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A letter from Al and Ellen Smith in Germany/Russia

February 2013

We send you our warmest greetings in these fluctuating days of German winter.

January, normally a quiet month, has been full of adventure. Many of you have read in my letters about Father Vladimir Klimzo (the village of Davydovo), who is deeply engaged in a ministry of reconciliation with families that have special needs children. These families so often feel like outcasts in a society that for 70 years institutionalized those with special needs. People are not used to seeing them and too often react unkindly. The parents isolate themselves and their children to protect them from that unkindness, the children often seeing little beyond the four walls of their apartment

After the three-week tour of programs for people with special needs that Father Vladimir and Ellen undertook in October across Wisconsin and Michigan, they began to talk about a similar visit of programs in Germany. He continues to seek models to build his understanding of ministry possibilities for Russia, where they are so behind in this area of outreach. He wants his steps to be carefully planned and not stumbling. Resources are too valuable to waste with hurry. As Germany is so near, Father Vladimir was able to build a small delegation, including his daughter, Anastasia, who is engaged in work with children with cerebral palsy, and another woman working with orphanages for the deaf and blind in Sergeiev Posad (just north of Moscow).

We are deeply grateful to our colleague Burkhard Paetzold, who helped us with contacts as we worked on building the itinerary. Al does speak German, but there are issues of etiquette in this new culture that we were unsure of. In chatting with the various organizations we found online, Burkhard was able to add to the list of places we should visit. The scheduling was quite complicated, but in the end we had a very good plan.

Over the course of four days we visited four sites, one of them twice. On Monday we traveled some 165 km down to Saxony to visit Missionshof Lieske, a farm and sheltered workshop that provides long-term care and employment for people with special needs. They have beef cattle and pigs that they use to produce sausage and meat. They have a wood shop that produces lumber as well as fencing and outbuildings. They have a fishery and a brewery as well. The clients are lovingly cared for and encouraged to reach their highest potential. When space opens up they tend to take young people coming out of school, age 19 or 20. If an adult has lived his life with his parents until their death and then comes to Lieske at age 45 or 50, they struggle to adapt. They have often been too sheltered and too accommodated. When they come to Lieske, they come for life. Parents are welcome to visit, and the clients are able to go home for visits. For parents who worry about what will become of their children when they depart, places like Lieske are a huge blessing.

We spent two days visiting an extensive program in Furstenwalde, a small city southeast of Berlin. Samariteranstalten has a long history of work with the handicapped dating back to the 19th century. It is a complete program, including a school (with a boarding and a day program), a long-term adult care program and a sheltered workshop. They are deeply committed to helping their clients reach their fullest potential, beginning that process early in their own school. The adult care facility usually fills it vacancies from the school program. There are parents that drive two hours from Berlin every day to bring their children to this school, perhaps because it will enable them to move into the adult program. Our hosts understood the need for information and spent the time we needed in spite of very busy schedules.

Finally, on Thursday, our last day, we traveled northeast of Berlin to Lobetal, an extensive farm/dairy program and long-term care for people with special needs. In all honesty this day was a fiasco. Our map to Lobetal was on my computer, but passing through the center of Berlin, a stray wi-fi connection knocked my link out, leaving us completely blind. Somehow we found our way, but arrived an hour late—not appropriate in Germany. The person we had planned to meet had left, but others in the dairy operation kindly sat down with us and answered all of Father Vladimir’s questions. Lobetal is an enormous program, serving some 950 clients.

Father Vladimir and his colleagues in Davydovo are engaged in first steps. They have a small farm with 35 cows in a village of 74 people. Five families are engaged in the ministry of this community. They need to gather more people for the ministry. They would like to develop the dairy, but it is also necessary to think about marketing. The model of Lieske, with its small weekend market on site is a realistic model. Their goal is not to serve 950 clients, but to construct a model that can be replicated in other small parishes across Russia. If Davydovo is first steps, Lobetal is a mile down the road. Still, it was interesting and valuable. We would ask for your prayers for Davydovo and this developing ministry, that their steps would find solid ground, guided by the Holy Spirit, and that others might join them in their journey.

We are deeply grateful to the American Church in Berlin, the congregation we are a part of, for the use of the church van over the course of the week. So many people came together to make this visit a success, and we are grateful for the warm hospitality we received and the wealth of experience we were able to tap into.

Father Vladimir was in charge of finding translators (Russian/German) through the ROC congregation in Berlin, and many people expressed willingness to help. The reality was that we had a reluctant translator on Monday and quite a good translator on Thursday. In between Al kept us from falling down the staircase of the Tower of Babel. By Thursday he was in dire need of a break and Tatiana arrived in the nick of time.

Ellen will return to Russia on the 19th, to meet up with our dear friend and colleague, Gary Payton, for the transfer of duties. He retires from service as Regional Liaison on March 31. Ellen moved into this position on February 1. They have a lot to go over as they travel between Moscow and St. Petersburg, visiting partners. The new challenges as Ellen deepens her connections with the broad range of partners in Russia develops connections in new regions and takes on a supporting role with colleagues are welcome and exciting, but it will be a bittersweet journey for both Ellen and Gary after so many years of working together. [To support Ellen’s travels as Regional Liaison for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, a new ECO has been established—E052135, http://www.pcusa.org/search/?criteria=E052135. Any contribution would be greatly appreciated. You can also use the link below.]

Folks begin to arrive as early as February 28 for the next Post-Orphanage conference, to be held March 8-9 in Smolensk. We have a specialist from the University of Montana, Eamon Anderson, coming to share about post-traumatic stress disorder in children and adolescents, and Kathy Moore, a specialist in foster care from the state of Nebraska and from Presbyterian Church of the Cross, sharing about mentoring programs. Also attending are colleagues from Germany (Burkhard Paetzold), Romania (Liz Searles) and Hungary (Carolyn Otterness, RCA). Al will arrive in Moscow on March 11 to carry on with Eamon Anderson and our colleagues to visit Roma ministry in Ryazan and a train ride across Ukraine to visit our colleague, Nadia Ayoub, at work in Roma ministry in Carpath Ukraine.

We would ask for your prayers for all the travel before us, the upcoming conference in Smolensk, and for the discernment of our Russian colleagues as they sort through all that they have seen.

Love and blessings,

Ellen & Al

P.S. We will both be in the United States in May for Meg’s graduation from Hastings College. If you would like to have a visit from one of us, please be in touch. Meg’s graduation is mid-month.

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study (Al), p. 283
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study (Ellen), p. 290
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