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Diaconia becomes a recognized subject in the social field


Margarita Nelyubova, a staff member of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations (DECR) and coordinator of the Russia Round Table, was among the speakers at the international conference 'Unexpected Gift of Mercy. Migration Processes: Risk of Fundamentalist or Indifference?' which took place on October 7-9, 2016, in Milan, Italy. Below are the highlights of her presentation.

The Church's service of mercy was intensively developing in Russia up to 1917, after which its work beyond the liturgy was in fact banned while the social care came under the jurisdiction of the state. The diaconia of the Church was resumed only after perestroika and for the last quarter of a century it has covered a difficult path of not only quantitative but also qualitative development.

The resumption of diaconical service in the early 1990s was accompanied by a great upsurge, when a considerable number of the enthusiastic faithful rendered help in hospitals, homes for the elderly and orphanages. A few years later the number of volunteers decreased, with only those remaining who really felt to be called to this service or who, in that economically difficult time, could materially afford to work charitably.

Gradually the structural quality of diaconical initiatives changed from sporadic and poorly organized undertakings to the planning of short- and long-term projects, organized training of volunteers, church social workers, etc. An institutionalization process began as church charitable organizations emerged, such as foundations, sisterhoods and brotherhoods as well as parish groups specialized in a particular form of diaconia.

Here is a rounded data on several areas in today's diaconical work in the Russian Orthodox Church (only in Russia): groups of mercy and volunteer services - over 400; sisterhoods of mercy - over 300; sisters of mercy - 2600; orphanages - over 100; poorhouses - over 30; temporary homes - over 80; rehabilitation centers for drug addicts - over 100; asylums for the homeless - 72; mobile services for the homeless - 11; crisis centers for women - 27. If we compare these figures with indicators for 2011, it will be seen that in some cases the number has doubled, for instance, in case of groups of mercy and crisis centers for women and rehabilitation centers for drug addicts.

The areas of the Church's social service can be classified according to beneficiaries. These are children, women in crisis, extended and low-income families and families in crisis, the elderly and the disabled, the displaced, prisoners, those dependent on alcohol and drugs and their families, victims of natural disasters or emergency situations.

There are the same addressees of church social aid in many other churches and countries. There are areas of work traditional for the Church, such as aid to the homeless, the poor and orphans, which has always been practiced, but there are also new ones, and the Church, in response to new challenges, creates its own instruments and work methods.

The rehabilitation system can be cited as an example here. Drug addiction is a very serious threat today as there are about 8 million drug addicts in Russia according to the official data. Therefore there is a great need for rehabilitation centers. Church organizations have built a rehabilitation system for drug addicts almost from scratch. It includes medical, psychological, social and spiritual aspects, such as primary counselling, de-intoxication, motivation period, basic rehabilitation period, re-socialization, post-rehabilitation support, and work with relatives. All these activities are based on the Church's Concept of the Work with Drug Addicts, which was adopted by the Bishops' Council in 2012.

Another important area, directly linked with the theme of the Italian conference, is displaced people both within and outside the country, including refugees. The present crisis of migrants from the Middle East and African countries has not affected Russia to the extent it has in Europe. However, the number of migrants from Ukraine has increased in the recent years in Russia, reaching 2,6 million, including 1,5 million refugees from eastern Ukraine, according to the official data. Among them, a great number of Ukrainians mostly in the frontier regions of Voronezh, Belgorod and Rostov-on-Don, who for various reasons are reluctant to obtain the status of refugees, cannot count on relief from the state. The Church has given centralized aid through fund-raising of over 130 million roubles; help is also given by individual dioceses as well as local people. The DECR has carried out in 2015-2016 a number of independent projects, such as distribution of food and sanitary packages. It distributed 34 160 sanitary sets, 5010 children's diapers packs, 1490 hygienic sets for women, 10 000 sets with toys and school stationary for children, 14 420 sets of bed linen, 10 000 packages of foodstuffs. In addition, psychological assistance was given to 380 people.

Organizationally, the social service is coordinated on various levels of the church hierarchical structure, namely, on the levels of the Church, diocese and parish (monastery). Each level has its own coordination instruments:

  • The Church - the Synodal Department for Church Charity and Social Service;
  • Diocese - diocesan social departments and/or specialized offices, such as medical assistance, prison service, combat with drug addiction and alcoholism, HIV/AIDS, etc;
  • Parish (monastery) - parish initiative groups, church related NGOs.

Specific organizational forms of social work are very manifold: sisterhoods and brotherhoods working in the social area, charities, associations, clubs, rehabilitation and resocialization centers, soup kitchens, humanitarian aid distribution stations, counselling services, home nursing services, parish initiative groups, etc. They may be subordinate to a parish or a diocese. Some programs are run by synodal departments.

Projects carried out by these organizations are different in scope, duration, coverage and number of those involved. It depends on a parish own financial resources and fund-raising opportunities and human resources.

If we take the size of the Church with its 33,5 thousand parishes and over 800 monasteries and suppose that only half of them are involved in a particular social activity, it makes up a very large capacity. Of course, not every parish can carry out a broad social work, for instance, there are churches in abandoned villages with only five houses remaining. But there are very active organizations, such as the St. Dimitry Sisterhood in Moscow, which runs many serious projects including two asylums, a hospice, a grammar school, a soup-kitchen, a medical school, a Sunday school, a home nursing service and gives assistance to the City Hospital #1 and several other medication institutions, etc.

It should be noted that the diaconical service in Russia has successfully developed in Russia thanks to the efforts of the church leadership. In recent years, a number of the Church's documents have been adopted, called to regulate and support this work:

  • The Russian Orthodox Church's Basic Social Concept (2000);
  • The ROC Concept of Participation in Combatting HIV/AIDS Spread and Work with People Living with HIV/AIDS (2004);
  • On the Principles of Organizing Social Work in the ROC (2011);
  • On Organizing Youth Work in the ROC (2011);
  • Statement of the ROC Bishops' Council on the Life and Problems of Small Native Peoples (2011);
  • On the ROC's Participation in the Rehabilitation of Drug Addicts (2013);
  • ROC's Position on Pressing Environmental Problems (2013)
  • ROC's Mission of Prison Service and Penitentiaries (2013);
  • Basic Principles of the Work of the ROC's Church Asylums (2013);
  • Provision for Organization of the ROC's Diaconical Sisterhoods and Brotherhoods (2013);
  • ROC's Position on the Family Law Reform and Problem of Juvenile Justice (2013);
  • ROC's Concept on Abstinence and Prevention of Alcoholism (2014).

Out of these 12 documents, 10 have been adopted in the last five years. These documents offer a framework and at the same time set a vector for developing social work locally. Similar documents are being worked out on other pressing problems of today, for instance:

  • On the Church's care of low-income people, the disabled, orphans and the elderly;
  • On the support of the family, motherhood and childhood;
  • The Church and medicine.

An important role in developing conceptual documents called to help understand and organize diaconical service is played by the Inter-Council Presence. It is a new church advisory body set up in 2009. Its task is to consider pressing problems facing the church-public life in the period between Local Councils and to draft important church documents called to structure and support the Church's work in various areas including social service.

The development of social work in parishes has also been very much encouraged by the important initiative of the church leadership to introduce the permanent posts of a catechetical teacher and social and youth workers (2010 Bishops' Conference decision).

In this way, the Church's leadership has made in the last 5-7 years a task-oriented effort not just to support the social service but also to elevate it to a fundamentally new systemic level and to involve as many church members as possible in the task of charity.

Today we can speak about the fact that in many areas of church social work there are groundworks not just interesting but also unique and highly demanded by our colleagues in state-run organizations. This fact has changed the attitude to church social workers. While in the 1990s, the officialdom looked down at us and indulgently gave us permission to do the 'dirty' work, such as nursing the sick and feeding the homeless, nowadays our work is held in respect as an example to learned from.

Thus, on the basis of the St. Dimitry Nursing School, training courses for assistant nurses have been developed and put into practice, for instance, on palliative care. The point is that our medical schools train good doctors and medical nurses but the training of care nurses is often put in the background. As is known however, it is on care that the success of a patient's treatment depends to a considerable extent. The sisterhood not only trains church sisters of mercy for palliative care in Moscow and other regions but also conduct classes in governmental medical vocational schools because there are no such program in them. A special series of instructional aids for care has been published, written on the basis of the sisterhood's own experience of care. These aids are very much in demand among medics.

Another interesting and important example - three value-oriented programs for preventing risk behaviours and HIV/AIDS for children and youth. They are Ladya for teenagers, Living Water for minor schoolchildren and Way to Home for students. These are interactive programs consisting on average of over 20 lessons each on training for a child's growth as personality. They were developed under the ROC's aegis and are recognized as the most effective of all the programs used in this area in Russia and very much demanded by ordinary schools. The Church has organized the training of school psychologists for using these programs, and they already use them in ordinary schools. Today these programs function in 15 regions in Russia, as well as in Belarus, Ukraine and Armenia. In the academic year 2014/2015 alone, about 16 000 children were taught under these programs in Russia.

On the whole, it can be stated that by the present time a considerable experience has been accumulated in various areas of diaconical work. This experience is very much in demand in both the Church and society. Diaconia gradually becomes a recognized subject in the social field.

Among the priority tasks for the future development is the organization of courses and training in various areas of diaconia for volunteers, which social workers, etc. In this respect, training through the Internet has proved effective as annually over 1000 people are involved in distance training, which gives rise on average to 150-200 projects emerging annually in various regions in Russia and other countries.

Besides, it is important that theological schools should introduce a course for future clergy on the organization of parish diaconical work. In some theological schools, this work has already been undertaken basically on a limited scale with selected subjects. Despite the fact that the importance of such a course is generally recognized, there is still the question of how to find a class period for it in the overloaded curriculum of theological schools. There is a similar situation with regard to the introduction of new disciplines, for instance, Pastoral Psychology or Pastoral Psychiatry. Future clergy need knowledge on this subjects but the training courses have not been developed yet and they are absent from the compulsory curriculum of theological schools. It is also necessary to broaden the opportunities for systemic diaconical training for parish clergy who have already graduated from a seminary.

Along with training and methodological work, there is a need for research methodological work to reflect on the basic social service and practice and to develop the important field of the theology of diaconia. What is Orthodox diaconia? What is its place in the modern society? Who are its targets? What new forms of synergy with the modern world and secular organizations can be offered by the Church? What is the role of the laity and clergy in diaconia? What is its identity and distinction from social work, on the one hand, and from the missionary church work, on the other? What are its boundaries? To answer these and many other questions it is necessary to undertake a theological reflection of the Orthodox diaconia. It is not an easy task for a number of reasons, including the reason that the canonical territory of the Church embraces many countries and, accordingly, many cultures, ethnic traditions, languages, etc.

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