of two to three days, with lectures, fellowship, prayer and praise. It is hard to say “no” to Andre. He is a man of great wisdom, leadership, vision and energy. He knows and loves his people. It is amazing how well he keeps his finger on the pulse of the Roma Network. He knows who is struggling (almost everyone) and is constantly planning how best to support those engaged in the ministry.

As most of you know, Al and I are in the United States for 10 months of itineration, but we knew before we left that one of us needed to return in the fall to attend to ongoing ministry commitments. As I (Ellen) was already committed to other meetings, we decided that I should cover the Roma Network Meeting as well. We could not afford for both of us to return to Russia, and we could not both be away from Emma. Lots of prayer went into preparation for the trip and the journey, because I really did not want to travel to Russia at this time. If it weren’t for the commitments I had made to people, I would have canceled the trip. After a busier than expected fall with much travel as well as our daughter’s wedding, I arrived in Russia exhausted on Wednesday, November 3. Fortunately, our colleagues, the Bronkemas, took me in for the day, providing me a place to repack and rest before a night train to Kursk for final preparations. Pastor Andre was at the train early on the 4th to meet me. We stopped at a grocery store en route to the Christian college to purchase provisions for the 10-15 people who would be staying in his home. Leaving me to rest and recuperate until afternoon, he was off again with a full plan for the day, reminding me that we had worship at 3 pm. I woke up from a nap at 3:05. Walking from the guesthouse to the dormitory where the Roma church gathers, I was drawn in by the music pouring out the third-story window. I can only describe the Roma Christian music as joyful praise. The conference participants had not yet arrived, but guests from Ukraine were visiting, and we had an extraordinary worship with Roma from France, Ukraine and Russia as well as a stray Brit and American (me). At one point we had a sermon translated from English into a French Romani dialect, then into Russian. I began to feel restored.

The participants began to arrive Thursday night, continuing into Friday morning. Groups came from as far away as Abakan in Khakazia (Central Siberia) and Odessa in the Ukraine, from Michurinsk, Ryazan, Kostroma and from Privolzhsk, Bryansk, Penne, Shebekino, Gravskaya, Shakhti, Novoshatinsk and Krasnodar in the Caucusus. We planned for 45, hoped for 40, and welcomed 70. We filled the gathering space to capacity! If more had come, I do not know where we would have put them. The next two days were filled with music, testimony, updates from the different churches, and a seminar on Christian ethics. The director of a Christian college in Kursk, a friend and mentor of Andre’s, volunteered (or was volunteered — it is hard to say “no” to Andre) to teach and presented the lectures on Christian ethics, including practical applications. I must admit to fading in and out with jetlag, but it was clear that Vitaly had the audience captivated. I spoke with gentle Kolya, a Roma missionary from Michurinsk crippled by cerebral palsy, after the first lectures. He was so grateful for Vitaly’s teaching, because he was able to understand all that he shared. Kolya is a powerful preacher and missionary, but he is uneducated. He said that he had attended other courses but often did not understand what they were trying to teach. Vitaly presented his material in simple language that everyone could comprehend.

The lectures were spread over two days, interspersed with praise, community needs, and prayer. As we moved through the conference Andre remarked that there was more thanksgiving than woes. It wasn’t that there weren’t problems facing all of the communities, it was that coming together with one another, we were all being restored by the fellowship and rejoiced, and everyone focused more on giving thanks.

As the leaders gathered both evenings, we talked about next steps. I was welcomed into the leaders’ meeting on behalf of Al. Everyone acknowledged that once a year was not enough. Al and I had already agreed with Andre that we needed to change the model to biannual, and everyone agreed that they were ready to come again if we could have something like this. People felt fed. We have all acknowledged that Kursk is already the center of Roma ministry in Central Russia. The Roma church is here, the Christian college provides excellent facilities with classrooms, housing and a dining hall, and Andre has already proved that he has the leadership and planning skills to have everything in place. We set May 13–15, 2011, as the dates for the next gathering. Sasha from Privolzhsk volunteered to prepare lectures for the next conference. At first I was skeptical about his ability to do this, but then I heard him preach this morning, and I know that he is the right man.

The young people held an all-night prayer vigil for the Roma nation last night. They struggled only a little bit to make it through worship this morning. Our multiethnic (Roma, Russian, Ukrainian and American), multigenerational group has gathered for worship and shared a meal. There have been hugs and tears, but also rejoicing for what we have shared. Most have already departed. I depart in a few hours, headed back to Moscow briefly before heading to Tula tomorrow afternoon.

Please hold our Roma brothers and sisters in prayer. There are still so many problems. It’s tough ministry. We need one another and we need your prayers. Please pray for the May conference. Please pray for Andre’s van, which has broken down twice this weekend; he needs it to head to Kharkov later this week and to Gravskaya next week! Please pray for Piotr Romme, the coordinator of the network. He has much travel ahead of him this fall, visiting some of those churches that were not able to attend. His car is also struggling after bumping into a major pothole on a recent journey on behalf of Roma ministry. Please pray for Sasha in Privolzhsk, who with his family was recently evicted by his drunken landlord. Please pray for the Roma group in Ryazan. The elder in their community has forbidden them to gather. Please pray for Kolya, whose health is fragile. We covet your prayers!

May the Lord be with each of you. May you too be refreshed through fellowship for the problems you face, for there will always be problems, but the Lord is with us. Let us rejoice!

Love and blessings,
Ellen (for Al too)

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

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