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Diaconia: Food aid to the poor
The problems of food aid to the poor in Russia today
Food aid for the poor in the Community of the Holy Unmercenary Cosma and Damian at Shubino, Moscow
Soup kitchen of the Brotherhood of the All-Merciful Savior, Moscow
Food aid program t the Parish of All Saints Who Showed Forth in the Russian Land, Novosibirsk
Charity soup kitchen at the Church of Our Lady of Vladimir, Mytischi
The Intercession Charity and Social Initiative center at Kavkazskie Mineralbye Vody
Soup kitchen for the poor at the Church of the Dormition in Krasnogorsk

The problems of food aid to the poor in Russia today

The economic policy pursued in recent years in Russia has led to a sharp decrease in the living standards of the population. At present, over half of the Russian population lives below the poverty line which in itself is rather low. In many regions, workers at both state-run and private enterprises have not received their salaries for months. Even if received, they are so low that it is almost impossible to survive on them. The situation has become ever more acute after the economic crisis was sharply aggravated by the decisions the government made in August 1998. A sharp rise in prices ensued, while salaries remained practically the same. The number of the unemployed has considerably increased. All this has resulted in further impoverishment of millions of people. In the months following the crisis, the situation has not stabilized and continued to worsen. Hundreds of thousands are starving in the literal sense of this word, while millions of others have found themselves on the verge of starvation.

In the present situation, it is a matter of primary importance to support the low-income population by food aid, i.a. through NGOs. The problem is complicated by the fact, that needy people emerged almost in all sections of the population in Russia. In the traditional international practice, the least protected social groups include lonely old people, orphans and the disabled. In Russia, these groups are large in number and in most cases are in desperate straits. But as distinct from many other countries, these groups have grown to include those sections of the population which normally do not need special support. Among them are medical doctors and teachers, active army officers, and highly qualified engineers. A glaring example characteristic of this dramatic situation is suicide committed by several senior navy officers who had not received their salaries for several months. Tied by duty, they could not seek other ways of supporting their families, while their wives could not find jobs. The situation varies from region to region, of course, but in case of closure of some enterprises and inadequate or irregular financing of others it almost impossible for qualified specialists in many cities to find other sources of income.

Parishes, monasteries, brotherhoods and other institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church have been doing all they can to give food aid to those in need. This work has been quite widespread. Estimations have shown that about one third of all the church organizations has been involved in it in this or that measure. Some of them have done it on a fairly large scale, in spite of the fact that every time they have to overcome many financial and logistic problems.

Food aid has been given in various forms, such as arrangement of charity canteens and mobile soup kitchens, distribution of food packages, delivery of lunches to old and disabled people at home. As a rule, the aid has been given to those who really need it, regardless of their religious convictions.

In the absence of regular financing, foodstuffs or funds to buy them have to be sought in various ways peculiar to each particular case. Among the financial sources are donations from parishioners, aid from sponsors, in many cases from abroad, funds earned by church institutions through selling books and other things. More often than not, however, these sources cannot cover all the expenses. Therefore, some church organizations have had to find non-traditional ways of solving the problem. For instance, in some places they have managed to arrange with food storehouses to give them free the foodstuffs the shell-life of which is about to expire and which are still edible, though not salable in the market.

One of the most difficult logistic problems is lack of special facilities for cooking and serving meals to people. Only few churches and brotherhoods have managed to build special facilities or convert old ones. In other cases, other ways out have to be found. Thus, there is an experience of using old buses as canteens or arranging meals at a church in the time free from divine services. As a rule, due to a lack of space, meals have to be served in several shifts. In some places, mobile soup kitchens have been used to distribute food.

Another logistic task is to ensure the necessary sanitary standards. Most visitors in charity canteens and mobile soup kitchens are homeless people and many of them are sick with infectious diseases. At the same time, disposable plates are quite expensive and not all have funds to buy them. Here, too, non-standard ways have to be found. For instance, bisected plastic bottle or plastic dairy cups may be used as disposable bowls.

In spite of all the difficulties, the food aid to the needy, with God's help, continues. In this issue we give information about several concrete church initiatives for implementing the food aid program. We hope that their experience will be useful for other numerous organizations involved in this difficult but important work.

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Food aid for the poor in the Community of the Holy Unmercenary Cosma and Damian at Shubino, Moscow

The works of charity carried out by our Church of Sts Cosma and Damian are manifold. We remember the instruction given by St. James: "Faith itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." One of the major areas of charitable work of our community is giving various kinds of food aid to the poor and the homeless.

For five years now, special groups of our parishioners have been distributing free lunches five days a week, except for Saturdays and Sundays, to fifty lonely pensioners who cannot come out. Besides, once a month we bring them a 100 ruble-worth free food package containing butter, cheese, fruits, meat, which they cannot afford to buy on their pensions. The Lutheran World Federation has paid for the lunches and foodstuffs.

The church has contracted for the cooking of lunches with a nearby caf. Parishioners who distribute them are predominantly young people divided in six groups, each attending to five or six pensioners. The charity groups obtain lunches for their charges by producing church-stamped coupons. The number of coupons used is reported to the sponsors. Talking to our charges, we learn about their needs and try to help them in their household chores. We do their rooms and laundry, help them to wash themselves, that is to say we give the help that state-run social services usually provide.

Every Monday, the Paninter firm gives us free the dairy products, including milk, cottage cheese, sour crme and yogurt, the serviceable time of which is to expire in a few days-time and which are to be dispensed of as soon as possible. A group of our men distributes them to our charges.

One of our parishioners works at a firm producing packed chicken salads. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he brings three big thermos jugs filled with the chicken broth left after cooking chickens. This makes is possible to feed the homeless. By 12 o'clock, we have tables and benches arranged at the northern chapel. After the homeless and the poor take their sits and say the grace, our women begin to serve the soup and then the tea. Sugar, tea and bread have been bought with the money donated by the community members for this purpose. Along with homeless people, needy parishioners also come either to take the soup home or to have lunch together with others at the church. In total, the number of people coming for the lunch varies from 80 to 120.

The humanitarian aid coming to the church has been distributed according to the list and catalogue compiled. Those who are in need were identified through a questionnaire filled by our parishioners and reports made by the leaders of prayer groups in which the needs and problems of each of our brothers and sisters are well known. Among other questions asked in the questionnaire was this: "Your financial position: very poor, poor, satisfactory, good (underline the appropriate)". The same questionnaire helped to identify those who wished to serve in the charity group and to help the sick and the elderly with housekeeping, as well as those who could give away clothes and make financial contributions. In the process of work, more and more people are identified as the needy and the list is growing.

The community helps not only individuals, but also organizations. In February, it gave 100 food packages to the boarding school for disabled orphans at the town of Dmitrov. They were paid for by Norwegian Christians and received from the Bible Mission in Moscow. Earlier, 100 food packages were given to the Children's Republican Hospital for the mothers of little patients who stay there together with their children brought over from various regions.

Along with the distribution of free lunches and foodstuffs, the community has offered other kinds of material aid to the needy. The manifold charitable work of the parish is financed through the designated donations by parishioners. Thus, 40 pairs of footwear were bought for disabled children at the Dmitrov boarding school. In 1998 a large parcel of bedsheets was bought and sent to the Butyrskaya Prison as an Easter gift.

A charity group has worked in the church itself to distribute clothes to poor parishioners, extended families, the lonely and disabled, refugees - all those who stand in need. On Wednesdays, the sisters working in this group change homeless people's clothes, underwear and worn-out overcoats. We have also sent clothes to a sanatorium for children consumptive, orphanages, the girls' orphanages at the convents in Maloyaroslavets and Kostroma, the Veterans Council and other places.

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Soup kitchen of the Brotherhood of the All-Merciful Savior, Moscow

With each year the number of people who live below the poverty line and need the charitable aid of the Church is growing. This category includes elderly and disabled people, children from extended and low-income families, refugees and the homeless.

The Brotherhood of the All-Merciful Savior has taken upon itself to organize a soup kitchen. At present, it offers lunches to some 400 people daily. Among them are lonely pensioners, disabled people, the students of St. Tikhons's Theological Institute who are not sufficiently provided for, factory and office workers from the Parish of St. Nicholas-at-Kuznetsy and the Brotherhood itself. Besides, the Sunday school children have breakfast at the canteen on Saturdays and Sundays. Lunches are also given to the homeless and refugees. Among those who work in the kitchen and the canteen are students and our elderly women parishioners, who peel vegetables, store up pickled and salted vegetables and fruit preserves. Meals on festive days are held in an especially solemn atmosphere.

The soup kitchen of the Brotherhood was organized in winter 1991. Initially it was arranged at the building of the Parish of St. Nicholas-at-Kuznetsy, which needed repairs. Thanks to the help of the World Council of Churches, six modular units of the canteen's building were put up in 1994 in the territory of the church, the necessary kitchen equipment was installed and a refectory for 50 people was arranged.

In 1997, it was decided to build a new, well-equipped, building for the soup kitchen in place of the present one which will provide for a larger refectory. At present, after prolonged negotiations, the project has been granted a state certificate, It will allow to obtain permission for beginning construction work which is expected to be completed this coming summer.

Since the soup kitchen has began to function the question has been raised about the criterion for selecting visitors. In the first place we invited our pensioners and disabled persons among our permanent parishioners. Many of them keep coming for lunch to this day. Besides, many refugees approached us for aid in the beginning. Homeless by the power of circumstances, they had to stay in railway stations, sometimes with all members of their families. Some asked permission to have lunch for only a few days, while others asked for a longer period. Unfortunately, there were cases of improper behavior. Then one-time meal tickets were introduced to put the work of the soup kitchen in good order.

Permanent visitors were given registration checks for the test period of two weeks or a month. They were warned that the checks would be withdrawn if the rules of the soup kitchen were violated. This helped to establish normal relations. Almost immediately the question arose about the sanitary condition of some of the visitors. It concerned primarily the homeless who were carriers of skin diseases. An attempt was made to arrange a temporary pavilion for them next to the soup kitchen. Unfortunately, it was immediately used for splitting bottles and other outrages. We had to content ourselves with serving lunches in clean glass jars for want of disposable plates.

At present, the following rules have shaped at the soup kitchen. Every new visitor has to have a talk with someone from the Brothehood's Charity Board. After he or she is given a registration check for two weeks, his or her personal data are recorded in the registration book. If the newcomer's behavior does not rouse censure, the Charity Board decides to prolong his or her visiting period for three months. If necessary, the pass can be prolonged for a longer period. In summer months the number of visitors usually decreases as students leave the city for holidays. The soup kitchen is closed in July and August. In this period, we try to help visitors from among pensioners and disabled persons by giving them foodstuffs. In September we reregister the permanent visitors and enroll new ones.

It is important to mention that through the efforts of the Orthodox medical service working at the Brotherhood all the visitors of the soup kitchen have gone through medical check at the district clinic.

The soup kitchen could have been able to feed so many people without the permanent financial support from our benefactors. By God's mercy, the work of the soup kitchen continues.

E. B. Delone
Chairperson of the Charity Board,
Brotherhood of the All-Merciful Savior
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Food aid program t the Parish of All Saints Who Showed Forth in the Russian Land, Novosibirsk

The Mobile Soup-Kitchen is one of the programs carried out by the Parish of All Saints Who Showed Forth in the Russian Land at the Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk, since 1997. Led by the rector of the church, Archpriest Boris Pivovarov, it has been part of a wider project called the "Siberian Religious Center". The responsibility for the program has been placed on the Sisterhood of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth founded by the parish. The aim of the program is to support the socially unprotected part of the population. Hot lunches have been served on a regular basis to poor and lonely pensioners and bedridden disabled people. Lonely sick people doomed to complete immobility need a special care. At present, there are about ten such patients under the Sisterhood's care. Initially the sisters of mercy delivered lunches using the public transportation. Since 1998, they have been taken to their charges in a car, thanks to a designated donation from the Aid to the Churches in Need, a European charitable organization.

The lunches have been prepared at the Orthodox Gymnasium of St. Sergius of Radonezh. Through the Mobile Soup-Kitchen program, the number of those catered for by the sisterhood varies from 20 to 50.

Since February 15, 1999, the sisterhood has been involved in the Winter Aid to Russia program. It was organized by the Moscow Patriarchate with the financial support of the Action by Churches Together international organization and the Hungarian Interchurch Aid. The parish was allowed to take part in this program on the condition that it would feed 250 children from extended, one-parent and low-income families. The canteen of the Orthodox Gymnasium became the basis for food arrangements.

Among all the forms of church charitable work, the first and foremost is to feed people. It is the fulfillment of the commandment of Christ the Savior Himself (Mt. 25:35). The hard work of the sisters of mercy and their helpers who bring daily food to the sick and elderly, children and the disabled is also part of the fulfillment of this commandment.

The Winter Aid to Russia project gave the parish a considerable assistance in purchasing the necessary equipment for preparing food, including a refrigerator and machines for pulping, cutting and mashing raw and processed food, an electric boiler, a kneader, a kitchen machine, a bread-cutter, a potato-peeler, pots and pans and thermos jugs for delivering hot food. This equipment will be also used to prepare food for all children and adults under the sisterhood's and the gymnasium's care after the Winter Aid to Russia project is completed.

At present, there are over 350 children in the sisterhood's care. Meals are arranged in this way: five times a week the gymnasium's canteen caters for 150-200 children who need high-calorie diet three times a day. Their diet includes also medicinal food, such as Biphilin-M and herb teas recommended and proscribed by physicians for particular illnesses. A medical doctor and a nurse exercise control over the feeding of children.

The sisterhood has also given all assistance that is possible for it to teenagers at the local orphanage. It normally includes food parcels, vegetables, fruits and medicinal diet. Some 18 children are looked after at their homes. Among those whom the sisterhood has helped are a family with eleven children, six orphans whose mother died a tragic death and some families with disabled children. For families with adults who can cook, foodstuffs are brought over, while families with disabled parents who themselves need care receive hot meals.

Among all the forms of church charitable work, the first and foremost is to feed people. It is the fulfillment of the commandment of Christ the Savior Himself (Mt. 25:35). The hard work of the sisters of mercy and their helpers who bring daily food to the sick and elderly, children and the disabled is also part of the fulfillment of this commandment. As any charitable initiative, the Mobile Soup Kitchen program and the Winter Aid to Russia project have helped to identify new families who need such care and support.

N. G. Gorelova
Director of the Orthodox Gymnasium
of St. Sergius of Radonezh
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Charity soup kitchen at the Church of Our Lady of Vladimir, Mytischi

In all times the Church has been on the side of the week and the underprivileged. Christ Himself identified Himself with these people. He came to the world as the Messiah of the poor, not as a powerful political leader. He was called "a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Mt. 1:19) because He was always with the marginalized. The Church continues the cause and service of Christ on earth.

A canteen for our poor and homeless compatriots has been opened at our church of Our Lady of Vladimir since the restoration work began in it. During several years of work we have encountered a number of difficulties and problems and have acquired some experience in this kind of service.

The first thing necessary for a charity soup-kitchen is a separate room, because among visitors there are often people with various infectious diseases. We have a room that can accommodate 30 people. It is used to serve meals to 250-300 people in several shifts beginning from 2 p.m. The food is cooked in the same canteen as the church workers use. There is a hot water sink to wash dishes with household soda, but the lack of a dishwashing machine and detergents make the washing somewhat difficult.

Unfortunately, we have no special facilities for helping the poor. It has caused certain difficulties because during the lunch distribution a large number of visitors stay in the territory of the church, and guards have a hard time keeping an eye on the church property. Besides, there are many people, especially those with alcoholic dependence, who give a lot of trouble to locals and law-enforcement agencies.

Our experience has shown that it is impossible to support a soup kitchen with the parish funds alone. Those who wish to initiate this good service should enter into close cooperation with the local authorities and regional organizations. It is very important to find an experienced parishioner who can undertake to supply the soup kitchen with foodstuffs. We have several people doing this work. Their task is to establish contacts with foodstores and storehouses which can donate ill-conditioned goods or goods with expiring shell-time. The quality of foodstuffs should be checked before they are used. At the same time, it should be observed that it is impossible to ensure supplies without having transportation means of one's own.

There must be a person at the soup kitchen itself, responsible for the arrangement of lunches and the refectory condition. This post should be paid because of its heavy responsibilities. We have a person responsible for the soup kitchen whose salary is 1000 rubles.

Along with food, we help the poor with clothes. This work depends in many ways on the diligence of the parishioners who can bring old or spare clothes. After cleaning they are distributed to all who need them.

Charity is a sincere movement of the Christian heart. Therefore, in giving aid to the poor, we should not impose Orthodoxy on them. One should decide for oneself what suits one's conscience. People of various confessions come to our soup kitchen. It is our duty to welcome all, give them clothes and shoes to wear, without reproaching them with taking our bread and sticking to their own faith. Spiritual elder Siluan says that a non-Orthodox believer should not be reproached for his different faith. On the contrary, one should say: "It is good that you believe in One God the Creator and Providence. I am only sorry that you do not know that He is also the Savior".

Of course, seeing our tenderness towards them, many poor people have become attracted to us. They come to trust us and wish to tell us about themselves. They tell us their stories, often even in writing, describing their entire life frankly with the single wish to improve and live a different, honest, life. The most important thing is that some have managed to reform.

Rev. Alexander Agrikov
Dean of the Mytischi District
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The Intercession Charity and Social Initiative center at Kavkazskie Mineralbye Vody

The idea of establishing a church center in the Stavropol region for the express purpose of giving aid to the socially deprived sections of the population and working with children was implemented in 1998.

The need for an institution for implementing church initiatives was conditioned by the grave social situation in the Stavropol region, an agricultural area caught in a severe economic crisis caused by slumping industry and the collapse of the former system of production. Additionally, the region has become an asylum for thousands of refugees from Azerbaijan, Armenia, North Ossetia, Georgia and Tajikistan, driven away by the recent local armed conflicts. In November 1998, the official number of registered refugees reached 21 thousand. With the beginning of war in Chechnya, dozens of thousands fled the republic, seeking to escape the horror of war. Some 120 thousands decided to stay in the Stavropol region for good; 41 thousand obtained official registration and the status of asylum seekers.

The center was established in April 1998 at the Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God in Zheleznovodsk, Stavropol region. The center and the parish occupy a large three-storyed building. An architectural monument built in 1912, this building was given free to the Russian Orthodox Church by the Government to facilitate the Church's social work. At present, a part of the building has been restored while the other is still under repair.

The center has been engaged in relief work, implemented aid projects targeted at the three groups that are the most vulnerable in the Stavropol region: children, disabled people and asylum seekers.

Children. There are three projects targeted at this group:

  • Food aid to children's institutions standing in the greatest need, including the Mashuk Children's Home in Inozemtsevo - 90 disabled children; the school at the Shpakovka village - 40 children; the school at the Mikhailovka village - 100 children; the grammar school in Kislovodsk - 140 children.
  • Free daily meals for children under the Winter Aid to Russia program of ACT/HIA/ROC. Under this project, 100 children from one-parent, low-income and extended families have received hot lunches at the center five times a week since February 15, 1999. The lists of children were compiled with the help of the local administration. The menu was set up as recommended by the Academy of Medical Science's Nutrition Institute.
  • Preparations for opening an Orthodox children's vocational school. Calculated for 50 children, it will teach them such skills as painting, applied arts, joinery, turning, etc., which are very much in demand for church restoration work and which can become their basic trade. The great demand for such specialists and the high level of education will ensure their employment.
Disabled people. The center has supported poor and disabled old people neglected by their relatives by supplying foodstuffs to the boarding house in Inozemtsevo with its 600 inmates and offering free meals to 40 people at the center. The center has also collected and distributed clothes to old people and handicapped.

Asylum seekers. The center's soup kitchen caters daily for 30 old people who are asylum seekers.

To help asylum seekers build up their new residences the center has set up a joinery's. Part of its production, such as window frames, doors, simple furniture, etc., has been distributed to asylum seekers free of charge, while the rest has been sold at cost value.

An important point in this endeavor is that asylum seekers have been directly involved in the implementation of these projects through working as craftsmen and cooks.

Funds for implementing the projects have been raised with the help of donors, the local authorities and businessmen and through private donations. Besides, the center has rented 100 hectares of land for agricultural production. It has also maintained cooperation with the local Beekeepers' Society in distributing honey under the food aid projects and the social aid program of the parish.

The Intercession Charity and Social Initiative Center at the Kavkazskie Mineralnye Vody has become the first experience in the North Caucasus to implement church initiatives in the form of projects. It has benefited from the experience of social work accumulated by the Russian Orthodox Church in the recent years. The center has maintained intensive contacts with similar institutions in various dioceses both in and outside Russia.

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Soup kitchen for the poor at the Church of the Dormition in Krasnogorsk

The Church of the Dormition in Krasnogorsk was returned to the Church in 1990 in a very poor state. Everything from the foundation to the roof, except for the walls, had to be altered or restored. Though much has been done for the last nine years, it is likely that the restoration work will have to continue for a few more years. Life, however, cannot wait for the completion of the restoration. Divine services have been conducted in the still unfinished church every morning and evening; a Sunday school has functioned; a soup kitchen for the poor has been set up in spite of the lack of funds.

People have continually approached us for material aid. Unable to help them with money, we try to supply them with clothes donated by parishioners and to feed them up. Until recently, we have given them meals either in the church's vestibule or in the yard. Early in 1999, we managed to arrange a canteen for the poor in an old bus that had served its time.

The canteen is open daily from 1 to 3 p.m. for all those who wish to come. About 20 people can have lunch at the same time. We can feed up to 150 people a day, though visitors are not yet as many.

The order of the day at the canteen is this: the first group comes in, the grace is said, the meal is blessed, and all sit down to eat. The lunch normally consists of the main dish and tea with sugar and bread. Talking is forbidden during the meals, except for necessary exchanges. One of the two clergy present reads from the "The Orthodox Family Readings". After the meal, a prayer is said again, all come out to let in the next group.

Obviously drunken people are not allowed. Moist cleaning with a disinfectant is done daily. We use only disposable ware. The food is prepared now at the church's refectory, but in case of an increased number of visitors a separate kitchen can be put up, reserved specially for the soup kitchen.

The local population has been informed about the soup kitchen by the Krasnogorsk town hall and the local radio station. Parishioners of all the churches in town know about it, of course. Yet the number of visitors has not been very large so far. It is probably because there is no nearby railway station or market place or other traditional joint of the homeless. Another reason, clearly, is that most low-income people among the locals are not so poor as to come to a "vagrants'" soup kitchen. Once we witnessed even this: a beggar refused to sit next to another beggar as a humiliation and stopped coming. On the other hand, among those who come to the soup kitchen are not only homeless people and alcoholics, but also poor old women from among the parishioners of our church.

Rev. Constantine Ostrovsky
Rector of the Church of the Dormition in Krasnogorsk

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