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Rebuilding the Church in Times of Conflict

A letter from Al Smith serving in Germany/Russia

October 27, 2016

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

Churches are asked to send donations through your congregation’s normal receiving site (this is usually your presbytery).

Dear Friends and Family,

We knew already at the beginning of the summer that the end of summer and fall would be unusually frenetic, but even so, it has been a whirlwind. We had a full schedule of visits from U.S. partners to Russia in late June and July. I came back to Berlin for three weeks in July, while Ellen and Emma stayed in Russia with various groups. I returned to Russia at the end of July to accompany Pastor Ralph Clingan of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in St. George, Utah, to visit their partner congregation in Dorogobuzh and help out with the Vacation Bible School program. This was only the second visit for this partnership, but it was gratifying to see how the church members in Dorogobuzh responded to Ralph’s return.

Shortly after my return to Berlin all three of us flew to the U.S. For Emma it was time for her to return to university for her sophomore year. Ellen and I, after a few days with my father and our daughter Allison and grandson Malachai in Wisconsin, met in Saint Louis with Archbishop Dietrich Brauer of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia and Other States (ELKROS) and his wife, Pastor Tatyana Petrenko. The PC(USA) has been in partnership with ELKROS for more than 15 years. The Reverend Dr. Joe Kang, now retired PC(USA) mission co-worker, taught at the ELKROS seminary outside of St. Petersburg for many years. Archbishop Brauer and his wife both studied under Dr. Kang. The Brauers were in the States this September at the invitation of the PC(USA)’s Russian Mission Network as our featured Russian guest. It is not often that Archbishop Brauer can come to the States, so we used this chance to introduce him to staff at PC(USA) headquarters in Louisville as well.

The Lutherans have a long history in Russia, dating back to the time of Catherine the Great and beyond. German immigration into Russia began under Peter the Great, who was anxious to bring Western ideas and technology to Russia. This trend continued under Catherine, who was herself a German, and who invited thousands of farmers to come to Russia to improve Russian agriculture. The influx of Lutheran (and Catholic) Germans into Orthodox Russia required a careful accommodation to everyone’s religious sensibilities: the newcomers were allowed to retain their Lutheran traditions and churches with the understanding that the Lutheran church would not attempt to convert Orthodox believers. Many Germans settled along the Volga River, and remained there, in their own communities, up until the Second World War.

At the beginning of World War II the presence of so many ethnic Germans in the war zone was intolerable to the Soviet government, and the so-called Volga Germans were rounded up and deported to Siberia, the Urals, and Central Asia. As “enemy aliens,” they were subjected to very harsh work and living conditions. Many died in exile. They were not permitted to train pastors, but continued to meet and worship under lay leadership.

Even after the war, ethnic Germans were looked down upon as “fascists.” After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the church was able to begin reconstruction, many of the pastors and senior church leadership came from Germany, since there were no suitably trained Russians to take on the work. The Lutheran seminary in St. Petersburg was established and operated with substantial support from the Lutheran Church in Germany. Additionally, the historic isolation of the German community in Russia led to a situation in which the Lutheran churches were seen, both by the members and their Slavic neighbors, as distinctly German, rather than Russian, which made it unlikely that non-Germans would be motivated to attend. Many of the Russian-Germans, particularly the younger people, accepted the open invitation of the German government to emigrate to Germany, leaving only the older people in the churches. Even when there were young people in the congregation, many of them were not fluent in German, which was still the language of the services. Taken together, all of these factors contributed to a church in decline.

Over the last few years the themes of the Russian Mission Network meetings have been around the church rebuilding and the role of the church in times of conflict. Despite his very German-sounding name, Archbishop Brauer is Russian, and he is determined to establish ELKROS as a Russian church open to all Russian citizens, not just to those of German extraction. He is active in interdenominational work, seeking to work together with the Orthodox Church and other denominations on areas of common interest. He has also been very active in supporting the Lutheran churches in Crimea. When Crimea became part of Russia, he spent much time there giving the churches the choice to remain in the Ukrainian union or come into the Russian union of Lutheran churches, and then helping them with transition. He and his wife are the first Lutheran guests to attend the Russian Mission Network meeting, and their presentations added to our understanding of church in Russia.

Our travel schedule continues to be busy. One or the other of us will be on the road for much of November. Those involved in Roma ministry in Russia will be gathering in Kursk November 11-13 for the annual leadership conference. We ask for your prayers as we plan for the coming year while juggling limited resources and restrictions imposed by new Russian laws on evangelism.

We want you to know that the Middle East and Europe office at PC(USA) headquarters is in the process of publishing a very special book. Our partner, Victor Ignatenkov, senior presbyter for the Smolensk region and pastor of Central Baptist Church in Smolensk, recently published his mother’s recollections of her life. It is a powerful piece that gives us just a glimpse of what it was like to live as a Christian during one of the harshest times in Russian/Soviet history. It should be ready within days. Please be in touch with us if you are interested as there are only 500 copies available.

One of the things that distinguishes PC(USA) mission outreach is participation. For some people and congregations, that participation includes partnership with a church in Russia and travel to take part in joint projects. Others, who do not travel to Russia, are “prayer warriors,” supporting the mission efforts of the church. These forms of participation are vitally important, but mission in Russia also needs financial support, not only for specific projects, but also to cover the costs of sending and supporting mission co-workers who live and minister among our partners. If you are currently supporting our work financially, we are grateful for your contributions. If you are not currently contributing, we would ask that you prayerfully consider whether this might be a good time to begin. God does His work, in Russia as everywhere else, using our hands.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers, visits, gifts and care for us and our partners. May God bless you in all of your endeavors.

Peace,

Al & Ellen

Please read this important message from Tony De La Rosa, Interim Executive Director, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:1b-2, NRSV)

Dear Friend of the Presbyterian Mission Agency:

Thank you for your prayers and for your financial support of Alan and Ellen Smith this year, and any previous year. We hear from our mission co-workers how much your prayerful financial support has meant to them. Please know that you are a vital part of ministries throughout Eastern Europe.

Even as I thank you, I want to let you know that this is a critical time for our congregations and all people of faith to commit themselves to support mission co-workers like Alan and Ellen. Our global church partners greatly value their service, and you well know how important this ministry is in building connections between the body of Christ in the U.S. and Eastern Europe.

We have historically relied on endowment interest and the general offering from congregations to sustain the vital work of all of our mission workers. Those sources of funding have greatly diminished. It is only through the gifts of individuals and congregations that we are able to keep Alan and Ellen doing the life-giving work God called them to do. A year ago, in May 2015, we had to recall some mission workers due to a lack of funding. World Mission communicated the challenge to you, and you responded decisively and generously. Through your response, we heard the Spirit remind us, “Fear not!”

Today, I’m asking you to consider an additional gift for this year, and to increase the gift you may consider for 2017. Sending and support costs include not only salary but also health insurance and retirement contributions, orientation, language training, housing, travel to the country of service, children’s education, emergency evacuation costs, and visa/passport costs.

My heartfelt thanks for your prayers and support of our Presbyterian mission co-workers. In the coming season, we will celebrate God’s sending of the Christ child, the source of the good news we share. May you experience anew the hope, peace, joy, and love that are ours because “perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18).

Thank you for saying “yes” to love.

With you in Christ,

Tony De La Rosa
Interim Executive Director, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)


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