A letter from Al Smith serving in Germany/Russia
December 2, 2016
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Dear Friends and Family,
It doesn’t exactly look like winter yet in Berlin—it is cold, gray and rainy, but we are only just beginning to get overnight frost on a regular basis. Nonetheless, winter is here, as demonstrated by the Christmas markets and tree vendors springing up all over the city. In Russia, of course, there is snow, and there has been since early in November, when I was there for the annual Roma Leadership Conference.
The leadership conference has become an important annual milestone in Roma ministry. Over the past 12 years it has grown from a one-day gathering of less than a dozen people to a three-day gathering of well over 100 people from European Russia, Siberia and Ukraine. When I attended my first conference in 2004 fully half of the participants were not Roma themselves but ethnic Russians involved in outreach to the Roma. Since that time the proportion of Roma people attending the conference has skyrocketed, as has the role of Roma in planning ministry efforts for their own people. We have reached a stage where all of the significant decisions are being made by Roma for Roma. Getting to this point was not an entirely smooth process; at various times, some people probably thought the process was moving too quickly, but the results speak for themselves.
In addition to its function as a planning meeting for the leadership, the conference serves as an opportunity for worship and fellowship for Roma believers from widely separated communities, many of whom have few opportunities during the year to see one another. Traditionally each local congregation makes a brief presentation, setting out what they have been doing over the course of the year. In many cases, there will be a musical offering as well, or perhaps a poetry recitation. New believers from each group may share their testimony with the audience, and this year about 20 mostly young people came forward to profess their faith in Jesus for the first time. Although it seems a bit odd from a Western perspective, the opportunity for young people to gather is a very important feature of the conference: Roma youth are expected to marry other Roma, and believers can only marry other believers, but since local communities are small and frequently interrelated, young people need opportunities to meet suitable partners, which the conference provides.
Needless to say, there is time for worship each day during the conference. I wish I could convey just how animated the worship time is. There are Scripture readings, of course, and sermons (almost always more than one!), prayers and praise music, both in Russian and in Romani. I have read a number of news articles over the past year or so on the rapid spread of Pentecostalism among Roma communities all over Europe, and the experience of worshiping with my Roma brothers and sisters is like a fusion of Baptist theology with Pentecostal or charismatic sound. The praise band moves almost seamlessly from one song to another, sometimes accompanied by prayers from the pulpit. It is, to put it mildly, an intense experience.
Interspersed with the group presentations and worship times was a series of more formal talks by one of the pastors present on what it means to live in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel, which was the over-arching theme for this year’s conference. The lectures, which were rather scholarly, provided an interesting contrast to the worship times.
After more than 10 years of attending these conferences, I am always happy to renew old acquaintances and to see many of the kids who come to the summer camp. In comparison to previous years, I kept a fairly low profile, delivering only a brief greeting from Presbyterians since new legislation in Russia, not yet definitively interpreted, makes any kind of public evangelism by foreigners problematic. Please pray that some degree of clarity will come to this situation, which is affecting missionary efforts all over Russia.
Like all other aspects of our ministry in Russia, this year’s conference was made possible by the generous support of Presbyterians, both congregations and individuals. Without your prayers and financial support, Ellen and I could not continue to be present in Russia, nor could our partners there continue with their efforts to bring about God’s kingdom. If you are praying for us and for them, and/or contributing financially, please accept our heartfelt thanks. If you are not yet doing so, please give it your prayerful consideration. Please know that people in Russia, whom you may well never meet, know about your support and pray for you as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Peace and blessings,
Al & Ellen
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