Religious education: missionary trips
It is a common knowledge that the lack of spirituality has become a very acute problem in Russia today. For most people in a traditionally Orthodox country the only way to solve it is, if not to be inchurched fully, then at least to accept Christian faith and values through familiarization with the Orthodox teaching, to attend church services more or less regularly and to participate in church sacraments. It is possible to do in cities and large settlements, and the success of the Orthodox mission depends here in many ways on the activity and ability of the clergy and parishioners to organize catechetical work with various sectors of the population.
In Russia however, there are vast territories where there is not a single Orthodox church or a priest in the radius of hundreds of kilometers from populated areas. People who have lived there for decades have had no opportunity for regular visits to church, nor for coming to it even occasionally. There are thousands of people who have never been to church at all, were not baptized and never participated in church sacraments only because there is no church either in their settlement or for dozens or hundreds of kilometers around it.
This situation was generated by the communist regime when most of village churches were purposefully closed or destroyed on the one hand and many new settlements were created on the other. These were built in areas around prisons and prison camps, and timber and other industrial enterprises where the construction of churches was out of question. But at present, after the collapse of communism and a decade of "reforms", which have brought the country into a grave economic crisis, there is no money for restoring and building churches, the more so in remote areas. Besides, the Church does not have enough priests to serve in such places.
One of the ways to solve this problem is to arrange regular missionary trips of Orthodox groups led by priests to those remote places in Russia where there are no churches. For the last several years this form of work has been visibly developed and continues to spread and improve. Missionary trips can be arranged in variety of ways, many of them requiring original creative and methodological approaches. These can be railway trips by specially equipped trains with a carriage-church, voyages by boats and barges appointed as churches, hikes with portable tent churches. These trips are unique in that church itself comes to people rather than people come to church. And it happens so that by its very appearance a church acts as a missionary awakening faith in people.
The choice of a particular form of a missionary trip depends on the location of the settlement and the transportation infrastructure of the area to be visited. For instance, a carriage-church is preferable in places where most of the settlements are located along the railway, while other transportation means are absent. Missionary trips by train were made in particular in the Arkhangelsk region and Karelia in the North and in the Far East. Where there are enough navigable rivers with many settlements on their banks, the optimal way for a missionary project will be floating churches arranged on barges and boats. These kinds of voyages have already been made for several years in the Volgograd region and Siberia.
This issue of the Newsletter gives specific examples of arranging missionary trips.
Recently the tradition of using carriage-churches has been resumed. In autumn 2000, railroadmen in Moscow gave a specially designed carriage-church to the Russian Orthodox Church. The train itself was repaired in Voronezh and re-equipped by the Voitovich Railway-carriage Repair Works in Moscow. Specialists from St. Sergius monastery of the Trinity and the design office of the Russian Railroad Ministry developed the project of the missionary train. The icons, church vessels, priestly vestments etc. were made by the Church's Sofrino Art Shop.
The train consists of two carriages. The first one accommodates the church of Our Lady "Odigitria" (Guide). The second one contains a refectory, a church library and two compartments. During trips a third carriage, a standard sleeping-car, is added to the train as living quarters for missionaries.
The railway ministry handed over the missionary train to the Russian Orthodox Church in a solemn ceremony in October 2000 at the Kiev Railway Station in Moscow. His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia consecrated the carriage-church dedicated to Our Lady the Guide. He was assisted by Archbishop Ioann of Belgorod and Stary Oskol, chairman of the Missionary Department of the Moscow Patriarchate, and Bishop Tikhon of Arkhangelsk and Kholmogory. Present at the ceremony was also railroad minister N. Aksenenko.
His Holiness the Patriarch thanked the railroadmen for their help in reviving the tradition of carriage-churches and said in particular, "Running railroads in Russia, the church of Our Lady the Guide will guide people to Christ. The missionary train will stop at settlements where there are no Orthodox churches".
On the following day the missionary train started on its first journey through remote areas in the southern Arkhangelsk region. The missionaries were clergy from the dioceses of Belgorod and Stary Oskol and Arkhangelsk and Kholmogory, teachers and students of the Belgorod Seminary, which specializes in mission. They were led by Archpriest Sergiy Popov of the Missionary Department of the Moscow Patriarchate. The carriage-church began its missionary journey on October 20 as part of the train to St. Petersburg, which was the starting point of the first movable church in 1896. The missionary part itself began early in the morning on October 21 when the train arrived at the Podiuga station in the Arkhangelsk region. The initiative in choosing the route belonged to Bishop Tikhon of Arkhangelsk in whose diocese there are many places on which no Orthodox priest has ever set foot.
Father Sergiy Popov: "Already on the move we saw that His Grace Tikhon was right. These were outlying districts of the Arkhangelsk region. All settlements there are strung on the only railroad, like beads on a thread. There are prison zones and abandoned timber works all around. There are few large enterprises and no more than one or two Orthodox churches".
The schedule was planned to travel by nights so that the church doors could be open for people at 9 a.m. every morning. Then a real pilgrimage of local people started. All the time the train stayed at a station, people kept coming in an endless flow.
The missionaries met with people in remote areas every day. They told them about the Church and the basics of the Orthodox faith. The seminary choir gave recitals of church music in Slavonic, Georgian and English and also performed Russian and Ukrainian folk songs.
Father Sergiy Popov: "All the nine days we were on the move were filled to the full with tasks, events and meetings. We had roughly this daily routine: upon arrival in the morning, we had a meeting with the local administration to make some logistic decision. Then we celebrated the Divine Liturgy, administered baptisms, blessed houses and hospitals and finally went in a procession with the cross to the local community house for a concert and a talk to local people. By evenings we simply opened our carriage-church for every one who wished to pray or talk to the priests".
During talks with people the missionaries ascertained once more that even those who considered themselves Orthodox by tradition were very unclear about the basics of church teaching, nor did they understand the meaning of church sacraments or rites or the role of the clergy. This not only leads to spiritual poverty but also creates a favorable ground for all kinds of sects.
Father Sergiy Popov: "In the places we visited, even those who are far from the Church or from any religion still consider themselves Orthodox. But they lack any profound understanding of the spiritual traditions and basics of Orthodoxy. We met with a very wrong idea of the Church and the Orthodox clergy. Many did not know how to approach us and begin a talk. There were also some who believed that to talk and share their inmost thoughts with us is something for dilapidated pious old women or beggars or cripples to do. These people subsequently made "discoveries" for themselves, as it proved that priests, especially seminarians, were young and healthy people, no strangers to humor and masters at all kinds of household work.
There is also another matter. Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say, and sectarians have availed themselves of the absence of Orthodox priests in those places. Jehovah's Witnesses are especially numerous there, but other sects are also present. A person who comes to them finds himself embraced by "friends" who seem to have expected him for a long time. The sectarian's outlook presented in simple and convincing terms seems fairly logical and reasonable. If a newcomer is ignorant of the history and basics of Orthodoxy, which is often the case, he will be caught in this web sooner or later".
A charity program was an important part of this missionary trip. Thanks to their sponsors, the missionaries were able to distribute Christian books free. Local hospitals and people received gratis over 4800 kg of medicines. With the blessing of Archbishop Ioann, all the requested services were conducted free of charge.
The sum total of the first 10-day missionary trip of the carriage-church is as follows: the missionaries celebrated 9 divine liturgies, 8 thanksgivings, 14 requiem services, held 3 processions with the cross to the central streets and administered 1870 baptisms. They also gave 10 missionary concerts in community houses.
Trips to other remote areas in our country, including Karelia, Siberia and the Far East, are underway.
Father Sergiy Popov: "We have a vast field to work, the interest in Orthodoxy is great, and we have to be in time for every one who seeks God and the truth with all his heart".
In this situation, the missionary work becomes increasingly important. Its special task is not only to enlighten people with the World of God, but also to inchurch them through participation in divine services and sacraments of the Church. But how can they be inchurched without a church?
The idea of creating a missionary church that can come to people can be traced back to the early 20th century when a boat-church was built at the initiative of a petty bourgeois by name of Nikolay Yakovlev. He was a very pious man who had to stay away from home for fishing for long periods and missed the church. The local diocese acting through the Community of Sst. Cyril and Methodius purchased an old barge and re-equipped it as a floating church to serve the fishermen. It was a very significant event. Even Emperor Nicholas II himself sent a wire on the day when the church was consecrated, expressing joy and gratitude to all the organizers of the floating church.
In our days, the idea of floating church has been revived. Archpriest Nikolay Agafonov, head of the missionary department of the Volgograd diocese, has initiated it. It is important to note that the Volgograd region is unique in its water arteries. No region in Russia is pervaded by rivers as much. The banks of these rivers are home for Cossack villages, settlements and various villages whose churches were destroyed under the communists.
In 1997, it was decided to build a boat-church. The Kirche in Not organization provided the financial support. A barge was purchased immediately. Father Nikolay directed the construction on board. The floating church was named St. Innocent in honor of the famous Orthodox missionary Metropolitan Innocent of Moscow who carried out his mission in the Aleutian Islands, canoeing from island to island.
In May 1998, the floating church was consecrated. It was equipped with all the things necessary for celebrating divine services and sacraments including a sanctuary, an iconostasis, an ambo, vessels, candle-sticks and icon-lamps, which oscillated slightly on the floating support. After a solemn thanksgiving conducted by Archbishop (now Metropolitan) Herman of Volgograd and Kamyshin, this unique church set course down the Volga and the Volga-Don Canal.
The first parishioners of St. Nicholas' floating church were sunbakers at the beach in the Nariman village. Floating above reed thickets, the ringing bell and the shining cross were taken as a hallucination or a miracle. This man-made miracle was to stop for one day at every settlement with no church. But by God's providence, the screw propeller broke down, thus correcting the schedule. The first five parishioners spread the news about the church to bring 50 more people for the Divine Liturgy on the following day. The crew realized that stops should last up to three days. The Orthodox people kept flocking to the church for confession, communion, baptism and wedding. Baptisms were administered by full immersion in the Don and Volga waters.
This missionary work was special in that the preacher was the church itself with its canonical cupola, golden cross and magnificent interior including a golden iconostasis and beautiful church vessels. Once moored, it would summon people by the ringing of its seven bells. At the sight of a church, people would cry and kneel, making the sign of the cross. At home, they would prepare themselves for the first confession in many years of godless power. Moreover, almost everywhere they asked to leave the church in their village. This is a living testimony to the need to have a church in each settlement.
Local people also manifested their joy by giving as much assistance as they could. Indeed, the mooring was not properly equipped and the banks were steep and overgrown with impassable shrubs. Locals would come to clear away the place, to make steps, to develop an approach to the church. Many would bring food for the missionary team.
During 120 days of its first missionary journey, the floating church visited 28 settlements. Some 450 people were baptized, about 1500 people participated in the sacraments of confession and communion. Over 3000 attended the divine services.
Missionary journeys were continued in 1999 and 2000. St. Nicholas took the same route as in 1998, but in comparison with first year, the navigation period was prolonged from late April to late October. In preparation for the next voyage, the church's library was replenished and cassettes with church music were purchased to be played over the local radio. In many places, contacts were established with local people. Before the arrival of the floating church, they notified their fellow villagers and helped them to prepare themselves for the sacraments. During stops, it was arranged for the missionaries to use bathhouses and refrigerators for the Host and to receive food and other aid in villages.
During the first winter, St. Nicholas was moored in Volgograd, but it soon became clear that it was a wrong decision. Since 1999, it has been moored for winter at Piatimorsk and used there as a local church. Anchoring for winter at Piatimorsk has a favorable effect on the spiritual and moral climate there. Last year, a Sunday school was opened at the settlement and the Basic Orthodox Culture course has been introduced in the local secondary school. It is also planned to build churches in several other places lying on the route of the missionary journeys.
In 2000, another floating church, St. Nicholas, was built. Awaiting its first voyage, it is moored and used as a church in the Oktiabrsky settlement where a military unit is stationed. The servicemen can now attend divine services on a regular basis.
Therefore, the important task of inchurching people in remote villages with no or rare opportunity to come to church in district centers seems to be carried out successfully. The Orthodox church has been returned to people through the titanic efforts and ardent prayers of missionary fathers Nikolay Agafonov, Sergiy Tiupin, Gennady Khanykin and all those who help them. They no longer have to hold prayer meetings at squalid lodgings and community houses. Now the church is there to await the grace of people's coming and to give them an opportunity to realize in their hearts the importance of church in their lives. It is there for everyone who was forcefully alienated from the faith and the Orthodox Church to feel in his or her genetically Christian memory - every soul is Christian by nature, as Tertullian said - that without the Church the faith is dead, without her sacraments it is not salvific.
May God help our missionary priests in their preparations for the forthcoming navigation. May the Lord send them generous benefactors.
The first trip was made in summer 1997. It was a canoe trip down the Yug River in the Viatka region. Preliminary we asked Archbishop Chrisanthos of Viatka and Slobodskoye to give his blessing upon missionary work in this diocese. We carried a portable altar and a corporal for celebrating the Divine Liturgy. His Eminence Chrisanthos met us with great love and personally blessed each participant of the team.
It was one of the most difficult trips. The group consisted of 24 people. We had to live in tents, to celebrate in school gymnasiums and ruined churches. Our day began early in the morning and lasted till late at night. It took much effort to install and assemble a tent camp. In the daytime, we canoed and in the evening prepared ourselves for divine services.
The trip proceeded as follows: having chosen a few villages along the river, we stopped at each for two or three days as the whole trip was planned to last for about two weeks. For so short periods it was difficult to establish contact with the local people, and the most we could do was to baptize those who wished and to celebrate the liturgy during which the newly-enlightened could communicate for the first time in their lives. Catechism was limited to a brief talk immediately before the baptism, to an in-depth confession and a sermon during the service.
Among the most vivid impressions was a visit to the Utmanovo village. All the places for stops were on the right bank. A turn of the river, and we see on our left a large village with a magnificent two-storied church with six side-altars, which can be compared in size to the cathedral of the Donskoy monastery. It was impossible not to make an unplanned stop there. It turned out later that the stop was not made in vain. The master of the local school, who came out to meet us, declared right away that she was an atheist. However, she helped us very much and after our departure promised to busy herself with the restoration of the church. We baptized some 60 people in the river for the first time and thought that a more massive baptism was impossible to imagine.
In total over 100 people were baptized. Thanks to this trip, we could see that Russian people were eager to be closer to God and realized that we could help them in that desire. We saw people who were raised up in the Soviet time. Hearing our preaching about Christ, they repented of their sins, prayed and partook of the Holy Gifts of Christ, promising to God to live according to His commandments.
In summer 1998, we made the second missionary trip, this time to the Yekaterinburg region. In a district center there we rented a small motor-launch and went down the Tavda River to visit villages on its banks.
Some settlements there were built near prison zones. We were shocked by their appearance. There was not a single good house, most of them were long lop-sided and needed thorough repairs. There was so much mud in the streets that only a Ural heavy truck could cope, though not always. Life there is built around the zone. Jobs can be found only in the zone, and most people in these settlements are those who did their terms but, having no resources, had to stay. The inner life of these people is very complex. They are accustomed to deception, they believe nothing and nobody, and they live by one day, trying not to think about the meaning or purpose of their life. These places left grave impressions on us. Only children, who are the same everywhere, were always with us. We managed to establish contact with them, though not without difficulties. They came for the services; many were baptized. The church was placed at the community house, which was past repair. To pass the night there meant to sleep on the flooded floor and listen to rain water coming down from the ceiling in an endless flow. But in addition to the sound of water coming down from the ceiling and rain drumming on the roof, we had to listen to the discotheque music playing behind the wall till 2 a. m.
There are also villages with real peasants. They look so different from the previous ones that you seem to enter a different country. There is a light in every little hut. Domestic care is visible everywhere. Even a small herd of pigs we met on the bank looked somewhat special and pleasing to the eye. Those who live there came from south Russia in the last century. These villages gave us a warm welcome. Their community houses are in good repair, while discotheques were cancelled for the time of our stay. These places have preserved the Russian village culture. The peasants showed us their folk dress and explained their local traditions, while our choir conductors recorded their folk songs performed by old women. In this situation, it is very easy to find a common language. The number of the baptized was great, sometimes a third of a village. When parting we felt that our visit had the point and will be remembered for a long time.
We decided to make our next trips according to an altogether different scenario. We limited ourselves to one or two large villages with at least 1500 population and stayed there for as long as possible. The result was not only better but essentially different. Now our visit led to formation of an Orthodox community with a warden and the establishment of a Sunday school with a director.
As before, the place is chosen in winter. Then we ask Patriarch Alexy of Moscow and All Russia and the ruling bishop for permission to carry out missionary work in the diocese. Sometimes it happens so that the local church authorities themselves invite us, making our task easier. After the place is chosen and the blessing granted, a group of two or three people goes there to establish contacts with the local administration and to find accommodation for the missionary team. Since up to 60 people can come on such a trip, they can be accommodated in kindergartens or schools vacated for summer. As it is not always possible, sometimes the missionaries have to live in tents in woods near the village. They also try to find out whether the local population wants to be closer to God, to participate in divine services and open a prayer house and later a church in their village. The preparation stage does not end with this. Before our departure, we inform the local population about our coming. If there are those who sympathize with our course and ready to help us, we send them announcements to be hung in busy places in the village.
Trips of this scale have become possible thanks to the benefactors who have donated money for a tent church of St. Philaret of Moscow and a bus. Designed by our parishioner, the church can be deployed in any place. It needs only an even 12x5 m-ground, but can also be placed on uneven or even slanting surface. It does need guy ropes or pales. 5 or 7 people can raise such a church within an hour.
In summer 1999, our 42-member team including 2 priests was on mission to the Sinegorye village near Kirovsk. The most vivid impression the trip left was the baptism of 180 people in the Kobra River. This baptism was carefully prepared for several days. A special stage was erected for a priest to immerse people. A place for a choir was arranged on the opposite bank, and a boat was put in place for photographing and shooting from the river.
The same village was visited later, during students' winter vocations, by a 30-member missionary team led by a priest. We were welcomed as old friends. A prayer house had already been there by that time. An abandoned kindergarten was worked up with wood inside; heating was installed and an altar was arranged in the largest hall, with an iconostasis and ambo. Our task this time was to set devotional life going in the absence of a priest. Local people learnt akathistoses, the most capable of them were taught to read and sing in church.
In 2000, we made two trips to the Kazan and Arkhangelsk regions. The trip to the Rovdino village near Arkhangelsk surpassed all the previous ones in scale. 63 people and 2 priests participated in it. The greatest mass baptism to be conducted during our trips took place there as 265 people were baptized at the same time, with 150 more later. We used a new methodology taking into account the experience of our previous trips. It will be also used in future. Its basic elements are as follows:
A missionary group starts its very first day with opening a Sunday school for children for a brief religious instruction on the Old Testament, the life of the Saviour on earth and church feasts and their history. They are also taught the simplest hymns from the All-Night Vigil and Liturgy, so that they could sing soon together with the choir during divine services. At drawing lessons many children come to know for the first time how an Orthodox church looks like. Religious instruction is given by a priest, singing is taught by a choir conductor, while the rest is taken care of by Sunday school teachers who have already an experience of work with children.
Adults are catechized before the baptism, while the baptized are instructed on the sacraments.
The liturgy is very important for missionary work. During the All-Night Vigil in a camp church, people often hear hymns and prayers for the first time in their lives, which penetrate into their hearts and work better than any exhortation. An in-depth confession is made after the service. Finally, the liturgy is celebrated for the newly-enlightened, sometimes with up to 300 communicators. A church shop works next to the church. Its task is to distribute books and icons. The prices are such as to give people an opportunity to buy a necessary book, on the one hand, and not to treat it as a free leaflet, on the other.
A choir usually comes with us to sing at services and give recitals of both church and folk music.
The most difficult part of a trip is work with youth. The best way to talk with young men and women is to hold them in a context they are used to. In the evening a big campfire is made on the riverbank, youth games are played and songs are sung. These campfires attract many young people. In this way an example is given of how a spare time can be spent without damaging one's soul.
Our trips to the villages of Ukhtur and Kenai near Khabarovsk deserve a special mention. They became possible thanks to one of our parishioners, who is engaged in felling there. A minimal number of missionaries participate in these trips, four people led by a priest. This small group, assisted by the local administration and people, managed not only to administer baptisms and celebrate in the community gymnasium, but also to work with children. The priest spent most part of his day talking to people. Of course, one cannot avoid difficulties, which seem insurmountable first but prove otherwise later with God's help. Thus, when we were going to administer baptisms at Kenai last autumn and the temperature outside was 30 degrees below zero and the room was not heated, two militiamen stayed for the night to put firewood in the stove every 30 minutes. But they fell asleep in early hours and did not hear any of their alarm clocks. The priest who came to the freezing room in the morning wakened them up. In spite of all this, some 120 people were baptized.
For the three years of our missionary work, we have baptized about 1700 people and celebrated some 30 liturgies in our camp church. In one of the villages we have arranged a prayer house and opened a Sunday school, the director of which is a history teacher from the local school. Soon a priest is expected to come to the school from the district center. In two other villages, local people have begun to build chapels. We have maintained correspondence with all the villages we visited, which are at least 12.
Our experience has shown that such missionary trips are not only desirable but also necessary. At present, we have a unique opportunity for bringing the Good News of Christ to people and we should not miss it. People try to satisfy their spiritual needs by various divinations, astrology and mysticism. It is the lack of spirituality that has caused unprecedented immorality and hard drinking. The success of various sectarian and Protestant preachers, who have penetrated into the remotest parts of the country, is quite explainable. Unfortunately, the Orthodox, unlike, say, Moonies or Jehovah's Witnesses, do not regard mission as their duty. In most of the villages we have visited, which even mail does not always seem to reach, these visiting "preachers" have already left a deep imprint in people's souls. We had to explain to them the difference between the true worship of God and the cult of the Witness, and many other things. Most people are simple and credulous. On some occasions when sectarians visited a village before our coming, all the Orthodox books were burnt to be replaced by editions in picturesque covers.
Russia needs spiritual revival today as never before. It is very gratifying to see the growing number of churches and monasteries in cities and the growing number of clergy, but it should not be forgotten that a great many Russian people cannot participate in sacraments, nor to come to church. We can speak of the revival of Russia only if the peasant becomes Christian. And here missionary work should play the leading role.
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