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Monday, January 26, 2015

Pastorgraphs: “The Other Side of Russia”

E-Vangel Newsletter
January 26, 2015

Christ United Methodist Ministry Center

“Christ in the Heart of San Diego”
3295 Meade Avenue - San Diego, CA 92116 - (619) 284-9205
 
Pastorgraphs: “The Other Side of Russia”

I first met Pastor Elena Sokolova when she spoke at the 2006 Cal-Pac Annual Conference. How the Holy Spirit connected us is a separate story you may read in my Pastorgraph of March 9, 2009. Since then, Anita and I along with Methodists here in San Diego, Texas, Florida and North Carolina have supported her unique street orphan ministry. But even we did not know the trials she has faced until she poured out her heart in an epistle last week. Portions of her comments are included below. This is a reminder that God’s love enables those who would otherwise be “enemies” (USA and Russia) to love one another. Please read all the way to the end.

When Elena Sokolova was born in the former Soviet Union 38 years ago, no one would have expected she would be observing her 10th anniversary as a United Methodist pastor. And no one would have expected her to be serving in Khabarovsk (ha-BAR-us), a six day train ride from her hometown of Samara on the other side of Russia.

Elena recalls, “I was brought up, like all Soviet children in the spirit of communism, materialism, and felt that I live in the fairest and best country of the world.” When the Soviet Union collapsed, she first learned of the injustice “the red terror” inflicted upon the Soviet Union’s poor. Elena also recalls when anyone discovered with a Bible was imprisoned.
 
In 1992, Elena’s mother began attending Bible classes taught by a Methodist pastor. Her conversion is reminiscent of John Wesley’s “heartwarming” at Aldersgate. “On Sundays, services were held, one of which I [attended]. The pastor urged people to pray a prayer of repentance. One woman came to the altar. I stayed in my place and repeated the prayer of repentance after the pastor. When the service was over, I went outside and realized that in my heart there was something unusual. I felt relief from some heavy load. A Spirit of freedom and lightness filled me. Then I accepted Christ as my personal Savior, I trusted Him in everything; I believed that He could do incredible miracles. The Bible became my hand book. I truly wanted to do good, to live not only for myself, but to serve the people and God.

And serve she has done ever since. At age 17, she began visiting the local orphanage with her pastor. Elena joined the history faculty at Samara State University from which she graduated. Feeling God’s call to ministry, Elena began studies at Moscow Theological Seminary in 2001 and graduated in 2004. 
 
Her first (and only) appointment was to two small churches in Khabarovsk, a place her friends called “the end of the world”. Some friends discouraged her from taking the assignment, due to the great distance from home and family, the Siberian winters and the fact that she was a single woman.
 
“I was very much in doubt and uncertainty. But when I was told that people in Khabarovsk were waiting for me, I left all my doubts. The voice of my conscience and my heart told me that I must go to Khabarovsk and try to serve the people and God in any way I could.

When she arrived, she had to live for 2 months in one room of the two-room apartment that is home to Svetlaya (Blessed) Methodist Church. It is there she holds Sunday services and conducts her street orphans ministry for children from poor and dysfunctional families three times a week.

Elena has a unique ministry. Calling upon her experience at the orphanage in Samara, Pastor Elena gathers up “street orphans”. They may have parents, but because of alcoholism, drugs, abuse and neglect, the children have to fend for themselves. She brings them into her “church” apartment to get them out of the cold, feed and clothe them, and share the only unconditional love they have ever known.

“Some of our children had to beg in the market. The others collected the willow branches, sold them and get the money to buy food before Palm Sunday. Some from an early age have been the victim of pedophiles and provide sexual services to buy their food. Our boys since the age of ten do hard physical work, hauling huge bags to earn a meal.”

One pastor suggested that such a social street ministry that doesn’t add members or increase offerings was foolish. “I absolutely do not agree with such an approach to the ministry, because a pastor is not a businessman, and the church is not a commercial enterprise.”

To complicate matters, she found both churches in serious financial and legal difficulties due to former church leaders using the churches for their own personal gain. Trained as a minister (and not an attorney), Elena spent as much time in Russian courts as church trying to regain the title to church property illegally taken away from them.

But Elena stood her ground, even when threatened. “These scammers told people what they had heard in the sermons, giving their own thoughts, asked money for their own projects and received money, but only used it for their personal gain, and not for good deeds. Realizing that I could not be used for their financial enrichment these scammers have left, and some began to look for new victims.”

Many of the people Elena turned to for help, including one attorney, betrayed her trust. But one man, Eugene, stepped in to confront the exploiters and work out legal matters. Eugene is now Elena’s husband, and father of their beautiful daughter, Olga.

A decade of struggles have taken a toll. “I have been under unbearable stress. I have also suffered from the severe Khabarovsk climate, which I am not used to: humid, cold, windy winters and sweltering, humid, hot summers. I have been having serious health problems. I physically could not take care of the child, fulfill household chores, attend the courts, deliver the reports to the state authorities for the two organizations, conduct worship services, be responsible for the children's ministry. It was too big load for my weakened body.”

Eventually, one of the churches (Bright Methodist) closed, and Pastor Elena now focuses upon her work with the street orphans of Khabarovsk through Svetlaya (Blessed) Methodist Church.

Elena added, “Over the years we have been able to serve hundreds of children in need: they were fed, clothed, shoes, given gifts, encouraged and tried to discover their talents and turn to God. Not always easy to serve these children, but we try and we believe that our efforts will sooner or later bear fruit.”

Pastor Elena said, “I love my little church and its parishioners, who for ten years have changed and grown spiritually. Our church is a family. We are going through and are happy for each other; we try to help each other as we can.”
 
Her resilience is evident in her conclusion, “When more than 10 years ago, I flew to Khabarovsk, I thought I would quickly solve all the problems in the two churches, and come back, closer to my parents. But my plans were not in line with God's plans. I do not know what is God's plan for my future life and ministry. But I rely entirely on His will, which is good and acceptable and perfect.

For Christ’s sake, Bill Jenkins

P.S. I am humbled and honored to be associated with such an amazingly dedicated minister and her Jesus-like love for dispossessed children. If you would like to help support Pastor Elena and her Street Orphan Ministry, please contact me by email or call me at (619) 723-1371. I promise 100% of any donations will go to Svetlaya United Methodist Church. I will even pay the wire transfer fee and bank charges and send you a copy of the wire conformation! Bless you!

From The Quote Garden
“I dreamed a dream, that with God's help, we would build a comfortable, blessed church in Red River.” ~ Pastor Elena Sokolova, Khabarovsk, Russia

Visit our Russian Street Orphan Ministry Photo Album: http://on.fb.me/1CNRvJM

Photo credits: Pastor Elena Sokolova, Svetlaya United Methodist Church – Christmas 2014, Pastor Elena’s daughter Olga.

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