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A letter from Al Smith in Germany/Russia

March 20, 2013

Years ago, when we first started leading groups of visitors around Moscow, we stumbled upon a professional tour guide by the name of Boris.  He was a middle-aged gent who spoke excellent English and had a somewhat unusual take on contemporary Russian history: he was a monarchist who thought Russia would be better off under a new tsar.  That, plus his apparently inexhaustible knowledge of the Kremlin's various palaces, cathedrals and museums, always made for a fascinating tour, invariably starting out with, “You do not come to Moscow every day, so please to pay attention.”  Boris died a few years ago, but we still remember large parts of his commentary, especially the beginning, which seems to apply to a great many things, in Moscow and elsewhere.

Ellen has spent a great deal of time organizing the second conference on post-orphanage care, which took place March 8–10 in Smolensk, and has already written about that in a separate letter.  Among the various non-Russian participants were Burkhard Paetzold, PC(USA) Regional Liaison for Central Europe, Liz Searles, mission co-worker en route to her new assignment in Romania, Carolyn Otterness, an RCA (Reformed Church in America) missionary from Budapest, and Eamon Anderson, a social worker from Missoula, Montana, and the featured speaker at the conference.  Not entirely coincidentally (are there any coincidences where God is concerned?), each of these folks have considerable background in Roma ministry in other parts of Europe and wanted to see some of what is going on with Roma ministry in Russia and Ukraine. The opportunity seemed too good to miss, since they don't get to come to Russia every day, so I flew in from Berlin on March 10 in order to meet their train from Smolensk in the early morning hours of the 11th.

Ideally we would have included a visit to Kursk, to see Andrey Beskorovainiy's work there, but there just wasn't enough time to do that and make it to Carpath-Ukraine to see the work there and still allow everyone to get back to the States, Hungary, Germany, or Romania on schedule. Thus, having met the group at one railroad station, I spoke briefly with Ellen, who was returning to Berlin the next day to reunite with Emma. We then dashed across the still sleepy city to another railroad station in order to catch the express train to Ryazan. There is a non-express train as well, but it is definitely not suitable for people on a tight schedule.

Ellen and I have a longstanding friendship with Pavel Zhirov, the pastor of Hope Baptist Church in Ryazan, which has a long-term twinning relationship with First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Pavel met our group at the train station and ferried us to the church, where we settled into the guest rooms, which perform double duty as Sunday School classrooms during services.  At the church we linked up with Nastya Balashova, who, together with her husband, Andrey, have been working with Roma children in a village setting just outside of Ryazan for the past six or seven years. We also met Kostya, who lives across the hallway from Andrey and Nastya and is also very involved in this work. Kostya drove Eamon, Carolyn, and Liz to the village to observe the regular Monday afternoon session with the kids; Burkhard and I went by taxi, which was an adventure of its own.

All of the outreach activities take place in the home of Yasha, a Roma man who returned from Odessa, on the Black Sea, to support his extended family in Ryazan. He opens his home for children's and adult ministries several times a week. The children began to arrive shortly after our arrival, and soon split into two groups based on age. The topic for the day was the Genesis story of creation, and the kids seemed to have an excellent handle on what/who was created on which day. I think all of us were impressed with the skills of the adult leaders and the focus and engagement of the children.  After the kids were finished, we spent some time with the adults, trying to identify ways in which we might be able to help. While we were there Andrey Balashov arrived from work, so we were spared another taxi ride back to his apartment for supper.

After a bit of sightseeing in the morning (Ryazan has quite a long history), and a little more time with Kostya, Andrey and Nastya, we returned to the railroad station to catch the afternoon express back to Moscow. The trip from Ryazan to Moscow is about three hours, and even the second-class cars are spacious and comfortable. If you get hungry or thirsty, vendors are happy to sell you a cup of tea, a soft drink, or something to eat. The train from Moscow to Mukachevo, in the far western reaches of Ukraine, is … different. The trip takes about 28 hours, and at this time of year only about 11 hours are in daylight. The sleeping compartments are not spacious, but they are very well heated, much like a greenhouse. Those who can sleep on trains have to wake up for the passport and customs checks at the Russian-Ukrainian border.  On the other hand, we did get to see the stations in Kiev and Lvov as well as any number of smaller towns and villages.

Having left Moscow just before midnight on Tuesday, we arrived in Mukachevo just before 2:00 a.m. Thursday. We were met at the station and driven to Beregszasz, also known as Beregovo, to our lodgings at the diaconal center of the Reformed Church. Beregszasz has two names due to the vagaries of history: the eastern portion of Hungary known as Transcarpathia changed hands after the First World War and is now part of Ukraine.  However, a large part of the population has retained its Hungarian ethnicity, including the language and the Hungarian Reformed Church, and most of the local Roma population speak Hungarian as a first language rather than Romani or Ukranian.

Our PC(USA) colleague Nadia Ayoub has been working with Roma children in the village of Peterfalva for the past couple of years, and we were hoping to get there to see her preschool program. Unfortunately, between our very late arrival and the lack of Internet access on the train, we did not receive Nadia's email until it was too late to get to Peterfalva on Thursday. Instead, we drove to the village of Gat, where we met with Jolan, a Roma woman who for the past 12 years has been running a preschool and after-school program for Roma children to help them succeed in school. She has occasionally had helpers, but mostly she has run the program on her own, using space in the local church that had previously been used only for storage.  She is also one of the leaders in the basket-weaving project initiated by Presbyterian Women to try to generate a sustainable source of income for the Roma community.  Jolan's energy and dedication are a source of inspiration.

We had planned to go to Peterfalva on Friday, before our little group needed to split up. Carolyn, Burkhard and I needed to travel to Budapest, while Eamon and Liz were planning to head to Romania and on to Chisinau, Moldova, where Eamon had previously worked. In the post-Soviet space all plans are provisional and subject to changing conditions.  In our case the condition that changed was the weather—cold rain on Thursday changed to blizzard conditions overnight. We awoke to find six inches of new snow, with more coming down every minute. Discretion being the better part of valor, Burkhard, Carolyn and I departed for Budapest directly after breakfast with Carolyn's husband, Dick, who had driven in from Budapest on Thursday to save us another train ride. Mercifully, the weather improved as we drove west, and the snow had completely stopped by the time we arrived in Budapest.

All things considered, quite a successful trip, even if the schedule was a bit tight. After all, you don't come to Russia every day. We had an unusually large number of PC(USA) participants on this particular trip, but, like all of our other journeys, it would not have been possible without the support of the larger PC(USA) community.

Peace and blessings,

Al & Ellen Smith

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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