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A letter from Ellen Smith in Russia

November 2010 (3)

Dear Friends and Family!

Blessings to you during this Advent season! In Russia, for people of faith, this is a time of deep fasting. In the midst of holiday frenzy in the United States, I hope you can find time for deep reflection in this season of waiting.

I returned from my three-week trip to Russia a week ago. I have spent the past week enjoying family time, preparing for Thanksgiving, and readjusting to time and place. Much of our time in ministry over the last 10 years has required regular adjustments and readjustments as we have moved from one context to another. I find myself switching gears as I move from a Baptist context to an Orthodox context, as I move back and forth in conversation between American partners and Russian partners, as I move in and out of Russia with visa-related travel and now itineration. A piece of me always remains in each world. That is a good thing. I don’t feel spread thin by it, but enriched.

Some of you realize how little I wanted to make this trip. After Allison’s wedding and a fall full of itineration, I was exhausted and just wanted to retreat, but the Lord had other plans. If I could have canceled, I would have, but circumstances forbade it and, in hindsight, I see the full blessing of this.

I have already shared with you about the Roma conference, which was even more than we had hoped for. Following the Roma conference I returned briefly to Moscow to grab clean clothes and headed to Tula to catch up with Craig and Sherri Parrish (First Presbyterian, Nashville) and their partners. Craig and Sherri have open hearts and boundless energy for the ministry in Russia. The Nashville/Tula partnership is one of the oldest in the program. We have stood in their midst through 10 years of the relationship, watching them weather storms and deepen their engagement. None of this would have been possible without this deeply committed relationship that continues to grow. The connections have spread across the congregation. Much of our time in Tula was spent around the table in various homes with old friends and new. Still, we found time to visit many of the ministries and potential ministries of this congregation and to think creatively about next steps in the partnership.

From Tula, I returned to Moscow, where I met up with Gary Payton (PC(USA) regional liaison for Russia, Belarus, Poland and the Ukraine) for meetings with denominational leadership. It was my first meeting with the new president of the Baptist Union, Alexei Smirnov, and I was impressed. It is a time of great transition for the Union, but I think it is moving forward with good leadership.

While in Moscow I met up with Joan DeBruyn from White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., and Geri Clanton from Presbyterian Church of the Cross in Omaha, Neb., to travel together to Smolensk. Both of these congregations have partners in the Smolensk area, and they have found ways to work together on both sides of the Atlantic. They joined me at this time for the conference on post-orphanage ministry that has been so long in planning. White Memorial has a program called Step Up aimed at helping homeless people work on the life skills they need to re-engage in society. It is a model with great potential for helping the orphanage graduates as they enter society. Geri has been deeply engaged in the issues of human trafficking, an issue that threatens these graduates.

We arrived two days ahead of the conference to spend time with the partners and make final preparations for the conference. Our first day was such a joy. We visited the camp construction site that both congregations have been a part of and shared a meal with the Ignatenkov family, talking around the table until late in the evening. Much of our conversation focused on the camp and all the potential uses for it, including ministry with the orphanage graduates. Olya Ignatenkova and I made the finishing touches on the conference schedule and discussed our roles in the program. I prefer a role in the background, but Victor insisted that I would have to speak after his opening remarks.

The next morning, as we were getting ready to depart on errands for the conference, I received a call from Leonid Ignatenkov, Victor’s brother and pastor of the second Smolensk partner church. Victor had fallen from scaffolding at the construction site, and we needed to pray. We went straight to the construction site. Leonid was out on the highway waiting to guide the ambulance to the site of the accident. Victor was on the ground, conscious and able to move his arms and legs, but silent with pain. Another brother and Victor’s oldest son arrived within minutes. We gathered around him and prayed. It was the beginning of a journey with my brothers and sisters that I had not yet traveled. They have taught me so much through the years. At this point they began teaching me how to get through the painful times. Our tears could flow here with one another, but once we stepped out into society, in the midst of unbelievers, we had to show strength and courage. Our trust is in the Lord. Much of the day as we continued with preparations was spent in prayer.  It had been the very last day of work on the scaffolding. As Victor and Petya were finishing work on the soffit, a board on the scaffold broke. Victor fell three or four meters onto concrete, suffering a compression fracture of at least one vertebra. Throughout the day our prayers for Victor included prayers of thanksgiving that he was not paralyzed.  We were all in shock, but we had no choice but to carry on with preparations. And so we did. The brothers picked up the pieces of what had to be done to meet arriving guests, the drug rehab center staff took over much of the cooking responsibilities, Olya took over her father’s role of welcoming the guests and Larisa Zhukova (from Narnia and also helping with the conference) and I worked to relieve Olya of other responsibilities during that first day.

Guests traveled to Smolensk from great distances. We had someone from ROOF in Moscow, from the Harbour in St. Petersburg (both post-orphanage ministries), and churches from as far away as Perm that are already engaged in post-orphanage ministry in some way or another as well as some churches that are interested in engaging in this ministry. All in all, we had some 40 participants. The two-day conference ended with a roundtable discussion to look at what’s next. Everyone was grateful for the opportunity to gather and hear what others are doing in other regions. They were grateful to tap into the experience of a complete program like the Harbour. They were grateful for the fellowship with people engaged in common ministry. The next step is another conference, next November. The participants were specific about what additional information they want. The next conference will no doubt be larger, as there are others engaged in this ministry to hear from. We hope that the camp in Smolensk will be done by then so that everyone can be housed at the conference site. That had been the plan for this year, but we had to adjust. This first conference has been by the Grace of God. I can think of no better way.

We ask for your prayers for Victor, for his family, for his congregation and for the doctors that are treating him. He will be in the hospital for the next two months, and no one can yet see how long it will be before he can return to ministry. He does as much as he can from his hospital bed. Even on the day of his accident, he was answering his cell phone and dealing with issues without even telling people what had happened. Please also lift prayers of thanksgiving that it was no worse. Accidents happen. The Lord has protected Victor even as he fell.

We wish you all His peace during this Advent season.

Love and blessings,


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


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