To Russia with love: North Little Rock parishioners strengthen bonds

Father James West, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock, stands on the steps leading to Most Holy Mother of God Church in Vladivostok, Russia. The church is surrounded by dilapidated houses with no indoor plumbing.
Father James West, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock, stands on the steps leading to Most Holy Mother of God Church in Vladivostok, Russia. The church is surrounded by dilapidated houses with no indoor plumbing.

Father James P. West and a team of parishioners from Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock got a firsthand look last month at the painstaking task of revitalizing the Catholic faith in Russia.
“The Church is building back from nothing,” Father West said. “It’s so slow, it’s moving at a glacial pace.”
From 1917 to 1959, thousands of bishops, priests, monks and lay Catholics were killed in an effort to wipe out the Church’s influence while thousands of other clergy and laity were imprisoned or deported. Nearly every church was closed.
Catholics who prayed for the conversion of Russia for the better part of the 20th century need to know that reopening society to religion didn’t send waves of people rushing back to church, parishioner Susan Gray said.
Emerging from the physical and emotional ruins of a totalitarian state isn’t that simple.
“There’s no family structure now, there’s no social structure, no community structures,” Gray said. “Everybody’s just a bunch of individuals thrown together. … Family ties have fallen apart, parish ties have fallen apart.”
Therein lies the reason why the North Little Rock church has bonded with Most Holy Mother of God Catholic Church in Vladivostok as a sister parish. The Catholic people of the Russian Far East need supportive dollars, action — as well as prayers — to support what parishioner John Stewart called a “small flame of faith” that survived 70-plus years of Communist rule.
“It was a torch, but now it’s just a little pilot light … and it needs to be rekindled,” added John Phillips.
The two men were part of the contingent that spent eight days in Vladivostok, a port city of roughly 700,000 on the Sea of Japan. Gray coordinated the Sept. 14-22 mission with Father West, pastor of Immaculate Conception, as spiritual leader. Four other parishioners made the trip — Jane Ann Brucks, Ron Lensing, Pat Pyle and John Smith — along with Dennis Paradise of Las Vegas, where he is a member of another sister parish to Most Holy Mother of God Church.
The team members visited an orphanage, a hospital for HIV-positive children, a hospice, a soup kitchen and also traveled to neighboring parishes. They did some varnishing and woodwork in a budding monastery adjacent to the hilltop church in Vladivostok and helped an elderly woman paint her ceiling.
In contrast to church- and school-building missions to Central and South America, Gray said, this visit was all about setting an example of what people can do for one another.
When two American priests took up residence at Most Holy Mother of God in 1992, she explained, “There was no such thing as a volunteer, no charitable anything.”
Besides, Gray added, building anything in Russia requires 23 permits.
“The priests gave us a wish list, everything from Kool-Aid to diapers to organ shoes,” Gray said.
Each team member brought two suitcases, one for themselves and one packed with donated goods.
Father West said the work in Vladivostok illustrates building a Christian society from the ground up.
“Communism robbed them of all humanity, all civility,” the North Little Rock pastor said of the Russian people whom he saw and visited. “It’s as though the church is having first to teach them what it means to be a human being and then to move from there into the area of faith.”
The principal teachers are Father Myron Effing of Indiana, the pastor of Most Holy Mother of God, who is assisted by Father Daniel L. Maurer of Michigan. Their parish is part of the Diocese of St. Joseph in Irkutsk, geographically the biggest in the world but has only 22 priests. Irkutsk is about a four-hour plane trip west from Vladivostok, Gray said.
In a recent interview about their trip, five members of the mission team estimated that about 250 people attend Sunday Mass at Most Holy Mother of God. Among these are health-care workers and teachers, Gray said, but children are a rarity, as is any type of family presence.
“Very, very few children were at Mass, and Father Dan explained that they hardly ever bring their children at all and I think he’s trying to encourage that,” Stewart said. “He’s trying to develop a Sunday school or something like that to get the kids there.”
Lensing suggested a lingering fear of the state as a reason, left over from an era of Communist officials persuading children “to turn in a parent or a friend.”
A 95-percent divorce rate and a 75-percent alcoholism rate factor into the breakdown of the family across Russia, Gray said. She also said the Soviet Union was the first country to legalize abortion, in the early 1920s. A Russian woman averages five to 10 abortions in her lifetime, the group noted.
Population is declining about 800,000 a year, Phillips added, in part because the death rate exceeds the birth rate and also because of strict immigration policies. Census figures put the Russian population at 141 million in July 2007 as compared with 301 million in the United States.
The North Little Rock group also found the infrastructure of Vladivostok sorely lacking: Roads full of potholes, utilities that struggled to keep the lights on or get hot water to people, the lack of a sewage plant and an unfinished capital campaign that has left city structures sitting idle with tree sprouting from the brick.
“The motto and mantra for the trip was low expectations,” Gray said.
Stewart likened flying into Vladivostok as “going into black-and-white 1940 TV.”
Father West professed to being taken aback by the “deplorable” hospital conditions. But what struck him the most was the resilience of the people.
“They could tell the most horrific details of their past with such calm,” the pastor said.
“It seemed like every family whose history we learned about had been exiled. … It’s just a fact of life.”
Back home, Father West has been gratified by the financial support his parish is providing its sister church in Russia. The only special collection was taken at Mass last Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, when the two churches formally forged ties.
The relationship was seeded in 2005, when Father West met Father Maurer, with Gray as intermediary. While living in Arkansas, she has served as grant writer for the St. Paul, Minn.-based Mary Mother of God Mission Society since 1993, shortly after she met Father Effing. She made her inaugural trip to Vladivostok in 1996.
The Mission Society’s purpose is securing spiritual and material assistance for the Catholic Church in the Russian Far East. Funds raised by sister parishes, such as Immaculate Conception, go to the St. Paul office, from where funds are sent via bank transfers to Vladivostok and into the general fund of Most Holy Mother of God Church. Gray said individuals in the United States sometimes contribute funds for specific projects or she will write a project-specific proposal that is funded.
At Immaculate Conception, blue envelopes for donations subsequent to those taken up Dec. 8 are inserted in the monthly parish mail out. Contributions to the Russian mission totaled more than $1,700 in September alone.
“To me, that’s the most moving aspect of it all on our side of the ocean, how faithful our parishioners have been to this very worthy cause,” Father West said.
Church members have an opportunity to learn more about what and whom they are supporting in Vladivostok after 10:30 a.m. Mass Sunday, Nov. 4. The mission team has scheduled a PowerPoint presentation about their trip in Immaculata Hall.
“It was such a wonderful experience,” Father West said. “I’d get back on the plane and go right back over there right now.”

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