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Visit to Siberia Underscores Our Life Together Across Cultures, Languages and Miles

Fri, May 2, 2014

News, Russia

Dr. Matt Rueger and Rev. Daniel Johnson stand next to biggest head of Lenin in the world in Ulan Ude, Russia. On this day, they departed with Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin for Chita, where they arrived at 2:00 AM and then drove to a village to serve Holy Communion.

Dr. Matt Rueger and Rev. Daniel Johnson stand next to biggest head of Lenin in the world in Ulan Ude, Russia. On this day, they departed with Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin for Chita, where they arrived at 2:00 AM and then drove to a village to serve Holy Communion.

On March 22-April 1, 2014, Rev. Daniel Johnson, the catechist to Siberia and the Baltic churches for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) Office of International Mission (OIM), accompanied by Rev. Dr. Matthew Rueger from Iowa, traveled throughout Siberia to visit LCMS partner church body, The Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC). The trip had two parts. On the 22-26, Dr. Rueger gave a series of lectures and also spoke at an SELC congregation. On the 26-April 1, Dr. Rueger and Rev. Johnson traveled to the Chita Region of Siberia with SELC Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin.

Lectures – Theological Education Emphasis:

Dr. Rueger is from Hubbard, Iowa, where he is the pastor of St. John Lutheran Church. He and his congregation are actively involved in the Siberian Lutheran Mission Society (SLMS), and so Dr. Rueger was invited to speak at the Seminary in Novosibirsk. The seminary was founded with the help of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne (CTSFW), which continues to support the seminary with visiting professors and scholars and more. Dr. Rueger’s presentation, he says, “was on the Christological focus of St. Paul’s sexual ethics, in light of first century Roman culture.” Dr. Rueger noted that Russian Lutherans and American Lutherans face many of the same challenges when speaking and teaching about sexuality in the modern world. This is why the lecture was important and helpful for the seminarians. Dr. Rueger explains: “The gist of the presentation is that Paul’s approach to sexual ethics is very applicable to today’s culture, which is very similar to the culture of Rome.  All of Paul’s missionary journeys and epistles are written to people living under the influence of Roman culture.”

Dr. Matthew Rueger,  lecturing on "Christology and sexual ethic of St. Paul in a first century Roman context."  Rev. Alexey Streltsov, rector of Lutheran Theological Seminary, Novosibirsk, Russia, (on right) served as interpreter.

Dr. Matthew Rueger, lecturing on “Christology and sexual ethic of St. Paul in a first century Roman context.” Rev. Alexey Streltsov, rector of Lutheran Theological Seminary, Novosibirsk, Russia, (on right) served as interpreter.

The LCMS and CTSFW frequently provide the seminary in Novosibirsk with guest professors and lectures like the one Dr. Rueger gave, and this activity is in line with one of the six mission priorities of the LCMS: to strengthen theological education around the world and help our partner and other Lutheran Church bodies train the best possible pastors and lay leaders. As Rev. Johnson explains, there is a long and close history between the LCMS, the SELC, and the project of creating a seminary for Russian Lutheranism:

The Siberians know the future of the Lutheran church depends upon an educated clergy and catechized laity. So they asked the LCMS for assistance in starting a seminary. President Al Barry approached Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN, through a grant from the Marvin M. Schwan Charitable Foundation, to help the Siberians start a seminary. It was through the direction of Dr. Timothy Quill, that the Russian Project was started. Under the direction of Rev. Alexey Streltsov [of the SELC], a seminary was established in Novosibirsk to provide the Lutheran church in Siberia (and all of Russian speaking Lutheranism) with clergy possessing a world-class theological education.

Such CTSFW professors as Dr. Art Just have visited to teach there. Rev. Johnson explains that his first encounters with the SELC came at the invitation of Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill to work with pre-seminary/seminary training. This education is important because of a lack of clergy, as Rev. Johnson explains:

The lack of clergy…means that as the SELC is graduating men from her seminary, the church is growing. New parishes are being established. Parishioners are moving to cities where there is no parish, so they gather Lutherans or converts and begin new congregations. This is also a reason why the clergy in the SELC must have the best theological education possible.  They must not only serve their parishes but also catechize laity to teach and witness the faith in their life together.

An educated clergy, as well as a strongly catechized laity, are also especially necessary in Siberia due to the extreme challenges faced there.

Background on Siberia and the SELC: The Challenges of Life and Ministry 

One of the trains on which the men traveled.

One of the trains on which the men traveled.

The SELC covers a vast territory in Siberia. Rev. Johnson explains that it is “5000 miles from the farthest eastern congregation to the farthest western congregation.” The distance is already a difficulty, with pastor-less congregations spread far and wide from those with pastors, but having a pastor visit a vacant congregation is complicated by the expense and limited travel options.  The expense of flying is too great for the pastors and churches, and it is not always possible to travel by car. Most traveling is done by train. Rev. Johnson describes a typical train trip based on the one Johnson, Rueger and Bishop Lytkin took together:

Travel is very difficult. It is not always possible to travel by car and travel by airplane is too expensive. Therefore, most travel in Siberia is done by way of train. To travel from Novosibirsk, where the Bishop’s congregation is located, to Chita, which is in eastern Siberia, takes almost three days. It is very hot and dusty travel in the summer and very cold and uncomfortable in the winter. The Bishop and other SELC clergy usually travel by way of third or fourth class — travel by first or second class is simply too expensive. Third and fourth class travel is done in an open car — bunks in third class and benches in fourth class. Everyone shares the tight space and makes conversation, and shares food and drink to pass the time. Since there are no bunks in fourth class, the passenger is required to sit and sleep in an upright position throughout the trip (which could last for 2-3 days). When the traveler finally reaches his destination, he is often very tired. Because of the long and hard travel, the bishop only manages to visit the eastern and western regions of his territory 4 times each year – usually to celebrate church festivals, conduct baptisms, confirmations, ordinations and funeral memorials.

Pastors from congregations throughout Siberia are assigned to visit the vacant congregations as well. For instance, one pastor travels 12 hours by train one-way every week to visit parishioners and serve liturgy in another city. So, in addition to seeing the Bishop 4-5 times per year, the goal is for each congregation to be visited weekly by the pastor assigned to them, so that they are cared for, receive the Lord’s Supper and can receive private absolution. However, with the hardships of travel and the shortage of clergy, combined with the poverty of the pastor, the people, and the congregations, this goal is not always met. This, says Rev. Johnson, “is a constant burden to the bishop.”

The home of a member demonstrates the extreme poverty the people experience.

The home of a member demonstrates the extreme poverty the people experience.

The poverty in Siberia is hard for us to imagine. Though there are those who are prosperous, this only throws into greater relief the plight of those who have nothing. Dr. Rueger observed that

to stand in a home where a woman sits at a table in a wheel chair with no tires, just metal rims that cut groves in her floor, is humbling.  To accompany the bishop on a communion call to a home of an 80 year old couple, where the home is maybe 12ft. x 12ft., no running water, no toilet or shower, where they heat with a wood stove in the middle of their cramped little hovel and then to find out they have lived there for 50 years, does something to one’s view of life.    It is important for me and for my ministry to be with people in their need and experience even a few moments of their lives. Missions become more real somehow.

Maria waves goodbye from the fence outside her home after a communion visit from the Bishop, Rev. Johnson, Rev. Rueger, and her grandson.

Maria waves goodbye from the fence outside her home after a communion visit from the Bishop, Rev. Johnson, Rev. Rueger, and her grandson.

Rev. Johnson further describes the extreme challenges faced by the people of Siberia and their pastors and church leaders:

The region of Buryatia and Chita (east of Lake Baikal) is a very impoverished region of Siberia.  Even though Russia may be a “nuclear power,” outside of the cities Russia is a third-world country.  Many Americans and Western Europeans may not realize this.  Poverty is everywhere.  Unemployment is over 50 percent.  So, with the poverty also comes disease.  This is the most dangerous aspect of traveling to eastern Siberia — the transmission of disease.  Cases of typhoid fever, hepatitis A and tuberculosis are everywhere, as well as a form of encephalitis carried by ticks.  On the train or bus, the gurgle sounding cough of people infected with tuberculosis, is often heard.  In many of the small cities and villages, it is said that over half of the population is infected with tuberculosis.  The organist at the Novosibirsk congregation accompanied the bishop on several visits to Chita and eastern Siberia.  After one visit she was infected with tuberculosis and required 2 years of treatments before she was declared cured.

Rev. Rueger adds emphasis to these challenges when he explains that most of the people are living on less than $50 USD per month, and some on only $15-20. Even if there was a hospital nearby to treat the sicknesses, most could not afford to go. This persistent poverty is coupled with memories of a violent history to create a climate of despair. Rev. Johnson writes:

The Siberian people suffer with many of the same maladies with which we all suffer. They, however, live in a country with a much different history.  They come from a violent and tragic history. Poverty is rampant and there is a greater sense of despair among the Siberian people than you might see in America. Americans, for the most part, are a very optimistic people. Siberians, due to their history, are a much more pessimistic people. This may be the reason why drug addiction and alcoholism is so rampant throughout the region.

Accompanying the Bishop in the Chita Region:

LCMS OIM Catechist, Rev. Daniel S Johnson, assists Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin with distribution of Holy Communion  at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chita, Russia,in eastern Siberia.

LCMS OIM Catechist, Rev. Daniel S Johnson, assists Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin with distribution of Holy Communion at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chita, Russia,in eastern Siberia.

From March 26- April 1, Rev. Rueger and Rev. Johnson experienced all of this first-hand (for Rev. Rueger, this was for the first time) when they accompanied Bishop Lytkin on his episcopal visit to the people of the Chita region. Bishop Lytkin visits in order to conduct services, make personal visits to congregants, perform Baptisms and funeral memorials, and for other special celebrations. Dr. Rueger and Rev. Johnson accompanied as a further testament to our life together. Additionally, for Dr. Rueger, the visit helped him to gain a greater understanding of the lives of the people of Siberia. As a congregation, St. John in Hubbard helps to support the church in Siberia through the SLMS. Dr. Rueger noted that going home and being able to put a picture to that mission will hopefully help him in continuing to raise funds, support, and prayers for the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church. But he noted that he also received benefits from the people they visited, who so generously opened their hearts and homes to them, feeding them their best food as they visited. He says: “They give me a new understanding of the sustaining power of Jesus’ love.  All they have is trust in Christ’s grace. There is no hope of present glory or riches. They live day to day. When they pray ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ they mean it in a way we Americans do not understand.” He continues,

Throughout the trip I was reminded of how far reaching and profound the grace of Christ is. People who struggle each day to survive find peace in the love of God that Jesus gives. Their time in worship is important to them. They cherish the Lord’s Supper. No matter how different we are in our politics or worldviews, we share a Savior whose love bridges all gaps and tears down all barriers.  There really is One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, through all and in us all.

Bishop Lytkin of the SELC served Holy Communion to Maria and her husband. They have lived in this one room cabin, heated by a wood-burning stove in the Siberian city of Chita for over 50 years. They were evangelized by their grandson Alexey, seated to the left.

Bishop Lytkin of the SELC served Holy Communion to Maria and her husband. They have lived in this one room cabin, heated by a wood-burning stove in the Siberian city of Chita for over 50 years. They were evangelized by their grandson Alexey, seated to the left.

For Rev. Johnson, the visits are important to his call as the Catechist for clergy. He says,

It is important for me to accompany the bishop, to be made aware of the conditions and pastoral challenges of the SELC clergy. As a catechist, I must be aware of the life and struggles of the people they serve.  Just as a pastor in The States, must conduct frequent visits to his people, so must the Siberian pastor. It is important for me to also enter the homes, walk the streets and visit the places of employment, in order to understand the life situation of the Siberian people. To best catechize the clergy, I must be able to reflect on the lives of those the SELC clergy serve.

Bp. Lytkin, sub-deacon Alexey Kondratiev and Rev. Dr. Matthew Rueger leaving a parishioner's home in Chita, Russia.

Bp. Lytkin, sub-deacon Alexey Kondratiev and Rev. Dr. Matthew Rueger leaving a parishioner’s home in Chita, Russia.

Bishop Lytkin, Rev. Johnson, and Dr. Rueger, as well as all the pastors of the SELC, bring to the people of Siberia the one thing needful in a world filled with despair and flickering hope. As Rev. Johnson noted above, many among the older generation have no more hope for themselves for a better life, but they are determined to survive, and they hold onto the hope of a better life for their children or grandchildren. This means that there are many, both churched and unchurched, who are searching for something. Rev. Johnson wrote to me just before Holy Week to say:

the Siberian people are a very philosophical people and economic status does not answer the question, which every man eventually asks:  What is truth?

It is the Church, which holds the answer. This is where the indigenous Siberian Church can provide the answer to the question of life. It is the task of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC) to preach Christ and Him crucified to a people living in the darkness of despair, as well as to a people looking for an answer to questions which their economic success or failure cannot answer. The Church is an ever-present star pointing “wise-men” to the Christ, who incarnates Himself in the manger of a chalice full of wine, and wraps Himself in the swaddling cloths of bread.  He comes to bear the sins of the world, absorbing them in the water of Holy Baptism and taking them to His kingly throne – there to suffer and die – for you, for me – locking our sins in the tomb of His death, never to haunt us again. It is during this Holy Week that we prepare for the Easter Festival of the Resurrection where we can say it with our fellow Lutherans in Siberia:  Христос Воскресе! (Christ is risen!)  This is why the “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church” is described in terms of witness, mercy and life together. We witness with them, we show mercy to one another and we live together in our liturgical life of repentance and absolution, inhaling the grace of God in Jesus Christ as He delivers Himself in the preached Word and Sacraments and exhaling in liturgical prayer, praise and thanksgiving.

Making visits in the Chita Region of Siberia.

Making visits in the Chita Region of Siberia.

So, now that we are in the Easter season, let us continue to say with our brothers and sisters in Siberia and throughout the world, “Christ is risen!” Let us pray for one another, and support our brothers and sisters in Christ with our gifts, as well.

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