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Community Across the Lines

A Letter from Ellen and Al Smith, serving in Belarus, Germany and Russia

November 2019

Write to Al Smith
Write to Ellen Smith

Individuals: Give online to E200406 for Alan and Ellen Smith’s sending and support

Congregations: Give to D507149 for Alan and Ellen Smith’s sending and support

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Dear friends and family,

Al and I are woefully behind in our updates, but we are trying to catch up. The last six months have been more challenging than usual, but also full of that community which carries us through.

In June, we had a unique partner visit. First Presbyterian Church in Clinton, SC brought a large intergenerational group for a visit. It was the first visit in many years and many wanted to participate – 17 people made the journey. Their partner church, a Baptist congregation just outside of Moscow, was not prepared to handle so many, so with FPC’s pastor, Jeri Perkins, we decided to split the group (something we don’t usually do). Pastor Jeri had been to Russia the year before in preparation for the visit. In addition to visiting the partner church, she had also visited Davydovo, the Orthodox community in the Yaroslavl region. Impressed with the ministry there, she was ready to have half of her group engage with their Baptist partner for an English language camp, while the other half traveled to Davydovo for the first session of the camp for families with handicapped children. The two groups had very different experiences (see photos). Al accompanied one half, while I accompanied the other. Both churches knew that the larger group was split, both knew that we were crossing denominational lines. The leaders of the two churches actually know each other, having met about four years ago when the daughter of one of the Baptist pastors was helping me as a translator in Davydovo. She called her dad to see if he would come up and meet Father Vladimir and get to know the community. That led to other pastors coming on another weekend. Impressed with the English camp experience, members of the Baptist church made the effort to come to the Russia Mission Network this fall to understand these Presbyterians a little better.

In September, for the first time in its 15-year history, the Russia Mission Network gathered in Russia – at Rodnik, the camp of Smolensk Baptist Church. We understand how daunting it is to think about traveling so far for the network meeting and are thankful for all those who made the effort. Even for Russians, it took extra effort to get to Smolensk. We had a diverse group – Russian, American, Cameroonian, Brazilian, South African, Malagasi, and each participant contributed to the outcome. Six different partnerships were represented. Victor Ignatenkov, pastor in Smolensk, invited Father Vladimir from Davydovo to join us, having heard about the ministry in that village, and Father Vladimir sincerely tried, but he had a conflict. Andre Bezkorovaniy, the Roma pastor, was also invited and had planned to come, but his brother died a few days before. Al and I filled in for both Father Vladimir and for Pastor Andre as best we could. Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy was well represented, with the director of Social Ministry, a young intern and the church council chair. We had a lay preacher from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia as well. After many years of hearing comments such as, “you can’t work with the Orthodox” and “Roma, what for?” our hearts are warmed by the efforts our Russian colleagues are making to get to know one another across the lines. Our friends do not necessarily agree, but they engage in friendly, interesting conversations that whittle away at prejudices.

In sharing about the ministry with the handicapped in Davydovo, many questions arose from our Russian colleagues. One pastor shared about a family that has come to their church with an autistic child. The child can become overstimulated and is often emotional. The grandmothers of the church were giving inappropriate, even harsh advice to the parents. The church realized that they needed a congregational meeting, to teach people about this family’s needs. It has changed the atmosphere there. Colleagues who are engaged in orphanage ministry had many questions. They know of orphanages for children with special needs, but they have not known how to engage. The conversation sparked their interest and they asked if we might organize a seminar for them, so that they might better understand the needs of these special children and find good ways of working with them.

As the director of Social Ministry at MPC shared about their work with refugees, more questions arose. These were doors that our Russian brothers and sisters did not know about. It is a blessing to gather together and hear how God is at work in new ways. We are convinced that He wants us to join in community across the lines to find common ground and common purpose.

We are now in need of a church that will host the Russia Mission Network next year. I hope that we will begin to find a pattern that gathers us in Russia on a regular basis, but for 2020, the plan is to be back in the U.S. Would your congregation be interested? You don’t have to be a part of the Twinning Program or already engaged in Russia in another way. You can do a new thing.

As we approach Thanksgiving, may we wish you all the blessings of gathering together.

Grace and peace,

Ellen & Al


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