A Retreat in the Russian Forest
While it certainly wasn't the taiga, the vast forests of more isolated portions of Siberia, the tur baza (more or less like a camp) called “Russian Forest” still made for a good spot for folks from the Omsk region to get away from the city and its cares and to come together to think and pray about how God is calling them to develop.
Last year Pastor Len Dale (from the ELCA Central States Synod) and I made a trip to a number of sites in order to lead short seminars on strategic congregational development. Dean Vladimir Vinogradov liked that seminar enough that he asked that I come back to his region this year for follow-up.
In mid-March, then, 12 congregational leaders from 5 congregations (Beryovovka, Zvonarev Kut, Kazanka, Azovo and Omsk) in addition to myself and Dean Vinogradov got together for a weekend retreat. Dean Vinogradov led morning and evening prayer based on the Biblical theme of the weekend – Mt. 9.38 – while I led the lessons related to analysis of the congregation's situation, it's gifts and it's potential call as the people of God in that place. In addition to study and application of the book of Acts, we also covered materials that are applicable to almost any organization regarding life-cycles, focus and goal-setting. The mix of the practical and theoretical, of the human and divine elements of the church, brought a lot of life to our discussions, work and plans.
Because we saw the need for continued work in this area Dean Vinogradov and I agreed that it will be important to find good ways to follow up with those who attended. One option would be to plan a similar seminar (though introducing different tools and with the attempt to go deeper) for next year. A second option would be to try to gathered representatives of larger congregations together insofar as they face a common set of challenges and have significantly more opportunities than congregations with fewer human resources. Another option would be consultation, where someone would come in to help congregations analyze their ministries and mission opportunities. We will see where God leads us, as through the “Equipping for Service” program we strive to continue to increase the capacity of the Russian church to spread Christ's love.
Opening of the Year of the Reformation in Russia
On March 22 in the “President Hotel” in Moscow, the “Year of the Reformation” officially got its start. While the anniversary itself will be celebrated on October 31, celebrations will take place all year long and in many various places around the church. These events were “opened” on a national stage at this gathering, attended by representatives of traditional Christian denominations, state representatives, diplomats, and journalists. The Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia, Dietrich Brauer, welcomed the guests.
In his speech he underlined the importance of the contribution of Lutherans to the social, cultural, scientific and educational spheres of our country. The Archbishop suggested that everyone consider the fruits of the Reformation as a historical phenomenon. “It is important to remember that Lutherans in the Russian state were not, in contrast to many countries of Eastern Europe, isolated, but took an active part in the development of social-political life.” “Of course the exception to this rule under the monarchy were the peasant farmers who were invited to Russia by the tsaritsa who grew up as a Lutheran, Catherine II (the Great). The official civil head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Russian Empire was the Emperor (c.f., Code of Laws of the Russian Empire, 1832). Many leading Russians were Lutherans, including the Briullov brothers, Peter Faberge, Barclay de Tolly, Anton Delvig, Vitus Bering, Vladimir Dal, Iva Kruzenshtern, Sergei Witte. Lutheran churches to this day help make the central streets of Russian cities look beautiful. And despite all the difficulties and occasional repressions of Lutherans during troubled times, Lutherans always remained faithful to their homeland and deeply desired to work for its good. Christian exterior mission was for the most part limited to charity work, diaconal work as an expression of neighbor love. Thanks to many unique church-society projects the Lutheran Church has been able to successful move between confessional lines.”
Others who spoke supported this line of thinking. They included the journalist and historian Nikolai Svanidze, the former Minister of Culture Michael Shvydkoy, the representative of the International Union of German Culture Olga Martens, who particularly made note of the contributions of Lutheran pastors throughout history. Among the guests were deans and pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia who made the trip to Moscow specially for this event. The “Soli Deo Gloria" choir led by Oleg Romanenko contributed to the event by performing important Reformation-related songs – Mendelssohn's Reformation Cantata and Handel's “Alleluia” chorus.
Cooperation with PCUSA
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has worked in Russia since shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union; their unique role throughout the years has been to cooperate with the ministry of the country's historic Christian denominations (which, speaking generally, does not include Presbyterians, but does include Orthodox, Baptists and Lutherans). Their efforts to show support across denominational lines has been an impressive witness of commitment to true Christian unity.
While PCUSA has been engaged mostly with Baptist and Orthodox churches, but they've supported the Lutheran church in significant ways, too. In particular, for many years they supported the teaching ministry of Dr. Joseph Kang at the Theological Seminary in Novosaratovka, and through their area representative, Ellen Smith, they've also occasionally worked out partner congregations between the U.S. and Russia.
It was with working toward this goal that Ellen Smith joined fellow American, Pastor Bradn Buerkle (who leads the off-site, “Equipping for Service” educational program for our church), on a trip to the Northern Caucasus deanery near the end of March. Area Dean Sergey Maramzin received the guests, whom he invited to visit congregations in the region and to take part in a deanery seminar about the anniversary of the Reformation. Pastor Buerkle prepared lesssons, while Dean Maramzin prepared the place; he has been working very hard to construct (much with his own hands) a small retreat center that could be used for deanery-wide events or simply for individuals looking for a place of spiritual restoration.
The building was filled with capacity, then, when twelve people from four different locations came for the day-long seminar; there they got a short refresher course in the basics of Lutheranism, met Ellen and heard about her church, and also checked out the new retreat center. A good impression was formed on all sides – clearly the retreat center is useful and comfortable, the lessons were helpful review and also provided new perspectives on a few questions, while the hope of developing a relationship between the region and a U.S. congregation seems realistic. After a long period of stagnation, it is clear that the Lord's Spirit is moving among the believers in the Northern Caucasus, and God has blessed the region with a commitment by the church to support its further development.
Ellen continued to contribute to our church life later in the month by helping to arrange a seminar in Moscow for those engage in diaconal ministry. Artis Petersons made the arrangments on the ELCER side, and the “Equipping for Service” program covered expenses.
Two Americans engaged in diaconal ministry in very different ways – one through the organization of lay ministers groups, the other as a sociologist – shared their knowledge with the ecumenical, international, and intergenerational group that gathered for 3 full days of classes.
Both the teachers and the participants of the course came away feeling enriched, and in this way the seminar reflects all the ways we have interacted with PCUSA throughout the years.
The Only Kirche in Uzbekistan Awaits Restoration
On March 5-12, almost a year after the first visit of the vice chair of Gustov-Adolph-Werk (GAW) in Hessen-Nassau, Pastor Gerhard Hechler, to Uzbekistan in 2016, he returned to the country to visit the congregation in Tashkent. The reason for this visit was to help organize the process of restoration of the historic church building, built in 1896 according to the design of Alexander Benois. Partners from GAW and Martin Luther Bund have offered their help in this restoration project and have put the project in their catalog for 2017.
Pastor Hechler spent two Sunday services in the congregation in Tashkent. During the week there were many meetings and discussions about the upcoming restoration work. The German Embassy in the country and the Society of International Cooperation emphasized that the church is an important also as a place for ethnic Germans to come together. There are regular worship services, concerts, readings, exhibitions and other popular events that take place in the kirche.
Speaking about the possibility of expanding the musical ministry of the congregation, Pastor Hechler referred to Petrikirche in St. Petersburg where at present a new organ is being assembled. For Tashkent such a project could be bring new opportunities. However, the first order of business is to fix the roof and to replace the church windows. The roof leaks and the windows no longer protect from the cold, heat or rain; some of them are simply covered with plastic sheets.
Gerhard Hechler told congregation members that partners in Hessen have gathered the main sum of money for the windows. In Tashkent there is an ethnic German living there who is a window expert and who even before Pastor Hechler had left the country made the first commercial bid to do the work. The other good news is the restoration of the interior of the kirche has been taken on by a German company in the city that will organize the work for free or as a means of giving practice to future restorers.
On March 12 the main theme of the worship service was the projects of GAW in Lutheran churches of Central Asia – in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Preacher Ludmilla Schmidt preached in Russian and Pastor Hechler – in German. There were two baptisms on that day, the confirmation of three congregational members, and also Holy Communion with Schmidt and Hechler as co-presiders. At the conclusion of the worship service students of the local music institute gave a concert.
In the days of his visit Pastor Hechler learned about the founding of a preaching point in Buchara; they get their literature from the congregation in Tashkent.
Pastor Hechler was satisfied with his visit to Uzbekistan and is sure that he will come again soon - “We are on a good path, both with restoration of the church and with the church's ministry.”