Unto the least of these

A PC(USA) mission letter from Russia

March 26, 2013

Burkhard Paetzold and Ellen Smith

Along with others, Presbyterian mission workers Burkhard Paetzold and Ellen Smith met in Smolensk, Russia, for a conference on post-orphanage ministry. —courtesy of Ellen Smith

SMOLENSK, Russia

I am home from Russia after a three-week journey that culminated with an extraordinary gathering outside this city at the Christian Retreat Center — Rodnik (“Spring of Water” or “The Source”). In partnership with the Baptist church in that region, we held a second conference on post-orphanage ministry.

The first gathering was in November 2010. It was a beginning, modest in plan and marred by the fall of Pastor Victor Ignatenkov from a scaffold the day before. As Victor lay in a hospital bed, specialists from Moscow and St. Petersburg and ministry teams from at least 13 churches gathered to listen and share.

It turned out that just gathering people made a difference. Churches recognized the importance of the ministry and engaged more deeply.

We tried to gather again in 2012, but schedules could not be coordinated. Determined to continue where we left off, we set a date for a new conference and then began looking for specialists.

In October, we still did not have anyone, and we were lifting prayers. In November, I was copied on an email exchange and knew that those prayers had been answered. However, the timing was so close I couldn’t imagine that ― only four months before the scheduled dates ― it would work for this year,.

But far away, in the state of Montana, Eamon Anderson had also been praying. She had lived and worked in a Roma village in Romania for four years and still felt a deep call to Roma ministry and to Eastern Europe. The answer to her prayer was on a tag on a Christmas “giving tree” at her church, First Presbyterian Church of Missoula.

The tag was for the ministry of Gary Payton, my predecessor as Russia liaison, and mentioned the Roma work in Russia. She wrote to Gary, and Gary copied us in his response.

Eamon Anderson is a Social Worker and Child Welfare Specialist from the University of Montana. She is engaged in social work and research on American Indian reservations in Montana, focusing on childhood trauma and child traumatic stress, training welfare workers, teachers and juvenile justice professionals.

Other broad experiences made it even clearer that we needed her experience for the upcoming conference in Russia, but how could it be possible to issue such an invitation on such a short notice?

We began an email exchange ― information from my side, questions from her side ―  and finally I mentioned the upcoming conference and an “if only.” Her response was immediate: she would check with her boss.

Four months later, she stood before our gathering and shared information that spoke to people where they were, turning on light bulbs throughout the room. Her deep cultural sensitivity and gentle delivery, modeling strategies for working with traumatized children and youth, added to the power of her words.

As she discussed trauma in children, the symptoms and the developmental issues for children and adolescents, people recognized not just the children that they worked with in the orphanages, but also people around them in society and adults in their congregations. 

The presentation brought forward the deep need for healing in Russian society, and the need for prevention, to stop the generational trauma that is the legacy of the Soviet Union and its collapse. It opened people’s eyes to looking at the orphans and those who struggle with similar trauma in a new way. 

The connections between multiple traumatic events in childhood and suicide, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse are startling. The need to look more deeply at root causes is undeniable.

After the presentation, many people approached us to see if Eamon could come to their churches to talk about parenting, to see if Eamon had any experience in drug and alcohol rehab, to see if she could come back to do more training.

Three of our colleagues, hearing about the plans for the conference, joined us in Smolensk ― Burkhard Paetzold (regional liaison for Central and Eastern Europe and facilitator of work with the Roma people there), Liz Searles (a PCUSA mission co-worker soon to be serving with orphans in Tulcea, Romania) and Carolyn Otterness, who is under appointment of the Reformed Church of America working with Roma out of Budapest, Hungary).

We spent hours after the conference talking about possibilities. The topic resonates across all of our areas of ministry. For instance, Russia struggles with issues of domestic violence and substance abuse. The need for reconciliation and healing is deep across this part of the world.

In addition to Eamon’s presentations on trauma, we were grateful to have two  presenters from Omaha, Neb. – Kathy Moore speaking on essential life skills and mentoring programs, and Geri Clanton sharing information on human trafficking ― all critical topics which added even more value to the program. We are grateful for their participation in making this a memorable conference.

People traveled to Smolensk from as far away as Perm (in the Ural mountains) and Volgadonsk (in the Rostov region, down by the Black Sea). We had 67 participants from 16 cities. It was a huge blessing to be able to use the new camp facilities. There was room for all. We are grateful for the support that made this conference possible and for gifts to orphanage ministry in Russia and Belarus.

Please pray for ongoing work with orphans and those that have “graduated.” They are extremely vulnerable in their brokenness. Please pray for the ministry teams working with them. I give thanks to God for the bounty of his blessings.

  1. Eamon was one of my students, and attends First Presbyterian Church in Missoula where I also worship. So proud of the work she does, and how she does it.

    by Cindy Garthwait

    April 20, 2013

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