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The Goal for Christians is to Bring People Love, Beauty and Self-sacrifice

From May 29-June 6, 2019, with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and His Eminence Metropolitan Pavel of Minsk and Zaslavsk, Exarch of All Belarus, a delegation of youth from the Russian Church Abroad made a philanthropic visit to Belarus. For the second year in a row, a reliquary containing the right hand of Holy Grand Duchess Elizabeth and a relic of Nun Barbara was brought to Belarus for blessing, support and consolation. Heading the delegation was Senior Priest of the Synodal Cathedral of Our Lady “of the Sign,” Protopriest Anderi Sommer, who is also heads the St Vladimir Youth Association.  

- This was the fourth philanthropic visit of our youth, the goal of which is to provide financial help to pediatric medical-social centers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and for social service by our youth on a volunteer basis. We’ve visited orphanages and rehabilitation centers in Banchenakh, near Kiev, Tikhvin, near St Petersburg, Minks and Pinsk in Belarus, and brought money gathered by children of our parish schools, part of the “School Piggy Bank” program.

This year, 11 young people age 18 and over from three dioceses of the Russian Church Abroad in the USA, from various states, spent ten days visiting medical clinics for children, and also visited the holy sites of Belarus. It was their first visit to Belarus, and some of them have never even flown on a plane.

- How was your program in Belarus organized?

- Our benevolent mission was jam-packed. With the aim of strengthening their faith, the youth went to Polotsk, where they prayed and communed of the Holy Gifts at the relics of Holy Princess Evfrosinia of Polotsk, rising at 5 am to pray at an akathist to the saint.  

We visited a boarding school not far from Polotsk, which has 120 students from grades 1-12, who for one reason or another were deprived of their parents. They are taught various trades, obtain professional habits which will help them in life after they graduate from the boarding school and set out on their own.

On June 3-4, we traveled to Zhirovichi, one of the oldest monasteries in Belarus, which also houses a seminary. Our kids met with the students there, told them about life abroad, how to preserve their faith outside of the borders of their historic homeland, how they help their parishes, about parish schools and summer camps, about the Liturgical music school in Jordanville, and mostly how to maintain a balance between faith, the Church and life in society, for it is very important to refrain from extremes in one direction or other.

The seminarians were very interested in what our youth had to say and asked many questions. They saw that our American kids were okay, they attend church, study, have their own hobbies. The meeting was informal, and they struck up friendships.  

- A church was consecrated during your visit to Minsk…

- Our Minsk “home base” was St Elizabeth Convent. We participated in the consecration of a new monastic church dedicated to St John of Shanghai and San Francisco. Our youth saw how St John is venerated in Belarus, everyone prayed and took Communion during Liturgy, and Reader Sergei Brushtein served as an acolyte during the rite of consecration headed by Metropolitan Pavel. The church will provide services to people who suffer from various dependencies.

- Still, the main goal of your trip was social service?

- Absolutely, the reason for our trip to Belarus was to visit the children’s hospice at Samarian Rehabilitation Center for handicapped children, which is a joint project of the Pinsk Diocese Social Service Department and St Barbara Convent of Pinsk.

This year our “Piggy Bank” program raised $11,000 for this hospice from children of our parish schools. This money will go towards the heating system of the hospice premises, including the church, all the buildings. The center is built with a church dedicated to Holy Tsarevich Alexei in the center, and rooms surrounding it, so that children in wheelchairs and even beds can be wheeled into church.

The value of our “Piggy Bank” project is that children themselves collect money for children their own age, and then older youth deliver the money to the social-service institution and are given the opportunity to lend a hand themselves. In America, they wouldn’t let kids into such institutions, but it is important for them to see with their own eyes, and feel what these people are living through, especially children who because of health problems cannot live a normal life, or might even suffer from an incurable disease. For our youth, this is not only physical work, it is also spiritual labor. Meanwhile, for the students of our parish schools, they should learn to sacrifice, to help the destitute and sick. This is our Christian duty. What is important is not the size of the donation but the willingness to help, the call of the heart, irrespective of whether the needy are members of their community or not. If we don’t rear our children with the understanding of how important it is to keep this Christian duty, they will grow up without the sense of needing to help others.

The Lord did not divide people into parish members and others. He called upon us to give every needy person aid, and it is this desire and command of the heart that we must instill in our young people.

I recently read a similar statement by Archbishop Amvrosy of Verey: “People are expecting from us Christians the same they're expecting from God, i.e. beauty, kindness, thoroughness. They associate us with God although we often do not deserve such associations. They are expecting from us the glare of the Divine light. They are expecting a fair and good work. They are expecting that our faith would bear the fruits not of the restrictions, prohibitions and criticism, but of the beauty attractiveness and creativity. And this precisely what our task as Christians, as the children of God is.”

Yes, there are schools which donate to the “Piggy Bank,” and we are grateful, but we don’t request that schools donate. The main thing is for the effort to be made from the heart.

We intentionally select social institutions in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that are far from city centers, which rarely receive aid from other sources or don’t get any help at all. They accept the assistance from our children in far-off America with tears of joy.

I would like to emphasize once again that we don’t touch a penny of the money we raise: all funds go to the needs of the children who live in the orphanages and other clinics.

- Last year, $10,000 was gathered and delivered to an orphanage in Minks for handicapped children which St Elizabeth Convent administers. Were you able to see the fruits of your efforts this year?

- Absolutely! The money our kids collected for the Minsk center for children with special needs went to a “sensory garden” and petting zoo. These special-needs children is equipped so that the kids can develop their sensory organs: vision, smell, feel. They bought animals, plants and flowers. Even children in wheelchairs can play in the park. We visited this orphanage and were very happy to see what benefit these children get from the sensory park.

- Thank you, Father Andrei, for this fascinating story. We would like to offer some of the impressions the delegates shared:

Christopher Mayer, Boston, MA:

“...One of the biggest impressions was visiting the children’s hospices… It was nice to see where the money went that our Russian Orthodox parish schools collected, how important it is for the orphans, and how happy they were. It was simply remarkable to see how our parish is able to affect communities around the world! When we saw the expressions on the faces of the children playing with the animals in the petting zoo, I teared up…”

Liza Kotar, Seattle, WA:

“We went to children’s hospices and I saw how people dedicate their lives to helping others. They work with limited resources, often with no compensation, tending to bed-ridden kids, children who aren’t even theirs… Many of us began to sense a bond with our roots, our faith, and something bigger than we had ever experienced. At the end of the trip we understood that we must personally carry that spirit and energy which Belarus, and St Elizabeth, showed us, back to our parishes, and to disseminate it in our communities.”

Anastasia Schmidtov, Seattle, WA:

“My trip to Belarus opened my eyes to a lot of unexpected surprises… Our visit to the children’s home made a great impression on me. I did not expect to see what I saw, specifically, the genuine love for and attention to the future of the children. It was surprising how well thought-out everything was. The kids are taught to be independent and self-reliant, so that they could boldly walk out of the home into the adult world. The children’s hospice is a whole ecosystem, also self-reliant: the kids cultivate vegetable gardens, they sew pillowcases and sheets, do carpentry, and use their own handiwork for their own purposes.”

Sergei Brushtein, New York, NY:

“The consecration of the church was for me a unique experience. This log structure on the land of Belarus was dedicated to a beloved saint of ours, whose relics lie in San Francisco—St John of Shanghai. I had never witnessed the consecration of an altar. It was a great blessing.

“It was very important for us to see our roots. We were enriched by the spirit of our historic homeland, we brought it back with us and we can share it with our friends.”

Olga Semyanko, Stratford, CT:

“We visited two children’s homes during our trip. It was nice to find that such nice and tender people are tending to them. We played with the kids in the petting zoo which was built on donations from our “Piggy Bank” project of recent years. Seeing and petting various animals brought huge smiles to the faces of the children of the orphanage.

“This trip forced me to reevaluate what I have, and to thank my family for preserving our Russian culture and faith. It made me think about how I can pass this down to my children in the future. I hope that these trips continue, so that our young people can help others and establish friendships with Orthodox Christian youth.”

Tatiana Veselkina

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