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A letter from Al Smith in Germany/Russia

17 July 2013

About four weeks ago, as I was packing for my latest trip to Russia, I made a decision: I would leave my usual wallet, along with my U.S. and German driver's licenses, assorted credit cards, Social Security card, etc., behind, and carry my passport, money, and ATM card in an otherwise unused leather cover. In retrospect, it was one of my better decisions...

I arrived in Moscow late in the afternoon of Friday, 21 June, and after buying a Russian SIM card for my cell phone, got on the night train to Kursk for the annual camp for Roma children. Pastor Andrey met me at the station. As we drove through the countryside toward his house, he explained that he would be at the camp virtually every day, but would not be staying there at night, since he had too many other things going on, including a cow with two new calves and daily milk deliveries. Day-to-day decisions at the camp would be handled by his son, Kolya, just as they were last year.

Things were very quiet in camp until the kids arrived on Monday morning. After that, quiet was hard to come by as we had about 50 kids, mostly in the 8-12-year-old range.  Most of them were repeat campers from last year, and I quickly returned to being “Dyadya Alan,” or Uncle Alan. In the Russian countryside adults are either Aunt or Uncle Whatnot, regardless of relationship. I was sporting a full beard, which seemed to generate considerable amusement.

The daily routine was similar to that of church camps everywhere—meals, Bible studies, games…  The weather was, by Russian standards, beastly hot, particularly for June, and I was more than happy to be a designated lifeguard for many trips to the river. Then, on three consecutive nights, we were inundated by massive thunderstorms, with torrential rains and gusty winds that destroyed two of the older tents. Fortunately we were able to resettle the affected kids into the remaining tents, but that meant that I would have to take my gear back to Andrey's house.  In theory, no big deal, but Murphy's Law operates in Russia just like it does everywhere else. In the course of getting across the creek between the camp and the parking area, a well-meaning kid rocked the boat just as I was climbing out with my backpack and briefcase, sending me head over heels into the drink. I had just enough presence of mind to keep the briefcase and computer out of the water, but absolutely everything else, including my phone, was drenched. Then the van got stuck in the mud, and we ended up back in the camp overnight. In the morning I put the SIM card for my phone, as well as the micro-SD storage card, in the leather cover with the cash and ATM card, while one of my Roma friends tried to get the phone dried out. Andrey and I headed into town, since I needed to get my Russian visa registered.

We dropped off the passport and visa for registration without adventure. Then we stopped to pick up a few groceries, and Andrey asked me to go back into the store to get a forgotten loaf of bread.  It seems I left the leather case on the counter when I paid for the bread, and it has not been seen or heard of since.  The good news, of course, is that neither the bulk of my various cards/licenses nor my passport were lost. The bad news is that all my camp pictures, as well as pictures from other trips, have disappeared, probably permanently.

Andrey and the Roma ministry in Russia are in great need of your prayers and support.  During the course of the camp, probably because of the torrential rainfall, the sound system shorted out and is no longer usable. Given the importance of music to the camp and worship experience, this is a major problem. Realistically, we will have to look for a secondhand system in Russia, since importing one from the U.S.A. or Germany will present some serious issues with customs. Additionally, Andrey is hoping to find a digital projector to use with PowerPoints and videos, both for the church's regular worship and for evangelizations and camps, and also a supply of good-quality guitar strings, which are surprisingly hard to find in much of Russia.  Andrey also needs to purchase a car. The van he has been using for ministry is well beyond its expected life span and is a source of constant worry and expense.  Not only does it require virtually constant repairs, it also uses vast quantities of gasoline. The price of gasoline in Russia right now is roughly comparable to the price in the U.S.A., but Andrey's financial resources are very limited, so fuel is a major expense for him.  His congregation contributes to the ministry as best they can, but the community's resources are also very limited.

I have decided recently that it is time for me to make a serious effort to learn at least a little bit of conversational Romani, beyond the 5-10 words Andrey has taught me.  I have suggested this to Andrey at various times in the past, but he didn't seem to think that it was a particularly urgent project.  All my Roma acquaintances speak Russian better than I do, even the children. This year, though, many more conversations took place entirely in Romani, which I found very disorienting.  It all makes sense—a Roma camp, for Roma kids, following Roma culture, using Romani.  I have found a couple of online programs, and there may even be something available here in Berlin. It remains to be seen whether I can absorb one more language, but it's worth a try.

After the Roma camp I travelled by bus to Oryol, where I was met by Ellen (with a new cell phone and SIM card) and Hank, the youth pastor of MacPherson Presbyterian Church, our home church in North Carolina. Hank and a team from MacPherson were in Oryol for their 13th consecutive visit to “White Sail,” the children's camp conducted by Transfiguration Baptist Church.  As you might expect with so much experience, the camp ran very smoothly, with a rather innovative program directed by our young friend Ilya, who, at this time last year, had just returned from his compulsory military service. In the meantime he has gotten married, had his first child, and taken over responsibility for the camp program from his father, who still handles the administrative responsibilities.  It is really inspiring to see the munchkins from our early years at the camp taking over as leaders at all levels, even if it does suggest that some of the rest of us are not quite as young as we once were.

Once the Oryol camp was over, it was time to head back to Moscow with the Macpherson group so that we could show them a bit of that city. I had flight reservations for Monday, 15 July, so Ellen stayed with them until Tuesday, before continuing with her own schedule. I will see her again when she returns to Berlin on the 23rd, when we'll have a week to ourselves before Emma returns from Triennium on the 31st.  Come August, we'll be back in Russia before heading to the U.S. for the Russia Mission Network meeting in early October. Come December, we are expecting our first grandchild, so there will be yet another trip to the U.S. It will be a busy fall.

Ellen and I have strange and wonderful lives—we get to live in Berlin, work in Russia, and travel constantly. Nonetheless, we are only the tip of the iceberg that is PC(USA) international mission work in Russia or anywhere else. Without the support of many other people, most of them invisible, we could not continue our work.  Some of that support comes in the form of your prayers, for which we are constantly grateful, but the mission outreach of the PC(USA) also needs the financial support of individuals and congregations.  Please consider supporting our ministry—the details of how to do so are available at .

Peace and blessings,

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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