Friday 30 July

by Aleksandr Shchipkov and Olga Surovegina, Keston News Service

Despite a Soviet ban on charitable activities and work with children which wiped out the far-reaching prerevolutionary charitable programmes of the Russian Orthodox Church, some fledgling church initiatives are beginning to challenge both the state monopoly which replaced it and its staunchly secular approach to dealing with problem children.

In St Petersburg, where there are approximately 20,000 homeless children, Orthodox lay worker VLADISLAV NIKITIN runs a rehabilitation centre called 'House of Mercy' ('Dom Miloserdiya'). State institutions aimed at rehabilitating such children often use the 'isolation method': they attempt to isolate the child from the negative influence of life on the street in closed educational or medical institutions, which generally results in the child becoming distressed at his loss of freedom and running away. Nikitin's approach is different: 'For the short time that a child is with us we try to give him everything we can. The comfort and security which we can give him is the opposite of that deceptive "anything goes" feeling which lures him into the criminal life of the street.'

In the village of Novaya Yakhrenga in Kirov oblast, 550 miles east of Moscow, Fr VASILI BULATNIKOV looks after a state boarding school and brings difficult teenagers to his parish for short stays, which he thinks is the best way of keeping them away from crime. He was horrified when he first saw the state's method of dealing with institutionalised children: 'When I went into the boarding school for the first time, it was difficult to give lessons. I was shocked when I saw what was happening inside the children's souls. I had the feeling that some kind of catastrophe would happen to them the very next day - there was nothing left for them to do except take drugs. We simply have to wrench them out of that, to give them a meaningful life.'

Six years ago Fr NIKOLAI STREMSKY founded a settlement in Saraktash, Orenburg oblast, 900 miles east of Moscow. It combines a soup kitchen, an Orthodox secondary school and an orphanage for over 40 children. He has attempted to integrate the children so that they become part of the rhythm of church life: 'Even at three years old the children really love being at services, they sing on their own, although no one has taught them anything particular. We built the Church of St Nikolai especially for them and it is entirely their own - the adults have the parish church. Our children help look after the widows at the settlement. The old ladies enjoy being surrounded by the children, and they in turn learn much from mixing with old people.'

In response to such an approach, however, state organs voice concern that children are coming into contact with simple believers rather than professional teachers and psychologists; they are also doubtful of the effectiveness of the Church's charity.

MARINA MOREVA, a representative of the Committee for the Social Welfare of the Population, which is attached to St Petersburg city administration, told Keston that the Church could not be relied upon exclusively to resolve important social problems, as the policies and whims of the Russian authorities changed too frequently. Today the Church occupied the ideological niche from which communist ideals had been ousted, she said, but 'everything could change tomorrow', in which case the main burden of social welfare would still fall on the state. According to Moreva, the Church was not doing any particular harm, but it was not bringing any concrete, practical or material benefits either: 'We neither oppose nor welcome church initiatives. We simply work in parallel. It is still difficult to view church charitable initiatives as a serious alternative to state institutions, and state organs of social welfare are hardly likely to agree to hand over their functions to someone else.' In Moreva's view, the state was better able to carry out the work.

The church representatives with whom Keston spoke were insistent that a Christian dimension was crucial to the success of their charitable initiatives, however. Vladislav Nikitin explained: 'Children who have lived on the street for a long time try to return to that world because it gave them the fullness of spiritual life which was lacking in their families. But when a child takes a bag from a passer-by, beats him up, steals his money and this ends in tears or blood - what happens within that child's soul then? Until that point the only tears were his own, when he was hurt by adults abusing vodka, drugs, money or strength - and now it is the other way around. This is a kind of 'victory' for yesterday's humiliated children - all kinds of pleasures are open to them, and now the tears are someone else's. A child who has reached this point can return to normal life only by a long and difficult road - through his own tears, through a personal transformation. And this cannot be done without God's help.'

Fr ALEKSANDR STEPANOV, also of the House of Mercy, agrees: 'The Lord said "They will know that you are my followers by the love that you have for one another". The presence of that love in the world is the only healing agent which attracts children. Every priest feels that he only becomes a pastor when he knows each person by name, understands them and feels a part of their lives. If he does not do this, then he risks becoming simply a welfare manager.'

Fr Bulatnikov also thought that the Church's approach differed because it was personal: 'a Christian helps a concrete living person, he does not operate with groups and masses.' In his view church charity was more effective than state welfare because 'people working in church institutions are motivated by something other than money. They carry out the work due to their inner conviction and because the fullness of their spiritual life is realised in this service.'

The Church faces an uphill struggle to reestablish its social programmes, however. During 70 years of Soviet rule it was not only the church's charitable organisations themselves which were destroyed, but the very concept of the necessity for such work. Fr Stepanov told Keston: 'You sometimes hear charity described as some kind of "Protestantism", as something not characteristic of Orthodoxy. Any activity outside prayer or the liturgy is viewed with suspicion. However, it seems to me that church participation in social service is a sign of inner health. I would even dare say that if a parish or monastery is completely indifferent to this side of church life then it is a sign of spiritual deficiency.' (END)

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