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Brothers and Sisters in Russia

A letter from Ellen Smith serving in Germany/Russia

February 2015

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Dear Friends and Family,

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ!

A new year is upon us, already well under way. I returned to Russia last week after a significant absence. I have had various people ask me about the safety of traveling to Russia when the country is under stress. I cannot say that the stress is apparent on the streets or in casual conversations. Prices have gone up, food is very expensive, but Russians are used to struggling. Goods from Europe are now largely out of reach, as is the thought of travel in that direction, but those are luxuries. It is a time for belt tightening. They know how to do that.

In my conversations with church leaders, I did hear elements of stress. Interchurch relations have made a great deal of progress through the 14 years we have been engaged in Russia. A softening of rhetoric and even healthy dialogue has taken place between Orthodox and Protestant Christians, but for many it now feels as though things are slipping back to the old days. I think it is, at least in part, the result of the deep tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Where once there were close bonds across national boundaries, there are now accusations and deep divisions. It is as if the church is afraid to act like the church, lest they be accused of disloyalty to the nation. The tensions pour over to church bodies within each nation as well. I have heard some say that it is competition for the members. I have heard others say that it has to do with differing national identities. It is an underlying stress and it reminds my friends of times gone by that they never really trusted would not return. I cannot say that they are afraid, but they are saddened.

I have not in any way felt uncomfortable in Russia. My visit was a catch-up with my colleagues after my months of absence. They were glad I’d come, because so many Western partners have left for good. Russians feel rejected by the West. It is actually a return to their historical relationship with the rest of the world—distrust and fear. The Russian partners have expressed concern that twinning might not survive the current crisis. I have spent my time trying to reassure them. I hope I reassure you as well. We have brothers and sisters in Russia. They love us and they pray for us. May we do the same. Partnership is not just for the easy days. It is for the hard days as well.

If you are interested, I am working with Carl Horton of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to organize a Travel Study Seminar in Russia. The dates are currently set for June 1-13, 2015. The dates are very close, but they are the best dates for our calendars and the Russian partners. If you have any interest in joining us, please be in touch with me or with Carl [carl.horton@pcusa.org].

I have enjoyed hearing news from many of you about what is going on in your congregations and your families. It makes us feel connected.  The news in our family is that Emma, our youngest, has been accepted at her first choice university. She still has applications out, but it is so clear where she wants to go that it has become a moot point. This will give us two daughters in the same city, which will be a real luxury. Since it is also my hometown, I’m quite pleased at the prospect of going home to see them.

Al and I have decided that as Emma starts university this fall it will be a good time for us to take a few months of itineration. We have not taken an extended period of itineration since 2010-11, so we are a bit overdue.  Currently our plan is to be available from September 1, 2015, to January 10, 2016. If your church would like to invite us, we would love to come and share about Roma ministry, the Twinning Program, and how God is at work in the former Soviet Union in these very difficult days.

We are deeply grateful for your support in all its many forms. We have been uplifted by your prayers, encouraged by your notes and emails, and moved by your financial commitment to the ministry. We ask for your ongoing partnership with us in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Peace and blessings,
Ellen

The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study,  p. 333


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