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

June 2020

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Dear Friends,

Greetings from Berlin!

We are living through an unprecedented time. It is as though we have all paused mid-step, and we are waiting to move on. World Mission did call all of their mission personnel back in March, but Al and I requested and were granted an exception, allowing us to shelter in place in Berlin. Germany did pass through a terrible time with the virus, but things begin to find a new normalcy. It isn’t what was, at least not yet. We are required to wear masks in stores and on all public transport, but people are out in the streets again, going about their business, waiting in lines when they must because of the limits to how many people may be in a store at once. Most churches are still not gathering in person. It seems like the right choice. I participate in worship services online from all over. I may have worshiped with your congregation some Sunday.

We are staying in touch with our partners on both sides of the Atlantic through individual phone calls and emails, but it’s not the same. We miss the deep fellowship around the table, but the countries in which we serve are in difficult places.

I follow the news daily coming out of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. You may have seen they have rapid growth in infections in Russia. They are third in the world. The numbers have slowed just a little, but it is still very serious. Russia is not posting a large number of deaths. Most of us would conclude that there is underreporting and a lack of transparency.

Moscow has been under very strict quarantine, though they expect to lift some restrictions next week. Moscow’s Protestant Congregation (MPC)’s social ministry was forced to close during this time, but it looks forward to reopening in June. In the meantime, the director has been available to people in crisis by telephone, giving advice where he could.

From what I have been able to read, the health care system has been as overwhelmed in Russia as in other places. They have had to enlist medical students for the COVID-19 wards in hospitals. There has not been enough personal protective equipment, and first responders, nurses and doctors have become sick. Some have died. A large group of nurses in one hospital simply quit because promises made about PPE’s and bonuses were not being honored. Nurses are very poorly paid. In some distant regions, people have been angry with the well-to-do Russians who have the luxury of international travel because they are the ones who are perceived to have brought the virus to Russia. It reminds people of the sharp divide between rich and poor in Russia.

In Ukraine, our partners have been out in the streets feeding the homeless throughout the days of quarantine, when even the metros were closed. Metros, or subways, provide a place of shelter, restrooms, and the chance to wash up just a little. During the quarantine, the usual help is hard to find. Walking with the homeless during this time, with masks and gloves, has helped our partners deepen their understanding of homelessness in crisis. They have come across crises, one after another, and sought to be not just helpers, but friends of the poor.

One foreign reporter was expelled for posting photos of many fresh graves in villages.

Ukraine has struggled during the crisis with the virus and severe economic factors at both the personal and the national levels. Many Ukrainians work abroad as builders and harvesters in Poland and other countries of Europe. Now the Ukrainians have had to return home. Poland is struggling because Poles have not filled many of the jobs that the Ukrainians had performed. Border closures have kept people from the seasonal work they count on. This affects the whole family and the entire community from which these laborers come. The border closures have other serious effects on the economy as well.

Belarus has gone on with life as if there is no virus in their midst, which is unlikely. One foreign reporter was expelled for posting photos of many fresh graves in villages. The importance of image puts show ahead of national health.

Our partners are not able to gather, but they are finding ways to distribute worship materials, and some gather on Zoom for prayer groups and Bible studies. I know it is much the same for you as well. Most say they are learning a deeper appreciation for the church community and long to come together again. As in so many places, graduations have been canceled, funerals happen with few mourners, and weddings have been postponed. There is confusion among high school graduates about how they will sit for the exams that determine whether or not they will be accepted at a university, so it’s hard to look ahead and think about plans. There have been positives. We heard from friends that the draft board was shut down during April. It postponed military service for a little while.

Summer camps and vacation Bible school will stop. Likely all be canceled. Our partners begin to think about Christmas camps instead. You can trust that when it becomes possible, they will be reaching out again to those in need.

All of our plans for spring and summer are gone. I had a trip to Russia planned for March for a seminar on compassion fatigue. It was canceled the day before I was to depart. We don’t know when it might be possible to reschedule, but we hope it will be. We had more groups planning to visit Russia this year than usual. Of course, they could not come. We have been able to support phone calls between the partners (Al and I have translated). It has been a joy for everyone involved. It has taken our partners out of their isolation for a bit and has reminded them of their connection to one another. I’m sure that you all have had similar experiences.

It’s hard to look too far into the future, but we do trust that things will get better. We had been working on some extraordinary plans to connect people across borders in Europe and the Middle East, along common themes. I think we will need to think differently, for now, taking a step back for a time. I think we have all learned a new simplicity through these days of sheltering in place. The Lord has a plan. May we all listen carefully for God’s still small voice.

It has taken our partners out of their isolation for a bit and has reminded them of their connection to one another.

If any of you would be interested in a Zoom gathering for questions about the region, a conversation with your sister church (we’ll translate), or some other virtual engagement, please let us know. In the meantime, we do have projects to work on, including 3 potential webinars on the region for the summer and a virtual Russian/Ukrainian/Belarus Mission Network that is now scheduled for September 17-19. We hope that many will be able to join us. Maybe you will have recovered from too much Zoom by then.

We miss you all.

Love and blessings,

Ellen & Al

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