Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tenacity of tiny Russian congregation inspires local team

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

Tears fell at Monday's meeting of the Church Women of the Temple Area.
The heartfelt reaction was in response to the guest speakers, the Rev. Margaret Boles and Peggy Maesaka, both of First Presbyterian Church in Temple.
The pair came to talk about their summer 2008 mission trip to Russia.
'The presentation was very informative, thought-provoking and moving,' said Theda Maxfield, past president of the Church Women group.
Fellow organization member Ruth Hovel agreed.
'I was surprised to learn about the Russian government's attitude toward religion,' Ms. Hovel said.
While in Russia, Mrs. Boles and Mrs. Maesaka learned that because it's the official church of the country, the Russian Orthodox Church has power over churches of other denominations.
'The Orthodox Church can determine where and when churches of other denominations are planted,' Mrs. Boles said. 'As a result, the other churches are often small and far away from towns.' That tidbit of information was mind-boggling to Mrs. Maxfield.
'It's because the government doesn't want the Orthodox Church to have any competition,' Mrs. Maxfield said. 'And I can't believe that.'
The differences between the Orthodox Church and churches of other denominations were evident to the FPC mission team.
'The Orthodox Churches of the bigger cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg were big, elaborate and beautiful,' Mrs. Boles said. 'But the other ones, while beautiful in their own way, were poor and run down.'
The First Baptist Church in Vyazma, Russia, a town comparable in size to Temple, is a small wooden structure, she said.
'It had a outhouse,' Mrs. Boles said. 'So the contrast was obvious.'
But that was not the focus of the mission trip. The team was in Russia to learn about the ministry of Al and Ellen Smith, a couple the Temple church now supports with prayer and funding.
The Smiths are in the business of 'twinning' for all denominations.
'That's where they take a congregation in Russia and partner it with a congregation in the United States,' Mrs. Boles said. 'The paired churches support each other with prayer and interest in each other's programs.'
'So the result is a massive support network,' Mrs. Boles said. 'It's an encouraging ministry to be a part of.'
The First Baptist Church in Vyazma is a participant in the Smiths' ministry.
It's also an example of amazing faith.
'Despite its small size (only 40 members), it survived the Cold War,' Mrs. Boles said. 'The babushkas (Russian for 'grandmothers') kept the church alive.'
Safety was a real concern during the Cold War. The Communism Scare was underway, but the babushkas persevered. They came to church every Sunday and prevented the tiny Baptist church from folding.
'Today the church has grown,' Mrs. Boles said. 'And it's attracted younger worshippers.'
But the babushkas are still there.
'It's a chore for some of them to get to the church,' Mrs. Boles said. 'It's a hard walk to the top of the hill where the church is.'
Faith isn't the only big thing about the First Baptist Church in Vyazma; the pastor said its sense of community care is also awe-inspiring.
'It helps to support two orphanages,' Mrs. Boles said.
Visiting one was the favorite part of the trip for Mrs. Maesaka. She and her husband Cliff 'have a heart for orphans.'
'We worked for a decade at an orphanage in South Carolina,' Mrs. Maesaka. 'So ministering to them is something that we value and enjoy.'
When the Maesakas arrived at the Russian orphanage, they performed the Christian story of the trees, along with the retired Rev. Bill Benner, Mrs. Boles and her husband John.
'It was a marvelous meeting,' Mrs. Maesaka said. 'They were warm and welcoming, and they were so excited that we were there.'
Fellow mission team member Benner agreed.
'The kids were so happy to see us,' Benner said. 'They were a wonderful group.'
The biggest lesson Benner learned was things the Russians have in common with the Americans.
'Russia's changed since the fall of communism,' said Benner who'd been to Russia before. 'We have most of the same beliefs and a lot of the same struggles. They're not much different than we are.'

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