Minnesota-Russian Mission Partnership to
Develop United Methodist Center in St. Petersburg
by Elliott Wright
New York, NY, June 13, 2008--A new United Methodist mission center will emerge in St. Petersburg, Russia, through a partnership between the Minnesota and the Northwest Russia Annual Conferences of the denomination. United Methodists in Minnesota have already given $500,000 toward the facility and expect to add $100,000 in the near future.
Methodism first arrived in Russia in the St. Petersburg area some 120 years ago but was suppressed during the Soviet era, reappearing after the end of Russian communism in the early 1990s. To date, however, there has been no physical public presence of the church, worship taking place in homes or rented spaces. There are nine United Methodist congregations in the area.
"We see this partnership as a way to help unlock the potential of the church in Russia," said Bishop Sally Dyck of Minnesota in a telephone interview. "This is not just about a building, but is also about lives, about relationships between our people in Minnesota and Russians. Yet, we have learned that a physical presence, something that says 'this is a church,' is important in Russia. It says that we are serious about being part of the society."
Several teams from Minnesota have visited St. Petersburg since the partnership got under way in 2004 under the leadership of Bishop John L. Hopkins, then the episocpal leader of Minnesota. Another team left in mid-June to consult with leaders of the Northwest Russia Conference.
"I don't have words to say how grateful we are to the Minnesota Conference," said Bishop Hans Växby of Moscow, who heads the United Methodist Eurasia Area, which includes all of Russia and several adjoining countries. "We are thankful for the prospect of a building but also have great expectations for our partnership," he said by telephone. "The center will serve the district around St. Petersburg and be the home of one of our congregations."
The Minnesota fundraising effort across the 2005-2008 quadrennium used the slogan: "Unlock the Church in Russia: You Are the Key." The campaign culminated at the 2008 annual conference in St. Cloud, where an offering of $18,652.87 was received. To reach the original goal of $600,000, additional offerings will be made in Minnesota churches during the summer months. Bishop Dyck said she had no doubt of a positive outcome.
"I am overjoyed but not surprised by the generosity of the United Methodists of Minnesota," said Bishop Felton E. May, interim general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries. "The Minnesota Annual Conference has a keen sense of mission. Bishop Hopkins planted good seed with regard to the Russia Initiative, and Bishop Dyck has admirably watered and tended the budding partnership with the Northwest Russian Conference. These conference-to-conference links are so vital to our United Methodist global ministry. They warm my heart because I know they are effective in carrying out our United Methodist goal of making disciples for the transformation of the world."
The Rev. Dr. James Ahearn, coordinator of the Russia Initiative of the General Board of Global Ministries also warmly welcomed what he called "this generous gift that will make possible the acquisition of a building for a ministry center in St. Petersburg." The Russia Initiative, which started shortly after the fall of communism, works closely with the leadership of the Eurasia Area.
Bishop Dyck attributed much of the fundraising success to the appeal of the "Unlock the Church in Russia" theme. "We're talking about unlocking clergy and laity in Russia from any lingering fear about hostility to religion," she said, "and unlocking the future of children in St. Petersburg, and unlocking doors that can lead to strong relationships among Minnesotan and Russian United Methodists."
A strong foundation for the partnership was laid by Minnesota-Russian contacts fostered by mission volunteers, notably the work of the Rev. Ken Ehrman, who is now chair of the Minnesota Conference Russia Task Force. Writing on the conference website, Rev. Ehrman says: "Relationships with Russians cannot be based upon good intentions. Relationships with Russians cannot be casual or passive. They are not one-way. Relationships with Russians take months and years to establish, and they are based upon hospitality, trust, and mutual respect."
Bishop Växby said that a St. Petersburg center is not "just a building but is a strategic step for us in that part of Russia. In part, it connects us to our past and points to the future."
The 120th anniversary of Methodism's arrival in Russia, with the first base in St. Petersburg, will be observed next year. "Missionaries from Finland first arrived in 1889, and the church was registered in 1909," Bishop Växby explained in a telephone interview. "We had a superintendent and a building in St. Petersburg, which was the capital of Russia from the time it was established in the 1700s until the Soviets returned it to Moscow. We had a central building housing an office, a printing operation, and a sanctuary.
"While the pastors, many of them Finnish, left because of pressure early in the Soviet era, Deaconess Anna Eklund continued a Methodist social ministry from the St. Petersburg building until the early 1930s. Our building was confiscated after Sister Anna was forced by bad health to end her work.
"Given the skyrocketing costs of property in Russia, we of the Russian Church could never have raised the funds for a new center in St. Petersburg. We are so very grateful to the United Methodists of Minnesota."
*Elliott Wright is the public information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Jun 13, 2008