A lot of ground has been broken (literally and figuratively) since the events of our last post. We arrived in Magadan on June 1st and hit the ground running. Only now have we slowed our initial frenzied activity and hit on a “rhythm of life.”
We began mission by planting potatoes at Father Michael’s dacha. It was awesome work. It’s satisfying to know you have power to change a patch of dirt into a patch of dirt with a secret.
On our first Sunday in Magadan the parish welcomed us with a picnic and consecrated us to the hearts of Jesus and Mary. All the people we met were so generous and excited to have us with them. At first it was overwhelming; the people were so unreserved and ready to love us before we had even proven ourselves. But Hannah, who served as a missionary in Magadan over the past year, explained that people would be attracted to us because we have Christ. They don’t expect us to be perfect (we would spoil their expectations quickly). Instead, the light we bear attracts them. They receive us, but more importantly they receive the One who sent us.
On Monday we began Vacation Bible School at the parish. We sang songs, played a lot of volleyball, and taught English. I was amazed by how open the kids were to us. We could barely speak a word of Russian and it must have been so frustrating for them to talk with us, but they loved us anyway.
We also began teaching English as a Second Language to youth and adults. I am so inspired by the dedication and zeal of our students. Their English is phenomenal and they work hard to gain more experience. They inspire me to continue to push myself in all areas of life and their excitement for learning keeps me motivated to seek out new and useful material to teach them.
Many kids from the poor section of the city came to our English classes. It was wonderful to be invited into their lives. Many stayed with us in the Church the whole day, some even stayed the night! We would all eat and hang out together and built quite the community. But a series of unfortunate events (groundings by parents, distrust of our motivations, drunken relapses, and the like) began to separate us from these people one by one until one day there was no one but us left in the Church. All the people had withdrawn to their homes.
But God doesn’t allow us to be lazy and He never gives up on people. No sooner had it looked like we failed when one of the boys from this poor section of the city came to the Church and invited us to the apartment complex where he lives, which Father Michael refers to as the “Oбщежитие.” (Note: I thought this was an intense/exciting Russian word that captures the gloom and nastiness of that place. Turns out it just means “dormitory.”) Whether it had a properly desolate name or not, the Oбщежитие was a nasty place. The inside was dark and open. There were no furnishings, decorations, or windows. Out of context, I would have thought we were walking into an abandoned warehouse. The place stank of waste and smoke. After a few minutes, you couldn’t smell anymore. The tenants shared a common bathroom that doubled as a trash room. Most of the light bulbs had been stolen out of their sockets; it was so dark in some places that you could barely make out the graffiti covering the walls. The floors had alternating burnt patches and puddles. Wires stuck out of the walls. There were broken bottles, trash, and scrap building materials piled in the corners. It was a damp and horrible place.
Father brought us to visit two of the parishioners who lived in the Oбщежитие. We visited the first woman in her room. Father heard her confession and gave her the Eucharist while we prayed for her and the other tenants in the corridor. While we were praying, another parishioner came up to us. She was intoxicated and distraught, but she wanted to join in our prayer. We could not speak enough Russian to comfort her or clear her confusion; we could only pray. It was a humbling experience. We felt so useless, but we had to trust God was using us.
We went to the other wing to visit with two non-Catholic families the parish has been in close contact with. The first was the family of the young boy (Deema) who had come to the Church to invite us. The second was the family of one of the boys who had been spending his days and nights inside the church. We brought the families food and assistance. It was eye opening to see so personally into the lives of both boys whom we had only known through the church. We returned to the church that evening feeling both enlightened and discouraged.
Father spoke later about the position we found ourselves in. He talked about how Magadan is referred to by the people as “The Devil’s Playground.” The evil one sees Magadan as his. The church might be a beacon of light, but he owns the streets and the Oбщежитие and the rest. In the first part of the summer the people flocked to the Church and happily entered into “God’s Territory”, but now the evil one was trying to reclaim what he thought was his.
But the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. We respond now by stepping outside the church doors and bearing the light of Christ into a darkened world. That day we carried the Eucharist into the Oбщежитие and brought Christ into the place where the evil one thought he reigned. Today we set our hands to the plow without looking back. We have begun active ministry outside the parish (especially working with the tenants of the Oбщежитие). The seeds of faith were planted inside the parish, but they have scattered throughout Magadan. If we’re to water the seeds the Lord planted, we have to take it to the streets. Our task is large, but we do not work alone.
“No one knows better than those who are constantly attacking the faith how firmly its seeds remain planted in Russia; only God in his providence knows how soon it will flower.” – Servant of God, Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.
In Christ Jesus,
Kaitlin and the team
Ben and I were the last to arrive in Moscow. After going through a thorough customs check at the airport we met up with Fr. Michael and the rest of the team. They had been waiting for a couple of hours in the airport and it was getting late. The seven of us crammed into a taxi with all our luggage on top of us and we headed for the Catholic Cathedral where we would be staying for the next four days. The Cathedral is very beautiful, and they have lodging right next to it for travelers, similar to a hostel. By the time we were in bed it was 3 AM and we would be getting up in a few hours to meet the sisters of Mother Teresa. These few hours in Russia all felt very surreal to me - hearing Russian all around me, looking at signs along the road in the Cyrillic alphabet (which still looks like a very strange to me), buzzing through crazy Moscow traffic late at night. Just having Fr. Michael lead us around Moscow was really hitting me. He is a man who I have really respected and admired from a distance for answering God’s call to go to Russia over 20 years ago. He has a love for Russia, and it has truly become his home. I went to sleep that night wondering what the next two months would bring and how might this country become my own home.
Fr. Michael celebrated Mass with the sisters early in the morning. The witness of these sisters amazes me. The Missionaries of Charity show great love and respect for the dignity of all the people they meet. We felt it first hand with their hospitality to us. They gave us a good breakfast and chatted with us after mass each morning. We saw both homes that they have in Moscow, one is for disabled children and the other is for men who struggle with alcoholism. I was touched at seeing how much they care for those that they serve, and later we found out from Fr. Michael that they have had to fight very hard to open these homes and keep them.
We visited another beautiful community called the Family of Mary. We had a holy hour and Mass with them and afterwards they served us dinner. Again I was very touched by the hospitality that we received. As we ate, we talked more about our mission in Magadan and the state of Russia right now. This night we had an unexpected encounter that only God have brought about. We gained another missionary! A friend of the sisters, Katya, joined us. Fr. Michael who had a sense that God wanted another person to join us this summer in Magadan immediately asked if she would want to come. Amazingly it all worked out and we now have a seventh member with us in Magadan! She had been such a blessing to our team, and I couldn't imagine being on mission without her.
I am very grateful for the time we got to speak with all the people we met in Moscow because we gained a new perspective of the culture in Russia. I saw the state of poverty and the effects of a very wounded past in Russia. The poverty here is extreme, and people are really suffering. It really struck me in seeing how much people struggle with alcoholism. Many lives are ruined by this addiction, and many more lives are hurt because someone they love is trapped in a cycle of relapses. In a country that lost God for over 60 years, I see that there is a lot of hurt. People have lost their sense of dignity, of having value, and of being loved. Despite this I see a place for hope. There is a resilience from the hardships that Russia has faced. I am amazed at how strong Russians are. They do not back down and they keep fighting. I am very encouraged to have met just a few of those in Russia who are fighting to bring God back to this country. I see a lot of hope for Russia from meeting the sisters, Fr. Michael, and Katya and I know that God has great plans for this country’s future.
In the peace of Christ,
Joshua and the mission team
"For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." - Jeremiah 29:11