The day started out with a tour of Camp Crystal, run by Irina Efremova, who served as the president of Russia’s United Methodist women. It’s a rustic facility, which tries to create a spirit of home without taming the nature in which it’s placed.
In a series of cabins, a group of Greek Orthodox people were placing an icon on a wooden post of their meeting space. A woman expressed caution about allowing the United Methodists to speak to the children – leery that they might say inappropriate things. It’s a sign of their distrust. New religions are often seen as cults.
But Efremova, seemed happy they were there, renting the camp. It’s a small step in building bridges. Small steps are often the order of the day when one is creating a church in a nation where one’s very presence may feel suspect.
However, among the United Methodists there was little hesitation as Americans and Russians found themselves bound in common stories.
Masha Litvinenko shared how her near death experience drew her into a personal relationship with Christ. Later, her 3-year-old daughter had a similar experience. “It brought me to my knees for the first time in my life,” she said. She promised God that if her daughter lived, she would adopt and care for an unwanted child. Today, she has seven children.
Experience with St. Peter and Paul UMC in Voronezh inspired Litvinenko to create a church in her village of Ertil. She discovered a source of free old bricks at a sugar factory, and together she and her family transported, by small carloads, 8,000 of them to their home, where they’ve built a small worship and prayer hall.
The Rev. Vladimir Popov of New Commandment UMC paced and gestured broadly when he shared the story of how his congregation is deepening their spirituality by devoting one and a half hours in the morning and the evening to prayer. He calls it “praying the tenth.”
“I can tell people about faith, but I don’t have need to convince them. God responds to their prayers and when simple believers experience this and witness to others it gives good results,” he said.
For example, after praying, three sisters in his congregation are going as missionaries to a church camp by the Black Sea. One is a pensioner and the other two have little money, but they’re covering their own expenses. “This is the beginning of a revival for our church,” Popov said.
These stories of witness were repeated throughout the day, as the groups from the BWC learned about the Rev. Igor Volovodav who once served, during the Communist regime, as an officer in his factory, in charge of “proving atheism.” His investigation to refute faith led him to believe in Christ.
They heard about the ministries of the Rev. Galina Koleshinkova, who is a chaplain and leads Bible study for men at a maximum security prison; the Rev.
Yuri Kapaev, a former gymnast, who is now a scholar, starting a mission church
in Lipetsk; and the Rev. Irina Mitina, who opens her church as a home to students from Africa and to those with disabilities, who often can’t find a place in Russian society.
In the evening, the groups gathered for a concert. At one moment, students from Ghana who attend Mitina’s church, led the Russians and Americans in African song and dance. The concert closed with a variety of versions of “Amazing Grace.” And it was.