Outreach to Russian Far East shows power of connection
6/1/2001 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: Photographs and a commentary, UMNS #252 , are available with this report.
A UMNS Feature By Tim Tanton*
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - You won't find any United Methodist churches in Russia's impoverished Chukotka region, but the connection is doing some of its most vital work there, helping people for whom survival has become a daily struggle.
The spirit of that work lives in the small frame of Della Waghiyi, a Yupik native woman and United Methodist who is regarded with something close to amazement by those who know her. Her realization in 1998 that people across the Bering Strait were starving sparked a growing outreach effort.
A visit with exchange students from Chukotka opened Waghiyi's eyes. As the students' stay in Alaska drew to a close, many of them didn't want to return home. One girl told of Chukotka children fainting in school from lack of nourishment. Conditions had become so desperate that people were eating their dogs. Waghiyi was moved.
"My heart goes for them, especially the children," Waghiyi said. "I made a plate for myself and couldn't eat. I just think about those children. And I prayed and wept for those children."
She contacted the Rev. James Campbell, a United Methodist pastor, who was planning a humanitarian relief effort through the Chukotka Native Christian Ministry in Anchorage. Since the early 1990s, the organization - supported through the United Methodist Church's Advance program and by other denominations -- had been sponsoring missionary visits and providing aid in the form of outboard motors, medicine and other resources. Campbell saw the need for a larger humanitarian relief effort taking shape, like a gathering storm.
"In March, when Della called, that was like the lightning strike," said Campbell, currently pastor of First United Methodist Church of Anchorage. The humanitarian relief effort took off, and it gained momentum the following year with the formation of the Russian Far East Task Force of the United Methodist and Moravian Churches.
A group of Russian relief leaders who work with the task force recently journeyed across the Bering Strait to thank the United Methodists and Moravians and to tell their stories. Their visit became a focal point of the May 25-27 meeting of the United Methodist Church's Alaska Missionary Conference.
The story of how United Methodists and Moravians, native Yupik people and non-native alike, joined hands in outreach efforts illustrates the power of being connected - not only through the Wesleyan connection but through families, tribes and faith.
Crisis sets in
Chukotka lies in Russia's Far East, or Siberia, separated from Alaska by only the Bering Strait. It is closer to Alaska than any U.S. annual conference, and many of the people share family ties through the native Yupik communities that live on both sides of the strait.
The Soviet Union's collapse in the early 1990s left Chukotka's economy in shambles, forcing thousands of people to move elsewhere and leaving the remainder to scrape out a living in harsh conditions. The jobs that had been created largely by the government were gone, and many basic necessities - food, clothes, fuel - became unaffordable or scarce.
For thousands of years, the Yupik people of Alaska and Siberia had been traveling back and forth, joined by a common language, culture, trade and ancestry. That exchange became frozen by the Cold War.
With the end of the Soviet era, Waghiyi's late husband, the Rev. John Waghiyi Sr., and other Yupik missionaries from Alaska's St. Lawrence Islands began traveling to Chukotka, renewing centuries-old bonds and sharing the Gospel. The region was still relatively stable. The work of John Waghiyi, who died in 1993, and the other St. Lawrence Island Yupiks opened the way for the relief efforts that eventually followed.
When the humanitarian crisis was apparent, Della Waghiyi became a powerful voice for the people of Chukotka, raising money and rallying support around the United States for the outreach work. "She's the spirit of it," Campbell said. "People are drawn to the wonder of this woman. When she speaks, it is with such depth and earnestness and understanding of the situation. ... She is the embodiment of the spirit of the work we are doing."
Waghiyi, a commissioned missionary who has been to Chukotka five times, said living conditions there reminded her of the difficult times of the 1930s and '40s. The circumstances of the people had gone from bad to worse, as they lost heat and electricity.
Speaking through interpreters, the Russian visitors to the Alaska Missionary Conference described the plight of the region. Galena Polvolski, from the Chukotka town of Provideniya, said electricity goes off and on during the day, and apartment buildings don't retain their heat. "They're always cold." The past winter was rough, and fuel rationing became necessary, she said.
Along with joblessness, alcoholism is a problem throughout the area, the Russians said. One of the task force's projects centers on treatment.
"The people are very, very capable, educated (and) acculturated," said Della Waghiyi's son, John Waghiyi Jr. However, their difficulties are beyond their control, he said. For example, supply shortages are chronic. The people depend on marine food - fish, walrus, whales, seals, birds - yet they lack the fuel to run their outboard motors, he said.
Fish runs were poor last year, Polvolski said. Part of the reason, she believes, is that Korean and possibly Japanese fishers reduced the traditionally large salmon runs that the Chukotka villages have relied upon in the past.
The Rev. R. Bruce Weaver, who leads the United Methodist Church's Russia Initiative, said that with the exception of a few towns elsewhere in the country, "the Chukotka peninsula is under the most severe economic conditions of any place in Russia."
Within months of its formation, the Russian Far East Task Force had begun a soup kitchen in Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka, and provided funding to start "Boeg Pomesch," or "God's Helpers," which supplied food, medicine and clothing to those most in need. Other outreach followed, and the task force now has about a dozen projects in Chukotka.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) committed $75,000 annually for three years, ending this year. The Moravians have given more than $100,000 and the United Methodist Church's Native American Comprehensive Plan gave $50,000 last year in support directly for the indigenous people. Combined with other contributions, the task force has drawn about $500,000 in funding so far.
UMCOR's commitment ended this year, but the task force and the denomination's Russia Initiative have developed a plan for raising future support from other sources. The task force will work with churches throughout the denomination's Western Jurisdiction to get funding for its work, while the Russia Initiative will rely on the other four U.S. jurisdictions, Weaver said.
In 2000, the Alaska Missionary Conference adopted the Russian Far East as its mission priority for the following year. The conference members celebrated the outreach work during their annual gathering in May, held with the theme "With Russia In Love." Bishop Edward Paup, who leads the conference, announced that $26,500 had been raised during the year.
Also during the conference, volunteers and members of the Russian group assembled 100 boxes of clothes - one and a half tons -- for shipment to Chukotka. It is one of several shipments made since December.
Change under way
The outreach efforts are having an impact on the towns and villages of Chukotka, members of the Russian delegation said during their visit. The programs serve about 50 villages, ranging in size from 300 to 1,500 people each, in addition to major towns such as Anadyr and Provideniya.
The relief comes in many forms. Funds sent to Chukotka are used to buy medical supplies and medicine for day care centers and food for terminally ill people, and to provide travelers with lodging. Church-supported programs also employ people in the region to knit scarves, hats, mittens, socks and pieces of parkas. The clothes are donated to needy people, the elderly, people with children. The task force has provided heaters, clothes, outboard motors, fishing nets, and school supplies.
Varya Litovka of Anadyr thanked the church workers for the pencils, paints, clothes and other materials that have been sent for the region's children. The supplies have enabled many children to go to school, she said.
Litovka leads several projects, including an educational program that pays children $20 a month for doing work related to ecology and preservation. The children monitor sea life migrations, provide care for the elderly, work in a hospital and perform other jobs. "These children are family providers," she said.
In another program, the children are paid for their writings and drawings, which are used in calendars and post cards, Litovka said. Before receiving the supplies a year ago, many of the children had never drawn or written, she said.
Their pictures were displayed throughout the sanctuary at St. John United Methodist Church, where the missionary conference session was held. The drawings included wildlife scenes, with walruses, whales, birds and bears, as well as village landscapes and pictures of hunters. Letters of gratitude accompanied the artwork.
Many basic necessities are available in Russia, but people in the villages don't have the money to afford them. The task force has addressed that, in part, by sending cash in addition to supplies to trusted project leaders.
Chukotka has limited transportation resources. Supplies must be flown to villages by helicopter or, during the winter, shipped by track mobile at night when the snow is hard.
Shipping goods also takes time. "It takes two months to Anadyr, to get a box in, because there's no direct mail between Alaska to Chukotka," said Nancy Mendenhall, a United Methodist who leads Nome-based Alaskan Friends of Chukotka. Now boxes of clothes and supplies go 27,500 miles the other way around the world to reach people who may be only hundreds of miles away.
A channel also has been opened for bringing Russians from Chukotka to the United States for medical treatment. A girl has already undergone eye surgery, and plans are under way for bringing over a boy who has been severely burned.
Until recently, local Russian officials did not support the relief efforts and denied that a crisis existed. However, that attitude has changed with the arrival of a new governor.
The Russian visitors included a number of Yupik and Chukchi people, natives of the Chukotka region. The language and ancestral ties with Alaskan natives have helped the mission work.
"Our connection is in Chukotka. Our blood, our brothers and sisters are over there," said John Waghiyi Jr.
Bishop Ruediger Minor, who leads the Russia Annual Conference, said the native population needs encouragement and support. "It's a very important and healthy thing that it's their own kin that's helping them."
The ecumenical ties are also important, Minor said. "It's important to show that it's possible to work together."
Churches often have difficulty working together in Russia, but he is noticing a change. "I have witnessed over the last few years a growing longing for more cooperation."
Western proselytizing has been a source of tension in Russia, particularly for the well-established Orthodox church. While Chukotka is seeing a growing number of conversions, the United Methodists have not rushed into setting up a bricks-and-mortar church.
"Generally speaking, we do not see humanitarian aid primarily as a means of church planting," Minor said.
The late Rev. Waghiyi envisioned a new, nondenominational Christian church, and Lyuba Tayan, a teacher from Anadyr, said that would be the most appropriate way to go.
Polvolski praised the United Methodists and Moravians for not discriminating in the distribution of aid, as some church-based relief services do. "I want to acknowledge you for that and what you do for people on our side."
Celebration - and more work
The Russians' visit to Alaska represented the first time that all of the key leaders for the Chukotka relief efforts - with one exception - were together.
"These are not just guests," Campbell told the Alaska Missionary Conference. "These are the hands, hearts and eyes of everything we are about."
Their visit made the Alaska Missionary Conference's annual session anything but typical. The United Methodists prayed and sang side by side with the Moravians, a denomination that nurtured John Wesley's spirit in the earliest days of Methodism. Visitors heard three languages spoken - English, Russian and Yupik -- during the event. Though small, the conference had no fewer than four bishops - three United Methodists and one Moravian.
During a May 25 celebration at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, two of the Russians, young people from the Chukchi tribe, performed traditional dances. Some 300 people packed the center to watch the dancers and the presentations that followed. The Russian delegation expressed thanks to the Alaskans and received several gifts, including a 300-square-foot fishing net.
The net was a gift from the Moravians. "That'll tide a lot of people over," said the Rev. Walter Larson, Moravian pastor in Aleknagik, Alaska. "This is not just food for now. This is food for seasons to come." The net is large enough for three or four villages to use, he said.
Looking ahead, a Nome Summit is planned for June 13, which will bring together U.S. and Russian relief workers as well as Alaska and Chukotka government officials.
Campbell sees the possibility of a turnaround in Chukotka, perhaps within a few years, if the economy can be stimulated. "That's a big 'if,' " he said.
"If they can get to the point where they can reclaim subsistence living and reclaim their own initiative ... they can at least reach a point where they can become hopeful about their future."
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*Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service.