Two months ago, I would never have guessed the situation we’d be in today. All of our plans have been adapted, postponed, or completely cancelled. And for those of us in Russia, the quarantine continues—the authorities in St. Petersburg have extended the stay-at-home orders through the 31st of May. With the number of new infections in the thousands every day, we see no end in sight for the self-isolation.
For church workers all over the world, this is a unique and frustrating experience. How do we serve the body of Christ when we’re ordered to stay away from each other? How can we share God’s gifts of grace or minister to each other’s needs when we’re not allowed to gather? There is no handbook for times like this. But thankfully, the Holy Spirit is not restricted. He continues to encourage us and show us ways to serve in this entirely unexpected set of circumstances.
The Ingrian Response
With one order from the Kremlin, everyone was suddenly isolated from their church families and church services. The stay-at-home orders have created new physical needs as well. For example, there are greater restrictions placed on the elderly because of their high risk, and seniors who live alone struggle with the isolation and getting groceries.
The Ingrian church, while taking the governmental guidelines seriously, has adapted to address these new needs. The first response was to find ways to put services online. While that sounds very simple, anyone who is helping to produce online services knows how complicated this can be. You need internet, good sound equipment, a quality camera or cameras, someone who knows how to set up and run everything—and few pastors or church workers have that kind of experience. But these difficulties aren’t stopping congregations across Russia from changing the format of services and offering them online. I have seen announcements for Sunday services and Bible studies from various parishes in the St. Petersburg area, in Moscow, and even in Siberia. It seems that instead of less opportunities for church, the opposite has happened and now we have more chances to worship together!
There is also a tremendous amount of physical suffering created by this crisis. One of the former students at the seminary, Irina, has been working in the diaconal department of the church of Ingria since her graduation. Through her, I’ve kept in touch with how the Ingrian church is assisting those in need. In the picture on the left is a mother with her two children, aged 7 and 2.5, who lost her job as a result of the pandemic. With no income, she wasn’t able to pay for her place of living. The church is providing her temporary housing in Kronstadt (a suburb of St. Petersburg) as well as groceries, clothes, medicine, and hygiene supplies. She’s not the only single mother struggling to provide food and basic supplies for her children, and Irina and other volunteers make trips every week to those who need the most basic supplies. In another instance, Irina and others delivered Easter greetings and presents to elderly congregants who live without internet and so have no way of connecting to the church during the pandemic. In the words of Irina, “For these people it’s important that they understand that they are not forgotten. The Church remembers them.” Some of them were even moved to tears by the gifts, by this simple act of the church reaching out and supporting them.
I’ve also been inspired by the attitude of Christians in the US, by their desire to use this time to reach out and serve. With all of our short-term trips cancelled, it would be easy to give volunteer service a miss for this summer. But not everyone has that perspective. After cancelling all summer short-term mission trips, the LCMS workers who host teams tried to brainstorm opportunities to connect volunteers in the States with church efforts in other countries. We came up with a project that I call “Conversation Partners,” which connects volunteers in the US with students learning English around the world.
I was amazed at the number of people excited to help out with this opportunity. These people saw their current restrictions as an opportunity to serve. We had our first meeting with Russian students a week ago and have three more scheduled for the month of May. While I am still struggling with the technical challenges involved in leading this kind of program online, I was thrilled by the immediate response after the first meeting. I received messages from students and volunteers alike, saying how encouraged they were by the experience. I’m sure we’re all hoping that online ministry will not become the norm, but I can joyfully and certainly say that God is using it, and us through it.
We pray for the speedy end of this pandemic, but we are comforted by the fact that the body of Christ continues to live and even thrive now, just as it did before. Despite the suffering and struggling, God is proving that His love is stronger. That is a reason to rejoice!
Featured photo: Alyssa Anders on Zoom. Photos courtesy of Alyssa Anders and the Ingrian Church