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Spreading Branches

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

Summer 2021

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Dear friends

As the mustard seed grows …

I heard recently from my friend, Father Vladimir, about progress on a project that really floors me. I have walked alongside the Davydovo community for so many years, listening more than anything and always deeply humbled by the life they live. The community is, I think, who we are all called to be as the church. As Father Vladimir told me about the next steps in Davydovo, I thought of the parable of the mustard seed.

I don’t know when or where the “mustard seed” was first planted, whether in Davydovo or somewhere else along their journey. Father Vladimir and his wife left Moscow in 1991 to build a simpler life for their family. They moved to Karelia, in the far north (bordering Finland), living in a cabin on the edge of a lake. After a couple of years, they decided it was just too cold for them, so they moved to Davydovo, a village in the Yaroslavl region, only 300 km north of Moscow. They still wanted a simple life. He would farm and teach music while his wife would teach science in a local school. They attended worship in another village because the church in their own village was a ruin of Soviet history – no cupolas, no roof, no floors, a mere shell abandoned to further decay. One night, in 1998, a friend was visiting who had lost his teenage daughter. His grief was tangible. After dinner, Vladimir (not yet a priest) and his friend went out for a walk to continue the conversation begun around the table. Standing in the road, looking up at the ruin of the church, one of them suggested that they begin to rebuild. They had limited skills and modest means, but with the equivalent of $100 in their pockets, they began the mammoth task. Was this the seed?

Father Vladimir has shared that as they rebuilt the church, the church rebuilt them. Vladimir Klimzo became Father Vladimir because there was no one else. He had not sought to be the village priest, but it was thrust upon him. (He tells me that it is a requirement for the priesthood – not wanting the roll.) After six years, they had the reconstruction far enough along to be able to begin using it. As they began to hold liturgy in the church, after 70 years of nothing, people in need began knocking at their door – alcoholics, drug addicts, single mothers, the homeless. Without skills or experience, they sought ways to respond. Gradually they began to realize that no one could do everything, and they began to recognize their community’s call was to work with children. Was this the seed?

Along the way, they established an Orthodox kindergarten and an elementary school. They began a shelter for teenage boys. Then one day, a church in Moscow called, asking if they could provide a summer rest for families with disabled children. It was another knock at the door. The response was casual, “If they want to come, let them come.” They worked to organize something, but it was humble. When they met the families at the train, they saw a deeper need than they had imagined. Spending time with the families over the next two weeks opened their eyes in a new way, and they knew that they had to continue and grow the ministry. Was this the seed?

They developed a summer camp program that brought families from Moscow, Yaroslavl, St. Petersburg, distant Siberia, and even Ukraine and Austria. There was no other such model in Russia. They brought in volunteers to work with the disabled children and psychologists to work with the mothers. They began programs in art therapy, theater, and writing workshops. They found horse therapists and dog therapists. Along the way, they organized round tables with the mothers to listen to their stories and their heartaches. In those stories, they found new directions. In the past two years, they have worked to expand into a three-teared project that begins with the family camps for socialization. The second tier is a life skill training center for the special needs young adults. They refurbished a village house for this and have developed a 3-6 month program. The third tier is accompanied living within the community. A Birthday Grant from Presbyterian Women helped them to construct two buildings for this part of the project. The parents live nearby, but the disabled adults live together as independently as possible. It is not a program for these special people, but life with them.

I have watched the growing branches of this mustard tree along the way. Each knock at the door has been a knock at the doors of their hearts. As they have opened their hearts and responded, the branches have spread. For years, as we have walked around the village, we have discussed an old abandoned school next to the church. The windows are long gone, but I’m told the structure is still sound. Our conversations were always about a children’s center as part of the further development of the project. In his recent phone call, Father Vladimir shared with me that he and his wife were going to give up their house (the largest house in the village) for a new children’s center. Their own children are grown and out on their own; they do not need so much space. They had a small inheritance and decided to build a small house for themselves nearby. This past week, reconstruction began – another branch.

I don’t know when or where the mustard seed was planted, but I see the magnificent tree that grows in spite of many obstacles. Their faith carries them in yet another new direction. It has been an extraordinary journey accompanying them.

Ellen


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