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A Visit to L’Arche

A letter from Ellen Smith serving in Germany/Russia

June 2015

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

We have had an extraordinary May, and I want you to know what you have been a part of, because it is very clear to me that you are present in all of our engagements with our brothers and sisters in Russia.

In February Father Vladimir asked me to help him find some books. He sent me a pretty impressive list, all on topics of Christian ethics and Christian witness. These are not books translated into Russian, but another book had fallen into his hands that had been translated—Living Gently in a Violent World: the Prophetic Witness of Weakness, by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, an organization of communities across the globe committed to accompanying people with intellectual disabilities. While looking for the other books, I got a copy of Living Gently so we might be able to talk about it. Well, one thing leads to another, and our conversations led to a plan. While the plan included visits to ministry sites in Germany, the primary goal was visiting L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil, France, to meet Jean Vanier.

Father Vladimir, Jean Vanier and myself

Father Vladimir, Jean Vanier and myself

It did not seem so complicated at the start of our planning, but L’Arche is understaffed and Jean Vanier is no longer a young man. Furthermore, the French I studied in school has largely vanished. Still, Father Vladimir and I are persistent by nature. He found a friend to help translate his emails and when my efforts to phone were bearing no fruit, I enlisted the help of a friend in the U.S. who is fluent in French. He graciously got up early in the morning in Nebraska to make calls to France. We were still making no progress and were ready to give up when Father Vladimir discovered a friend in Moscow whose wife had lived at Trosly-Breuil for two years, and they helped us get an appointment.

Father Vladimir visited us two years ago to see German models of outreach to the special needs community. On that trip he was looking at structures and organizational details. Over the course of two years, as he continues to work on a model for Russia, his questions have evolved. Of the facilities we had visited on his first trip, he wanted to return to only one, the farm/residential facility Missionshof Lieske. We found other facilities to visit through Diakonia (Protestant diaconal services in Germany) and Caritas (Catholic diaconial services in Germany). For this trip he wanted to look at spiritual aspects of the facilities working with special needs adults. We had remarkable conversations all around, but a recurrent theme. The funding for these organizations, which makes it possible to care for the special needs community at an impressive level, comes from the state. It is the same in the United States. Even Christian-based organizations, when in partnership with the state, cannot restrict their hiring to Christians and cannot be overtly missional in their outreach. Without state funding they would be unable to provide the necessary care.

The new dormitory under reconstruction

The new dormitory under reconstruction

But what about L’Arche? Although they do receive state funding, they remain overtly faith-based and have a strong spiritual element within the community. It is often challenging, but they are committed. Our time with Jean Vanier was brief, but it was enough. He is a remarkable man of great wisdom and a gentle soul. We talked about community and respect for the weakest. We talked about starting small. And a door is now open for further conversation and possibly sending someone from the Davydovo community to Trosly-Breuil for a longer period of time.

From Paris we returned to Berlin briefly, and then I traveled with Father Vladimir to St. Petersburg for a conference on outreach to those with physical and mental disabilities. A group of 50 gathered from organizations across Russia. That’s it. There are only a handful of organizations engaged in improving the circumstances for this population, something beyond the state institutions. The model that Father Vladimir is working on is critically important.

From St. Petersburg we traveled to Davydovo so that I might see progress on the first dormitory, an old broken-down building that has been transformed with the generous help of others, including many Presbyterians. This has been a witness to Father Vladimir of who we are. Over the course of the two weeks we spent together in Germany, France and Russia, we had many deep and sometimes hard conversations. He has had so many questions, trying to understand who we are, we Protestants. He decided to worship with us at the American Church in Berlin, which is Lutheran. I must admit that I was a bit uneasy, wondering what conversation it would spark next, but I think something clicked. He saw the elements of the liturgy in our worship and saw the life in our congregation. It was as if a barrier had broken down. In a recent Skype call he told me they were going to work on printing the liturgy for people to follow in their worship, because people sometimes get lost in the complexity of it. And what inspired this? The church bulletin.

So many hands, so many hearts, one body.

Al and I are grateful for each of you. You are present in our lives and our ministry. Please join us in prayer for Father Vladimir, whose health concerns us, for the model developing in Davydovo, for ongoing conversations. We ask you also to hold Presbyterian World Mission in prayer. These are challenging times and, without your support, uncertain times. If you are able to give, every dollar matters. Again, thank you for your partnership.

Love and blessings,
Ellen & Al

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


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