A letter from Ellen Smith serving in Germany/Russia
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Dear Friends and Family,
The last few months have been so busy that I have struggled to find time to pull my thoughts together for this quarterly newsletter. At the moment we are in Russia; I am in Moscow, a brief respite while the current group is off visiting other connections. Al is in Kursk for the Roma camp, and Emma, who has joined us for the summer, is in Smolensk serving as a counselor in a summer camp with our church partner there. There is not a U.S. delegation here this summer serving with them, so Emma is helping out. This is more or less normal for us, but hours before we left Germany for Russia, our cat suddenly died, and, quite frankly, things have seemed out of kilter ever since. We’re busy enough that we don’t have time to think about this loss, but lots of little things keep tripping me up. I trust it will get better.
The past months have provided a feast for thought. In April we had a team visit Smolensk from White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C. This is one of the oldest partnerships with 18 years of engagement that have produced an extraordinary harvest for both congregations. Because of these 18 years of connection with one congregation, other Presbyterians have gotten to know of the Smolensk church too, and many have visited.
Victor I., the pastor of the Smolensk church, has been a speaker at the Russian Mission Network twice. In the fall of 2015 Victor traveled to the U.S. to participate in the International Peacemaking Program, connecting with other peacemakers from many countries and then itinerating (with me as translator) across four presbyteries. The connections with our larger church and exposure to secular Americans at colleges and universities made quite an impression. As Victor’s translator I was less than comfortable when a student started yelling at him and telling him everything he needed to know about Russia, but Victor was fascinated at his strident behavior!
Through the years in partnership with White Memorial PC Victor has seen their connections with secular NGOs and government agencies. The Peacemaking trip added to Victor’s understanding of how things work in America. Victor has continued to process this trip and the experiences of all these years. As we began working on the plan for White Memorial’s visit to Smolensk this past April, Victor was determined to share with his U.S. partners a broader view of how his congregation relates to the larger Russian community. Through the years we have included a visit to the Smolensk cathedral and been welcomed by priests there. This past spring Victor organized a meeting for us with the Metropolitan of Smolensk (think cardinal). In fact, the metropolitan invited us to lunch. In addition Victor organized a meeting with the Office for Human Rights and with a deputy governor from the Smolensk oblast (province). His goal was two-sided—to help the Americans understand Smolensk and her people more deeply, and to help the Russians understand the importance of cross-cultural engagements like those fostered by the Twinning Program, our name for partnerships between Russian churches and U.S. churches. Much of the visit was also a real celebration of what 18 years has meant for both congregations.
In May a Travel Study Seminar from the PC(USA)’s International Peacemaking Program arrived in St. Petersburg. The seminar participants were a diverse group from across the United States with varying levels of knowledge of Russian history and the Orthodox Church. Our local host in Davydovo was Father Vladimir, an Orthodox priest. The meetings sparked new ideas for Father Vladimir, and we are now talking about a new form of engagement—cultural exchanges that will allow partners to get to know one another more deeply. I think this is what we have been doing all along, but now our Russian partners are recognizing the value of making this a more explicit element of partnership.
From Davydovo we traveled to Smolensk. Victor had asked especially that the Peacemaking group come to Smolensk because of the impact of his own visit through this program. Again we had lunch with the metropolitan. This group, having had less experience in Russia, had quite different questions and sometimes pushed the limits of being gracious guests, but the metropolitan was very gracious and answered them all. At times he and Victor answered the questions together. By that point, the days of travel and lingering jetlag had taken a toll on all of us. Our time together finished as so often happens with a meal. It is always the times around the table that bring us in close as the family of Christ, even without the 18 years of common history.
The group currently visiting has come with multiple purposes, including presenting a marriage enrichment seminar. This is the fourth time they have come for this purpose; this time the seminar was in Oryol. The presenter, Cliff Graves, had met the pastor from Oryol twice before, once at a previous seminar and another time at a Russian Mission Network meeting in the U.S. The visitors brought a large team, so while the seminar went on inside the church, the rest of the team (and I) had activities for the children of the church outside, allowing their parents to be fully engaged. Several members of the team had been to Russia previously, but this visit brought them to a new church. Each congregation has its own face and heart. One of the members of the U.S. team commented on how much it meant it to them to see yet another face of Russia.
A common thread through all the conversations over the past three months is that it is not possible to look at Russia with the same eyes after coming to visit. A visit causes the heart to respond, and it is good to know a different face of Russia than the one the news media presents.
This past week I had a meeting with the president of the Baptist Union. The message has gotten back to their office about the importance of relationships like those being built through the Twinning Program. Our Baptist friends have noticed that Presbyterians keep coming to Russia in their gentle, quiet way. We brainstormed a bit and now I have an invitation to attend their Congress in July.
We are grateful for your prayers, your frequent words of encouragement, and your financial support through all these years. Together we have been a part of something significant. Where two or three are gathered, God’s mission begins to bear fruit. Please continue to support this ministry with your prayers and with your generous gifts. Please pray for our stamina this summer and please pray for Russia. Our brothers and sisters feel cut off from the larger body and know, perhaps better than we, the importance of being connected.
Love and blessings,
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