In the Uplands of Russia,
A Congregation United in Service
This past summer, Dana, Sue, and
Jonathan Talley again had the opportunity to visit Russia, bringing
with us concerts of music, the preaching and pastoral visits of The
Rev. Michael Meerson, of Christ the Savior Church, New York City, as
well as gifts of love, and the encouragement of the Orthodox faithful
of the United States, who, by their prayers and financial assistance,
make it possible for us to make short missionary journeys to Eastern
European countries. It happened to be our seventh trip to Russia, and
it was especially exciting to us, because this time we were leaving
the big cities and traveling into Russia's magnificent northern
An unusual contraption pulled
up to our Moscow apartment in the early dawn to take us on our
eight-hour journey. Five of us piled into an ancient ambulance,
humbly equipped with benches along the side instead of chairs. It was
sent by the priest of Karabanova, Fr. Georgi Edelstein, and it was the
normal conveyance used to take his orphan family to their summer
camps. The driver was unfamiliar with Moscow; at one point, a swift
U-turn sent me flying off the bench and laughingly onto the floor,
where our son, Jonathan, and Fr. Michael's son, Ilya, were attempting
a game of chess.
"Another adventure," Fr.
Michael announced with a grin. And so it was. Especially for those
of us who, not having expected sleet in July, had various maladies.
Six to eight hours of bread and Georgian cheese and pickles, no stops
(there were no bathrooms, anyway) and those other little trials which
make every expedition an occasion to give thanks for the many
conveniences we Americans take for granted. And to gaze upon the
graceful beauty of rural Russia--making it all worthwhile.
"You want to be prepared for
anything with Fr. Georgi," Fr. Michael had warned. "Some Boy Scouts
went to see him, and they wound up going into the fields to dig up
their dinners--beets and potatoes and onions for soup." We were not,
therefore, surprised when the last wretched bus had left Kostroma for
Karabanova by the time we arrived. Rattling along on the suggestion
of a roadbed, our dauntless driver took us to the orphanage near the
village, where the dog barked and we hallooed until the directress
appeared and graciously gave us shelter for the night.
The orphanage, stark on the
outside amid a huddle of ugly out-buildings, cheerily shelters
twenty-five delightful Russian children, most of whom have parents who
are unable to care for them. The area is desperately poor and the
winters are dark and severe; alcoholism is a major problem, and the
children have been abused. You wouldn't think so, to meet them. Fr.
Georgi is their Spiritual Director, and the whole village looks after
them with tender care--so much so, that sometimes the orphans eat
better than the villagers, from their generous gifts of produce. We
were given an extensive tour of the orphanage and the treat of a
folk-dance by some of the teenage girls. The next morning, we were
taken to Fr. Georgi's home, where we were guests for several days.
It is the eighth church Fr. Georgi has been called upon to renovate, with no financial assistance from either the State or his beloved mother church, the Moscow Patriarchate, and he is grateful for those, of whatever faith, who have come to help. "Well, I don't let them teach theology," he says with a twinkle, "and I will gladly go to their churches and speak about Orthodoxy..." He means it, too!
(a second village church, thousands like this are in need of repair)
The fragile domes of the church
were beautifully framed by the big trees in front of the house. "I
love that view, too," said Father quietly, as I admired the prospect
from the porch. It was late spring. The wildflowers had just figured
out it was warm enough to bloom; we were confused and delighted by the
long summer days of that latitude; of the famed "white nights". We
made our way to the church through the shy ex-convicts and friendly
Presbyterians, the dog nipping at Jonathan's heels.
The temple is just across the street. It is tall and fragile-looking like Father, but like him, it is a pillar of strength in the small, poverty-stricken community, where even the pension of about thirty dollars per month has not been paid by the State for over a year.
"The church had only three walls when you came to restore it, and no roof, but you immediately had services in what was left?" Dana was asking. Happily settling into his storytelling mode, Fr. Georgi began retelling the church's history.
"I have been working on
this church restoration for six years. There was a man here, living
opposite the road, who was a very ardent atheist and communist, and
who made it his project to close the church, and he succeeded. He is
buried right next to the church. Why? Because it is his son who made
it his business to open the church. His son came to me and asked me
to reopen it, and therefore, I asked my bishop to send me here.
"So they stood outside the
window, and I stood inside, singing 'Let God Arise', since it was
Pascha. My little congregation heard every word of it. Then I went
'round the church for the Paschal procession, and two or three women
went into the churchyard, and we brought a table from the house
opposite the church, and that was our first service. About fifteen
people were present.
"I remember our first
collection; I received eighteen dollars' equivalent--quite a lot for
only fifteen people at that time. Then I received money from fifteen
young Norwegian Lutherans who had interrupted their vacation to help
restore the church; each sent me a thousand dollars. One day a
Baptist from Canada appeared in the yard, saying nothing for two days,
and then handed me a check for fifteen hundred dollars. A group of
Catholics from Ireland, who had met me at a conference, gave me the
money we are using to restore the summer church."
We looked around at the church, which is growing more beautiful every day, with the intense sacrifices of the congregation, and the gifts of love from those who pass by. We could but wistfully think that it would be wonderful if many passersby would stop and build the dilapidated little Orthodox churches between Moscow and Karabanova, whatever their confession. Surely God would bless them for it! We had the opportunity to join the small community for Divine Liturgy on Sunday, and heard the fervent voices of the congregation as they joined the choir, singing along by heart. Jonathan was permitted to read the Psalms during Confession, and Father, reading the puzzled looks on the faces of the older ladies, explained that we were visitors from America and therefore permitted to use our own language for the Liturgical text, and we were embraced and given Prosphora bread by the ones who had regarded us, earlier, with doubtful looks. Of course, many were invited to luncheon at Fr. Georgi's home, and there was tasty fried sole in addition to the usual soup, and good Russian bread.
Our conversation once again
focused upon the merits of the little community, who, though small in
numbers and very poor, gave so openhandedly to others--not only to the
orphanage, but to the prisoners and to the construction of the
church. On Pascha, he was saying, the members of the congregation go
to the prison after the Paschal breakfast, taking hundreds of colored
eggs with them to share with the forlorn young people, who languish in
the cold confines of their cells. They also cheer these detainees at
Christmas and on their birthdays.
Fr. Michael had met a young
man in Washington, D.C., who had actually been a prisoner,
rehabilitated through his acquaintance with Fr. Georgi. "Sergei will
graduate next year with a Doctoral degree," he said, "And what a good
graduation--from prison to theology--since Russia needs more
theologians! As we can see, there are many cases where Father Georgi
takes good care of his inmates..."
"We have three houses here,
and now I hope I can build one more. This past winter there lived
eighteen people in the houses. I'm sorry to say they were
overcrowded, but they lived there. Now there are only eight; in
spring and early summer, they go and find work--it's very difficult to
find work in winter. Most people in our village are unemployed, so
who can employ these convicts? If the Church does not take care of
these people, who will?
"Of course, my congregation
is one of the poorest in our diocese, and still we manage to do
something, and I'm very thankful for people in other countries who
very often give me money so that we can go to the prison on Christmas
or Pascha to do something. This April, I was in the United States,
and received money, and now again I can do something in my
church--make a new iconstasis--and I can help the orphans; you visited
the orphanage, also, you remember."
"When we were visiting,"
said Dana, "the director said that six more orphanages have opened in
the Kostroma area, this year alone. I don't know how your little
parish is able to do what it does."
"These children are not
adoptable, but they still need parental love. If you adopt children
and take them to the States, it's very difficult, not only for the
children, but for the parents, too.
"However, I think it would
be very easy to 'adopt' these twenty-five children. Let the children
stay here, and let them know that they have a godfather or godmother
in the United States, and maybe that person will send them two or
three letters a year, on Christmas, Pascha, or their birthday. Send
the letter to me, and I will give the child any present the godparent
tells me to give--chocolates, anything. Even if they don't send
money, they could send a card or letter, letting them know that they
have somebody who cares for them, who remembers them in his prayers.
I'll be thankful for money, but if it is not possible, it is more
important to have contact. If the child knows that his natural mother
was a drunkard; if she has been deprived of her rights and cannot even
be called 'mother'; if he goes to see his mother in prison, you know,
and she doesn't look very reputable, very decent--let him know that
there is somebody else who loves him, cares for him, that's all.
"You are always mentioning
the positive things your congregation does, and we can do, to fulfill
the commandments of Christ," observed Dana. "So often we hear people
in the church speaking about superficial things--dress, language,
length of service. I liked what you said about the fact that we need
to go to out to people, not just wait for them to come to us. And
that's not just for the clergy, it's for all of us, don't you think?"
"So then, we organized all
the children of the community into eight groups, according to their
age, and I said there would be a competition to run from one church to
another, and back, for boys sixteen or seventeen. Others were to run
a shorter distance, down to only one hundred meters for kids of seven
or eight. On a table, kids could choose what they wanted from what we
had received--the first-place first, and the second next, and so on.
That gave us the possibility to give to the needy without making the
children feel beggarly.
"When the competition was over, I went out of the church and heard a girl crying bitterly. Her grandmother was dragging her home, but she didn't want to go. The grandmother explained that she was the second in her group, but was accidentally overlooked for a prize. Well, she was very upset, and I told her, 'Oh, but your prize is in the church. Let's go there.' So we went there, and there were fifteen or twenty dolls there--Barbie among them.
"At that time, every girl
in Russia was dreaming of a Barbie. So I said, 'Just choose any of
them, and take it.' So, after looking them over carefully, the girl
took a dirty old doll with one arm loose, and something else missing,
and she said, 'I'll take this.' But I said, 'There are better dolls
here.' 'No,' she insisted, 'I prefer this. This one looks like my
child.' I asked her to explain why, and she said, 'Well, Father, you
teach us to take care of the poor and the miserable, and I feel that
this doll needs me more than Barbie. Barbie is happy. But this doll
is miserable. I'll sew on her arm and give her a good dress.'
"I met the girl in two
days, and, I am sorry to say, I tempted her. I said,'Maybe you'd like
to play with Barbie, and take her.' She looked at all the dolls
attentively but indifferently and said, 'I was right. My girl is not
beautiful, but she looks happy now, and I am sure she will love me as
much as I love her.'
"I was trained as a priest to understand such things, but I think that if you gave me the possibility to choose anything material, I would always choose the best. This girl didn't, and I think any priest in Russia can tell you hundreds of such stories--how we always learn from our congregation. I am sure that of the people we saw today, fifty percent are better Christians than I am, simply because they feel it in their hearts, you know?"
For just a few short days,
our hearts were warmed with stories such as this one, and then we
returned to Moscow in our remarkable conveyance, to give a concert
there in the Children=s Hospital, run by such a selfless and loving
priest and staff. And, finally, to the beautiful church of St.
Catherine, where Fr. Daniel and Matushka Dunia Hubiak, representatives
of the Orthodox Church in America to Moscow, welcome one and all so
warmly and graciously that their chapel is always full to overflowing.
These, too, are islands of love in a troubled sea, by the grace of our
Lord Jesus Christ, Who said, AWhatsoever you have done to the least of
these My brethren, you have done it unto Me.
This is an especially hard winter for northern Russia. The crops upon which the people of Karabanova depend--potatoes, cabbage, carrots, beets--have failed. Perhaps you will want to write Fr. Georgi, and see if there is something you can do to help his church, the prison, or the orphanage. A post-card is most likely to reach him, because the mails are often robbed. He will give further instructions if you wish to Aadopt@ a child, or perhaps a prisoner, or send money. His address is: The Rev. Georgi Edelstein, 156006 Kostroma, OSPYNAYA H3 Ap. 58, Russia.
Here is the Church as it looks today
This site was last updated 09/11/03