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Fraternal twins

Congregational partnerships bring Russian, PC(USA) churches close

October 9, 2013

Viktor Ignatenkov and Ellen Smith

The Rev. Viktor Ignatenkov (left), with translation by PC(USA) mission worker Ellen Smith, speaks to the Russia Mission Network —Jerry Van Marter

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C.

Pastor Valerii Eroshkin cannot imagine life without the partnership his congregation in Moscow has with McPherson Presbyterian Church here.

“It began in 1998 when Ken Welch [a former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission worker in Russia] and then Ellen showed up,” the pastor of Transfiguration Baptist Church in Russia’s capital said of Ellen Smith, who after 15 years as a mission co-worker based in Moscow now serves as regional liaison for the PC(USA)’s work in the former Soviet republics. Now based in Berlin, Ellen Smith serves with her husband, Al.

“Ellen was there for the first of our children’s camps,” Eroshkin told the Russia Mission Network at its annual conference at McPherson Presbyterian Church here Oct. 3-5. “We are very happy to have partnership with McPherson Presbyterian Church and over the course of these 14 years we can’t imagine life without that partnership.”

The Transfiguration-McPherson partnership is one of nearly 50 partnerships that are the hallmark of the PC(USA)’s mission work in Russia. Through the Congregational Twinning Program of Presbyterian World Mission, PC(USA) congregations are paired with Russian congregations.

The Russia Mission Network gathering brought together about 50 representatives of  PC(USA) “twins” and two Russian pastors ― Eroshkin and the Rev. Viktor Ignatenkov, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Smolensk, near the Russia-Poland border.

As with many of the partnerships, ministry revolves around children.

“We have a camp and an orphanage ministry,” said Ignatenkov, who came to the gathering with his wife, Nadya. “The camp is a help to the orphanage ministry, which we started in 1980.”

What Russians call orphanages are in U.S. parlance residential facilities for at-risk children and youth. Some are orphans but most are simply from completely broken homes.

“We got to know the administrators and the kids,” Ignatenkov said. “We looked in each other’s eyes and saw the need and desire for love ― these kids looked at us and wanted to call us ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’”

As Central Baptist’s orphanage and companion summer camp ministry grew, the demands on the small congregation threatened to overwhelm it. “We saw that it wasn’t enough to visit them, we needed to walk with them in life ― they went from orphanage to boarding school so we supported them there as well,” Ignatenkov explained.

Orphanage administrators wanted help outfitting their charges with clothing and shoes, he continued, “but we said, ‘We’re the church, we don’t just supply material needs – we can do much more but not just by giving clothing – we want to prepare them for their future.’”

Central Baptist created an “orphanage team” which became a fairly constant presence in local orphanages, leading Bible study, arts and crafts, sports, taking kids to concerts and play and on picnics. “Our orphanage team developed relationships with the children and we realized the role we were playing was good, but trying to meet all the need was overwhelming,” Ignatenkov said.

Ellen Smith, seeing what Central Baptist was trying to do, connected the congregation with White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C. “They came,” Ignatenkov said, “and their desire for partnership was an answer to our prayers. They enhanced the ministry we were trying to do and to help us respond to all the needs we saw.”

That spirit of genuine partnership has been Eroshkin’s experience, too.

“Our children’s camp is most important thing we do together,” he says of Transfiguration’s partnership with McPherson. “Every year, ten to twelve partners come from the U.S. with one big desire, which is to work with us. Teams come prepared to work with us on whatever we want ― they don’t come trying to force things on us.”

McPherson and White Memorial have surely supplied many material needs for their Russian “twins,” but as in all genuine partnerships, it’s the relationships that mean the most.

McPherson has given tents and tables and other camping supplies to Transfiguration for its camp ministry. “People see something very important ― a model for ministry and the effort they commit to making it happen,” he said. “After 10 days the kids go home and they want to continue the fellowship formed at camp. We might be able to put on a camp by ourselves but it wouldn’t be the same.

“There are lots of churches that would like to have the relationship we have with McPherson,” Eroshkin said. “It’s a gift from God for our church and for all of us.”

The feeling is mutual, said Hank Bellomy, McPherson’s youth director. “Our greatest successes have come through our young people, who from day-one connected with Russian youth as participants, not as outsiders,” he said.

“The key is ACTIVE involvement, connecting in ways adults cannot. Eating in people’s homes, accompanying Russian young people on their first communion, witnessing their baptisms in the river ― it’s a testament to the transformations that go on as a result of the partnership.”

Central Baptist’s camp ministry was almost lost to tragedy. “We didn’t have a camp of our own, so we always had to rent something,” Ignatenkov said. “White Memorial helped us develop our own facility ― purchased in 2001 and began using it that year ― and the joy of the kids was a wonderful thing.”

However, in 2008, Central Baptist’s camp just outside Smolensk burned to the ground. “When the children heard the news it was devastating for them,” Ignatenkov recalled. “But you find out who your friends are when times are tough.” 

With encouragement ― and lots of volunteer labor ― from White Memorial, Central Baptist rebuilt its camp. “Today we have a better camp with more possibilities,” Ignatenkov said. “This year was the re-opening ― three sessions, 45 kids each session.”

A group from White Memorial came for the first session. “It was such a great blessing for our camp and for our kids because its been our mutual blessing and mutual mission,” Ignatenkov said. “Now we even have facilities to do year-round camping for children and adults,” noting that another PC(USA) partner ― Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church in Sacramento Presbytery will co-sponsor a conference on family ministry in the near future at the new camp.

“Our relationship [with Central Baptist] has been successful because it’s a true partnership, sharing so much of our lives together,” said the Rev. Gary Fulton, associate pastor at White Memorial.

“We’ve gone through joyous and sad times, like the burning and rebuilding of the camp,” he said, “and the opportunity to be together as partners in Jesus Christ, sharing prayer and love, has drawn these two congregations closer and closer.” 

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