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 All the people had withdrawn to their homes.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