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Friends of the Poor

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

November 2020

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Dear friends and family,

We are woefully behind in communications. It has been an “interesting” summer, to say the least. Al’s father died in May after a long slide in strength and health after breaking his hip last summer. Thankfully, COVID-19 had nothing to do with his departure. It took time for me to get back to the States, but we did manage a funeral before returning to Germany in mid-July. Though we have both been spared thus far from COVID-19, it has influenced some decisions. We have been unable to travel to visit any partners since March 12, 2020, leaving us with little reason to remain in Germany. In early August, Presbyterian World Mission offered a voluntary separation package for those 63 and over. Al had already felt that it was time to retire, so he accepted the package and retired on September 15. We moved back to the States on September 7, 2020. I have chosen to stay on as Regional Liaison for Central and Eastern Europe and will now work from Wisconsin. It is good to be closer to our children and our grandson and, at this point, it makes very little difference where I am located as long as I have good internet.

On a more interesting note, the Russian Mission Network has transformed itself in 2020 into the Belarus-Ukraine-Russia-Mission (BURM) Network and held its first gathering over Zoom last week. Why BURM? The leadership team came to recognize that PC(USA) is engaged across this larger region and both the commonality of ministry and the political tensions warranted the expansion of our focus. We felt that we needed to be informed by partners more than news services and welcomed the chance to hear about how our partners address some of the same issues that we face in the United States.

Online network gatherings have become the norm in the age of COVID-19 and we were able to pull together Zoom experience from across the leadership team to plan a program (logistics and format) that we thought would be meaningful. From the beginning, we wanted to focus on three themes: marginalized peoples, peacemaking and climate change. Why start small? We had speakers from all three countries and the US, though our Belarusian speakers became stranded on the side of the road and were unable to connect (logistics). As I spoke with two of our speakers ahead of time, I warned them that this was going to be humble. Their response touched me deeply – “That’s good, we prefer humble. It’s more human.” Looking back, I think that is what came to pass – a gathering of people from countries facing great challenges talking at a very human level on issues of social justice.

One speaker, Yuri spoke about the work of the Community of St. Egidio in Kiev in two sessions – marginalized people and peacemaking. They are engaged with the homeless, the elderly, the Roma, and international students of color. There were many questions about the organization, but Yuri kept bringing us back to the concept of community and accompaniment. There have been great challenges during the pandemic with lock down and social distancing, but recognizing the even greater need during this time, they have found ways to adapt – reaching out near their grocery stores and closer to their homes. Need is everywhere. Someone asked about church affiliation, but Yuri explained a model that is not ecumenism, but rather simply gathers people from across denominations. When asked how that works, he explained that they all believe in Jesus Christ, have the Lord’s Prayer in common and simply don’t allow denominational differences to divide them. They come together to feed the poor. Many of the international students they have connected with are not Christian. They are Muslim or Buddhist or maybe without faith tradition, but they are welcome. The community always explains that they come together to pray, to read the Gospels and to care for their neighbors, but they do not impose their own traditions on those that come. Yuri shared that often their Muslim or Buddhist friends will engage in prayer for them after the community’s service. The Community of St. Egidio is a worldwide movement that began in Italy. They often simply call themselves the Friends of the Poor.

For photos that illustrate the ministry of St. Egidio/Kyiv to the homeless during COVID-19 please see the link to the the Ukrainian Weekly https://tyzhden.ua/Gallery/243290.

Another presenter shared about barriers to peacemaking. It has to do with the history of the region. In the late Soviet period, the leadership supported movements for peacemaking and ecumenism, but as a means of infiltrating and usurping them. The churches became subject to manipulation by the state or, at the very least, afraid of the consequences of failing to toe the “party line.” In this set of circumstances, then, it is very difficult to speak of or work with a “movement,” of a group of like-minded individuals who would join together for positive societal change. Instead peacemaking in Russia at this point is done most effectively on a small scale – through one-on-one contact or through small group, local efforts surrounding the improving of society around a singular or limited set of issues. “In a society where people have little hope in large-scale, positive change, it is extremely important for us in the church to spend time working with individuals, supporting them in their own efforts of discipleship, instilling in them a firm belief in Christian freedom and responsibility.“

As I have reflected on the three days of the BURM Network conference, I have been touched by the commonality, the parallels between there and here. I am always in hope that we will learn from each other. The hope for peace and for real change is in the human moments that we share with one another, the times when we stop to listen to and to hear from those we are on the journey with.

I hope that you will be watching us as the BURM Network moves forward. Again and again across our days together, we received invitations to come and see. I hope the travel bans will in time be lifted and that travel will be safer for us all.

As always, you have our heartfelt thanks for your prayers, your encouragement and your financial support.

Love and blessings,

Ellen


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