A Letter from Ellen and Alan Smith, serving in Germany, Russia, and Belarus
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Saratov! Sitting on the banks of the Volga River, it was one of the city centers for the Volga River Germans, a population invited to Russia 250 years ago by Catherine the Great to help develop agriculture. They prospered and stayed, living in German-speaking communities up and down the river. In August of 1941, the thousands of Russian-Germans along the river were rounded up in one night and shipped off to Siberia, Central Asia and the Far East as Hitler’s Germany invaded Russia. They weren’t to be trusted, even though they had called Russia home for 300 years. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Germany made it possible for many of this population to return to the motherland. Some returned to the Volga River. The church building of the 19th century had been destroyed in the 1970s. With the help of German partners, they began construction on a new building in 2006. When I visited in 2012, they were worshiping in a small upper room, because the sanctuary as yet had no windows. Six years later, the sanctuary is finished, and various rooms throughout the very large building are finished, but much still looks like a building project.
I first visited Saratov six years ago to explore possibilities for partnership with a church in the States that had members with ancestors from this region. We all tried, but in the end, that partnership failed to develop. There is no fault. It happens. We are, though, trying again with another congregation. The potential for partnership is real, and we hope that something valuable for both congregations will come together.
So, what are the elements that suggest potential for partnership? What are we looking for when we make a visit? Since all of the partnerships are ecumenical, openness to the other is important. Sometimes it takes a bit of conversation, because Russian churches have often had guests come in and try to tell them how to do things better, to try to teach them to think differently and conform to another tradition. The Russian churches have grown understandably cautious. The Saratov church has had less contact with Americans than Germans, and I think we are the only contact they have had with Presbyterians. Most Russians have no idea what a Presbyterian is, let alone what one believes. I spent a long afternoon with Pastor Andre talking about partnership, about our differences, about the goal of twinning. The conclusion was that it is worth trying.
Good fellowship is another sign of potential. I was warmly welcomed to a Friday evening Bible study. On Sunday, during worship two grandmothers started chatting with me, thinking I was a casual visitor. They were delighted to discover that I was an invited guest and quickly let others around us know. I was just as quickly invited to the birthday celebration of an octogenarian after worship. Following worship, I was whisked into the gathering space and seated at the table, and served tea and two pieces of cake, because they were different. Many wanted to talk with me, most trying first in German. I live in Germany but I do not claim to speak more than grocery store German (enough to get by). My Russian is pretty good, and I kept drawing the conversation back to that language. The congregation is largely made up of Volga River Germans, so they want to try speaking German. For most, it is the language of their grandparents, a distant memory. They have German lessons after church on Sunday, but it is like language lessons everywhere. If you don’t have a way to use a language regularly, you cannot develop any level of fluency.
Two members of the congregation are actually German. One, from Leipzig, married a Russian soldier during Soviet occupation. He was handsome and swept her off her feet and back to Russia. It wasn’t a particularly happy marriage, but she never went back to Germany. Another, from just north of Berlin, has moved to Saratov to start a bakery. His wife is Russian, and he has made a home in Saratov and now has residency. He does not change his citizenship because he wants to be able to go home to visit his elderly mother when he needs to.
Another sign of potential is good ministry. The church in Saratov has the burden of their building. It may be one quarter finished, but they do not let that stop them from engaging in ministry to their neighbors. They gather clothing for the poor. They reach out with love to the Roma and other marginalized people. They have a drama group. They have a summer camp program for children. They did express a concern that Americans would not want to come to their camp because they do not have indoor plumbing. I told them that our Americans had often dug the latrines in the camps they were helping out in. We laughed. Another good sign.
Since my first visit, the senior pastor has moved on to be bishop in Siberia. The second pastor, who was in place then, is now senior pastor. He is a remarkable man, not Russian-German, but Armenian. He is a warm and loving pastor. There are differences between us, without question, but that has always been the case in Russia. Our engagement in partnership is not founded on common theology, but rather on fellowship as brothers and sisters in Christ. Throughout my visit, I was surprised, perhaps bemused, by how little they knew about us. It is a real beginning, if this moves forward.
The ultimate sign for good potential is the atmosphere of love that permeates the building, the community, the life in Christ.
We wish you all a joyful Christmas! May the peace of Christ be with you.
With love in Christ,
Ellen & Al
Please read this important message from José Luis Casal, Director, Presbyterian World Mission
Dear partners in God’s mission,
We near the close of 2018 inspired by the hope of Christ. God is transforming the world, and you are helping to make it happen.
Thank you very much for your support of our mission co-workers. The prayers and financial gifts of people like you enable them to work alongside global partners to address poverty, hopelessness, violence and other pressing problems in the name of Jesus Christ.
Every day, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers are blessed to be able to walk alongside their brothers and sisters across the globe. Listening to each other in faith and in friendship, they learn from each other how to work towards a world in which everyone flourishes. Acting upon what they discover together, PC(USA) mission co-workers and our global partners strengthen the body of Christ.
Because you are an integral part of God’s mission, I invite you to become more deeply committed to Presbyterian World Mission. First, would you make a year-end gift for the sending and support of our mission co-workers? The needs in the world are great, and World Mission is poised to answer God’s call to serve others.
I also invite you to ask your session to add our mission co-workers to your congregation’s prayer list and mission budget for 2019 and beyond. Your multi-year commitment will make a great difference in our involvement with our partners. The majority of our mission co-workers’ funding comes from the special gifts of individuals and congregations like yours, for God’s mission is a responsibility of the whole church, not a particular area of the church. Now more than ever, we need your financial support!
In faith, our mission co-workers accept a call to mission service. In faith, World Mission, representing the whole church and you, sends them to work with our global partners. In faith, will you also commit to support this work with your prayers and financial gifts? With hope and faith, I await your positive response!
At God’s service and at your service!
José Luis Casal
P.S. Your gift will help meet critical needs of our global partners. Thank you!
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