Renewing our spirit in Russia
In June, twelve adults from the Dayton Deanery made a pilgrimage to Russia for Pentecost during the “White Nights,” when the sun does not set (for very long). They went to support the work of the Miami Valley Episcopal Russian Network (MVERN) at the Sablino Community Center and St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, about 40 minutes outside St. Petersburg.
For this traveler it was an eye-opening experience – not only to see the amazing work we are able to do from a distant continent, but to realize personal relationships that can form among strangers and with people we already know.
With last minute visas to obtain and travel arrangements to amend, there is something to be said for being able to let go and trust in a community of people through whom God is realized. This was a theme throughout the trip, from the months of preparation it took to make the trip happen to the final weeks as we brought our gifts to Russia to help another community with whom we have a relationship.
After enjoying a day of sight-seeing at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Fr. Nikolai, from St. Nicholas Church, along with his son, Fr. John, and Dr. Igor Tolochin, our guide, officially welcomed us to Russia with a wonderful meal. All the food in Russia was great, but this meal was particularly special. As we broke bread together, Fr. Nikolai, through Igor as translator, shed some light on current events in Russia and the Ukraine. With many family connections between local parishes in Sablino and St. Petersburg and the people in the Ukraine, the emotional toll is palpable. In Russia, it feels much like a civil war, and the underlying causes are more complicated than what we hear on the news. The biggest thing I learned through our conversation is that we have very much in common with our Russian counterparts – many more similarities than differences.
Our connection with our new friends continued as we finally made it to the community center and St. Nicholas. This was it – the work we had come to do! I’m not just talking about the rocks we moved, the windows we washed, and the grass we raked, of course. That was just a small part of our day. The rest was spent touring the church and the youth center, and more importantly, getting to know the people of Sablino. We spent several hours talking to the volunteers who work at the center. This is an amazing group of people who give their time to teach children after school and during Sunday school – art, music, religion and drama.
On Sunday at St. Nicholas, we experienced worship different than any of us had ever experienced. Grass, which some of us had worked in the field to rake and carry into the church, completely covered the floor. Birch branches were clustered around the walls, and stations of candles, hand polished by other members of our group, were fully lit in devotion to the many icons around the church. The liturgy had already been going on for some time before we arrived. It is common in the Orthodox Church for the congregation to come and go throughout the service. But in the time they are there, they are most reverent, paying homage to the icons, lighting candles and taking in the worship.
After worship, we had lunch at the community center and a great discussion led by our own Rev. Dave Cottrill and Fr. Nikolai. We talked about our respective views on the role of the Holy Spirit in our theology and our daily lives. As we often found with our Russian friends, the conversation was lively. While there are certainly fundamental differences between our two faiths, we left with a mutual respect for our counterparts.
On our last day in Russia a master iconographer greeted us at his workshop. This is where some of the icons we observed in the many churches we toured throughout the week were written (painted). The striking thing we learned from this charming and prayerful artist is that while clergy and laity of the Orthodox Church believe their faith has been unchanged for hundreds of years, subtle advancements, in fact, take place through artists’ hands, as the Spirit moves them to adjust details in the icons and therefore the focus of their devotional worship.
As most of our group returned to the hotel to pack and sleep in preparation for our 4 a.m. departure to the airport, I reconnected with a Russian student who had visited Dayton through MVERN several years ago. In the U.S., Sasha was taken with the organs in our churches and went on to pursue organ as a career in St. Petersburg, where only the non-Orthodox churches have organs. She gave me a tour of parts of the city the rest of the group had not seen, and then took me to the Fortress of Sts. Peter and Paul, after hours when no one else was there. She is a carilloneur at the cathedral, and she took me up into the bell tower (not open to the public), showed me the keyboard and said “you play.” And so, on the last day of our trip, I played the carillon in the center of St. Petersburg for all the city to hear. It was an unforgettable and transcendent experience.
There was certainly no sleeping after that, so anticipating our very early (or very late, depending on your perspective) departure, a small group of us took a midnight boat tour of the city to see the skyline one last time. As we sat on the deck of the boat, huddled together under blankets to protect us from a cold rain, I realized how close I had become with my American colleagues, and how wonderful it was to make close connections with new friends several hundred miles away.
John W. Johns serves as Assistant for Music & Publicity at St. Paul’s, Oakwood.
MVERN TO SPONSOR MISSION TRIP TO RUSSIA
MVERN (Miami Valley Episcopal Russian Network) will sponsor an intergenerational mission trip to Sablino, Russia, from July 13 – 24, 2015. MVERN has been working with St. Nicholas Church in Sablino for 17 years, helping their remarkable priest recreate an active Christian community after 60 years of Communism. Building a spacious youth center and developing an active program for both youth and adults has been his focus for many years.
During the July mission trip, parents, teenagers and other volunteers will spend eight days in Sablino, stay in the renovated youth center, work with the children at a summer youth camp and help with minor home repair projects. Most of all, they will experience life in a Russian village, make new friends and discover the commonality of Americans and Russian Christians.
For further information, please contact Anne Griffiths at 513.702.9768 or firstname.lastname@example.org.