Mission co-worker leaves Russia on one of the last flights out of Moscow
by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Mission co-worker the Rev. Jessica Derise has arrived in the United States after having safely departed Moscow earlier this week. But she left something important behind — a piece of her heart.
She was aboard one of the last flights to the U.S. from Moscow.
“It’s very difficult to be in this position, the leader of a congregation, and to leave behind people that you have grown to love,” she said. “Some of them have ways out. Some of them don’t. Some of them don’t want to leave because they have families. It doesn’t make it any easier to see messages from my parishioners and friends that are heartbreaking. There is a weight and a sadness that is as deep as I’ve ever felt.”
Derise said few believed the invasion would really happen — at least within her congregation and among her friends.
“When it finally became apparent it was going to happen, there was a great deal of shock,” she said.
Disinformation is rampant in Russia. Vladimir Putin has shut down all independent news outlets and completely controls the narrative from state-owned media. In online classes, school children are being taught why it was necessary to invade Ukraine.
On the day of the invasion one week ago, Ellen Smith, World Mission’s regional liaison for Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, talked with Derise about the possibility of evacuating. She said anti-Western sentiment is running very high and when the sanctions begin to impact the Russian economy, it could make Derise a target.
“You also have to take into consideration the needs of the partner,” said Smith. “If they had to worry about protecting her, that adds yet another burden and their plate is already full.”
For the past two years, Derise has been serving in an interim capacity as chaplain for the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy (MPC), an international congregation founded in the 1960s as a Protestant worshiping community for the U.S. Embassy. From the beginning, five denominations have worked together to ensure that the congregation has had pastoral leadership — the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Church and the Reformed Church in America.
She has also been involved in MPC’s social ministry serving individuals who have been trafficked into Russia, either for sex or because of forced labor. They have a medical advice center, a food sharing ministry, a clothing ministry, language lessons, and health and nutrition lessons. Except for the periods of lockdown in Moscow, it has continued to function.
Derise spent the first 18 months pastoring virtually because of the pandemic. Six months ago, she was able to finally travel to Moscow to begin serving in person.
She arrived in August 2021. The news of her arrival spread throughout the congregation and her first Sunday saw a nearly tenfold rise in attendance. She was officially installed on September 12, 2021.
“Things were really taking off,” she said. “We had laid a lot of groundwork and we were finally making progress when the invasion began. We were just beginning to see the light.”
Twice a month she also preached and offered communion to a small French-speaking community of about 30 members who lost their pastor in September. Many of those persons are people of color who have suffered discrimination.
Smith lived with her family in Russia for 10 years and then served another 10 years from Germany. She said with the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago, Derise’s congregation left the Embassy compound and began serving the larger expat community in the city. During the days after the collapse, MPC responded to the dire needs of the Russian community around them by opening soup kitchens to feed the elderly. During that time, the congregation attracted members from all over the English-speaking world, including students from many African and Asian countries.
During the impoverished years of the early 2000s, there were many racially motivated attacks in Moscow. With the help of the African members of the community, MPC began to respond to the needs of young Africans who had been attacked, many of whom had lost their documents or become homeless. As they got to know the needs of this community, they expanded their ministry.
Even though Derise has returned to the U.S., she is in daily contact with her congregation.
“She is still pastoring in very significant ways,” said Smith. “She is caring for her congregation.”
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) launched an appeal Tuesday for funds to help support the church’s humanitarian response.
The Rev. Jessica Derise was ordained for ministry in the United Church of Christ in August 2010. She earned an MDiv from Columbia Theological Seminary in 2005 and is a board-certified chaplain. She received a bachelor’s degree in English Education from the University of Florida in 1993. She has done settled and interim pastor work for Presbyterian, Lutheran and UCC congregations. She has also served as a trauma and hospice chaplain.
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