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Russia partnership: U.S. conference enters a new mission field Melissa Lauber, Aug 26, 2011
PHOTOS BY MELISSA LAUBER/UM CONNECTION
Sandy Ferguson, director of missions for the Baltimore-Washington Conference, lights a candle in a church in Voronezh, Russia.
By Melissa Lauber Special Contributor
VORONEZH, Russia—When he was a younger man, the Rev. Igor Volovodov worked at a factory in the Soviet Union. One of his additional duties was to prove and reinforce atheism among his fellow workers, so he did research, talking with believers.
Mr. Volovodov grins, recalling how his research led him to become a Christian. Today, he serves as superintendent of the Central Black Soil District in Russia.
His story is reflected a hundred times over. Ten years ago, for instance, the Rev. Irina Mitina was translating for a group from Oklahoma. She had been brought up an atheist, learning that “Lenin is our father, and there is no God.” But the words she translated and the love she witnessed from the Oklahoma group spoke to her soul.
She became a Christian, and started a Bible group in a café, creating the first United Methodist community in the 450-year-old city of Voronezh. “Christ is the answer to every question,” she said. It’s a proclamation to build a church on.
The United Methodist Church began ministering in Russia in 1991. Today there are 125 churches in the Eurasian episcopal area; 11 are in the Central Black Soil District. In 2008, Bishops John Schol and Hans Växby created a partnership between the Baltimore-Washington Conference (BWC) and the Central Black Soil District.
The district, which is the size of Texas and lies 350 miles south of Moscow, is often referred to as “the heartland of Russian Methodism” and “a cradle of pastors,” said the Rev. Charles Harrell, leader of the BWC Russia Initiative. “United Methodists here face unprecedented challenges and opportunities.”
Seven members from the Baltimore-Washington Conference traveled to Russia July 10-25 on a familiarization trip to learn more about these opportunities and to discover how they might develop meaningful partnerships in what has been described as “one of history’s most fertile mission fields.” They were joined by four members of the Virginia Annual Conference, which also has a partnership with churches in the North Caucasus region of Russia.
The aim of the partnerships, Mr. Harrell explained, is to link churches in the Baltimore-Washington Conference with congregations in the Black Soil District, sharing prayer, mission and resources. To enable the Russian churches to fulfill their visions, the support of multiple churches will be needed.
In Russia, the Rev. David Simpson of Bethany UMC in Ellicott City, Md., learned that “their vision is not stymied by what feels visible or possible. It’s driven by what God is expecting.”
Apparently God is expecting a lot, says the Rev. Tatiana Nazintseva of Transfiguration UMC in Hoholsky. “What is my dream?” she asked. “I have so many because God has so many.”
Ms. Nazintseva and her husband, Vladimir, added a small room for worship onto their house. Twenty people gather each Sunday in the village church. With a $300 monthly salary, making ends meet is often difficult. Vegetables, canned from the garden, ensure their three children always have food on the table. But the couple has big dreams for their ministry, including starting a daycare center for the children of the village.
Leah Maloney, the music director of Trinity UMC in Prince Frederick, Md., had the opportunity to worship at Transfiguration on the familiarization trip. She noted the poverty and humility she encountered, but was especially moved by the spirit of sacrifice and love that radiated from the pastors and church members.
“We tend to think of Russia as a ‘superpower,’ but one of this church’s goals was to provide indoor plumbing so that the older members wouldn’t have to go out in the winter’s cold to use the toilet in the outhouse. Their faith seems to be refined in the fire of their circumstances. Their faith is intense and life-giving,” Ms. Maloney said. “They’re willing to give up their own comfort to build a church and share the love of Christ.”
Mr. Simpson had a similar experience. While on the trip, he was invited to preach at Revival UMC. The 12-member congregation, made up of three older women, a handful of former prisoners and others from the village of Latnaya, met in a room in the house of the Rev. Galina Kolesnikova. The house had only one bench for sitting and was humble beyond imagining, Mr. Simpson said.
Ms. Kolesnikova and her husband, Alexander, built a new brick church building next to the house with the help of a church in Mississippi.
They began the project six years ago and the facility is still not complete, but in honor of the Americans’ visit, the first worship service was held there, with Mr. Simpson as the guest preacher.
“When I was growing up our countries were adversaries,” Mr. Simpson told the congregation. “I never dreamed I would have this honor. As we were driving here, the emotion welled up and my eyes began to weep,” he said.
“I’m persuaded this day is possible because somebody had a dream. They dreamed peace would prevail, they dreamed more about feeding our children than arming weapons. . . . Miracles will happen in this place.”
As part of the 12-member church’s outreach, Ms. Kolesnikova works with orphans, delivering clothing and gifts to about 100 children ranging in age from 7 to 17. She also serves as chaplain at a maximum security prison that houses 2,000 men. It is a place of great cruelty, she said. But it is also a place where God is present and baptisms have been performed.
Mr. Simpson hopes that Bethany UMC, which has an active prison ministry of its own, will find ways to help Revival and its latest project to build transitional housing for men getting out of jail.
Missional evangelism is key, said Ms. Mitina, pastor of Resurrection UMC, whose church has active ministries serving the disabled and international students in Voronezh. But so too, it is sharing Christ’s love.
This is difficult in a country in which the citizens are born into the Russian Orthodox Church. “It is an identity,” Ms. Mitina explained. “Other religious groups are often viewed as cults.”
At Camp Crystal, where the BWC group stayed while in Voronezh, part of the facility had been rented to an Orthodox church. When the BWC members toured the camp, one of the Orthodox women cautioned the children to stay away from them. She was uncertain what the United Methodists might say, explained Irina Efremova, the camp director and former president of Russia’s United Methodist Women.
The Russian Orthodox Church is closely aligned with the state, Mr. Harrell noted. This can create complications.
Recently, for example, the Rev. Rausa Landorf, pastor of Grace UMC in St. Petersburg, had her church building taken away when the government refused her permission to continue renting the building her congregation used.
But this hasn’t stopped her ministry. She continued Camp Spring this year, bringing 40 abandoned, abused and neglected children to a 20-day camping experience at a village school. The children slept in geography and science classrooms, spent the days doing arts and crafts, sports and Bible study and the evenings in worship.
The experience was intentionally long, “to allow the old to come out of the students and the newness of the Holy Spirit to enter,” Ms. Landorf said. “We help them meet Christ and learn his way and his will. We let them swim in God’s love.”
Ms. Landorf grew up a Muslim. Before she was 35, she had never heard of Christ. She learned about God in an Orthodox church and her new faith caused her to begin loving and caring for all the children who crossed her path. Few organized religious groups wanted her and her ragtag band of children, but the United Methodists took her in, she said.
“I’m thankful for the United Methodist Church,” she said. “We learned from you how to be a big family.”
After a day of spending time with the children, the BWC group joined them in worship. As the service drew to a close, she invited the children to come forward to receive a blessing from the clergy present.
They all came forward, and so did the counselors, some seeking multiple blessings.
“You can’t just play with God,” Ms. Landorf said. “Religion isn’t just about saying, it’s about doing too.”
Mr. Harrell is hopeful that several more churches in the Baltimore-Washington Conference will be inspired by this sense of “doing faith,” and include the Russia Partnership in their global outreach.
While in Russia, the BWC group met with Mr. Volovodov, who explained that the Central Black Soil District has three priorities: to plant and grow new churches through “missionary” efforts; education and leadership development; and social outreach.
These priorities go hand-in-hand with the Russian Roadmap, adopted by the churches of the Eurasian Area calling for a focus on quality ministry, social outreach, mission, self-sufficiency, education, and evangelism and growth.
“Church-to-church partnerships are the key to accomplishing this,” said Sandy Ferguson, director of Missions for the BWC.
Mr. Volovodov agreed. “I believe God is at work through personal contact,” he said.
“If you want to lose your heart,” said Mr. Harrell, “come to Russia. You’re going to fall in love.”