Special-needs families experience caring community through summer camp
by Ellen Smith | Mission Crossroads
LOUISVILLE — The church in Davydovo, Russia, was a thriving community of 1,000 members from five surrounding villages before the revolution. It was abruptly closed by the Communist authorities in 1936. People pulled down the cupolas and crosses with a tractor. The building was used for storage and then as a club but was neglected for 70 years. The roof collapsed around 1960, and there was nothing left but the shell of a building — only walls.
In 1993, the Klimzos, a Moscow family, moved to Davydovo, seeking a simpler life. The wife began teaching in the local school, and the husband taught music and farmed. As Orthodox Christians, they attended worship at a church in another village. The shell of the church in Davydovo stood near their home. It began to tug at their hearts, and in 1998, with $100 and a few friends, they began efforts to reconstruct the church. They lacked skills and resources, but they began anyway. They thought that it would take them 30 years in their spare time. But they soon discovered that God didn’t want their spare time; God wanted their all. Somehow they managed to get enough work done to hold the first liturgy in only six years. They say, “As we rebuilt the church, the church rebuilt us.” Vladimir Klimzo, the main rebuilder, became the priest for Davydovo.
As they worked on the reconstruction during what were desperate years, people wandered through and helped with the project. The activity of reconstruction also brought people asking for help. As those involved with the project engaged more deeply in reconstruction and new ministry, they became attuned to the Lord’s knock at the door of their hearts. Each time someone knocked, they opened the door as if to Christ, and with meager resources, they helped where they could.
One day, a church in Moscow called, asking if the parish might provide summer respite for families with children who had disabilities. The response was casual: “Sure, if they want to come, let them come.” When Father Vladimir met them at the train, he heard that knock again. He saw the deep needs of the mothers who had become fiercely protective of their special children, their hearts hardened by the rejection they had witnessed. The children, isolated at home from a society that was unkind, were deeply in need of socialization.
That first summer, the efforts were very simple. A village house was able to accommodate 10 families, each consisting of a mother and her disabled child. It was terribly crowded, nearly bed to bed. Father Vladimir’s daughter and her friend — both teachers — organized a program around folk music, dances and games. People from the village helped where they could. They got to know the needs of the families more deeply, and knew they had to do more. Given the limited help they could provide, however, they thought that none of the visitors would want to come again.
The next summer, though, 12 families arrived. By this point, friends had found wooden construction trailers to house the families. Conditions were still crowded but a little better. As the hosts welcomed families each summer, they continued to develop the program to better meet the families’ needs. They began to organize volunteers to accompany the children and youth while the mothers had time with a psychologist and with Father Vladimir. Organizers found people to help with dog therapy, horse therapy, drama, art therapy — even poetry writing.
Throughout the years, the families have been brought into church life as well. Too often in the city, they have not felt welcome in churches because of their special-needs children. In Davydovo, the whole community helps out in worship to redirect the children when their behavior is disruptive, allowing the mothers to worship and helping the children to worship.
Today, the camp has two three-week sessions, with volunteers from many places (even Presbyterians from the U.S.), and they are working on another project. Through the years, Father Vladimir has listened to the mothers. Their greatest fear concerns what will happen to their children when they die. In Russia, what is available for adults with disabilities is an old-folks home with IV sedation.
It is a place to die, not to live. Father Vladimir and I have traveled in the U.S., Germany and France, looking at models for adult care for those with disabilities. Father Vladimir works on a model that emphasizes not simply care of those with disabilities but life in a village community. It is a model that includes socialization, life skills, work and a spiritual component.
When asked what inspired reconstruction of the church, Father Vladimir replied, “I guess it was a call from God.” Those who answered that call have not stopped listening to the Lord’s knock at the door of their hearts. Those in need have come knocking, and those who have heard the knocking have responded. All have been transformed by this ministry — the mothers whose hearts were hardened by the world’s rejection of their special children, the children who needed loving socialization and the volunteers who stepped out of their comfort zone — transformed through community and deep engagement in ministry.
Ellen Smith serves as World Mission’s regional liaison for Eastern Europe. She and her husband, Alan, co-facilitate a congregational twinning program that connects U.S. and Russian congregations in mission. Al’s primary mission work focuses on outreach to minorities in Russia, including the Roma people.
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Support the work of Ellen and Al Smith, including congregational twinning and outreach to minorities in Eastern Europe and Russia: pcusa.org/donate/E200406
This article is from the Spring 2019 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers within the U.S. three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission and also available online at pcusa.org/MissionCrossroads.
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