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Peacemaking for Hope

A Letter from Ellen Smith, serving in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland

Spring 2021

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Dear friends,

Warm greetings to you all! We hope that you are getting vaccinated. We had expected the process to take longer than it has but are saddened that so many are reluctant. COVID has changed so much of our lives, both domestically and globally. Even though Al and I are both vaccinated now, we continue to practice caution – wearing masks and keeping our distance. It sends the wrong message to those not yet vaccinated if we don’t, and it is already second nature. It is not a burden, and we continue to for the sake of others. We are in a privileged space. I look at our global partners, many of whom do not yet have access to vaccines, and then I look at vaccine reluctance in this country, and I know that we will not soon move on from the pandemic.

Through these months, it has been a blessing to stay in touch with partners. I speak with Andrey Beskorovaniy, the Roma pastor in Kursk, often. The pandemic has increased the isolation that has always been a part of Roma life. Impoverished, distrusted, despised, rejected by their non-Roma neighbors, fellowship within the community has been a source of life and encouragement. Sadly, last year, both the children’s summer camp and the fall Roma gathering had to be canceled because of COVID. Now it looks as though the summer camp will be canceled again. Every time I talk to Andrey, he tells me how earnestly people are asking about November. Throughout the pandemic, Andrey has told me, “They are asking me to come!” Again and again, I have reminded him that there is a pandemic, and it isn’t safe. But his response has been consistent – they are in need. I finally stopped reminding him. At first, he was simply going to the Roma near his home, carrying a bag of sugar, a packet of tea, cooking oil – needed staples, and you cannot go empty-handed. His visit was a blessing. The isolation was hurting the community. He is traveling more widely now. One church was ordaining a new leader. Another was in conflict. Andrey is an evangelist and a peacemaker. The Roma fellowship hopes that the fall gathering will be possible, but it is not yet clear.

Yuriy, a colleague in Ukraine and leader in the St. Egidio community in Kyiv, has spent the pandemic out in the streets of Kyiv with the community, feeding the poorest of the poor. With each lockdown, the homeless have been locked out of places to keep warm and to find a meal, so Yuriy and his community have carried food to the streets, masked and with gloves. During the height of lockdown, they stayed closer to home, but they were still carrying food out to the streets to care for people. Yuriy has shared with me stories of the Roma that come to Kyiv from their homes in the Carpathian Mountains. They come to Kyiv because it is so desperately poor at home. Unfortunately, they are away from their own community in Kyiv. Alone in the city, they can be attacked. The St. Egidio community has befriended them and seek ways to be community with them. This has included traveling to the Carpathian Mountains to talk with the non-Roma in their communities, to try to dispel the deep prejudice.

A friend of mine in Belarus called not long ago. He knew that Al has been working with the Roma in Russia and wanted to understand more about ministry. He didn’t want funding; he just wanted to get a picture of what is possible. We talked for a while about ways to engage and about ways to bring Roma youth together with Belarusian youth, breaking down barriers and building mutual respect. The pandemic makes this difficult, but I hope that new ways of being in community will sprout and bear fruit when things get better.

I think of all the people here longing to worship together in sanctuaries again. It is the same. We need one another; we long for community. Please pray for the Roma communities in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. May they find ways to be a community that are life-giving and safe. It is a difficult balance in the midst of a pandemic.

As always, I thank you for your prayers, your notes and emails, and your financial support to World Mission. You are a rich part of my community. I am available for virtual visits if you would like to hear more about the Roma and other partners.

Love and blessings,
Ellen


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