Vera has been the leader of Scripture Union’s work in St Petersburg since 2001. She visited Scotland in October, taking time to renew old friendships and share some of the needs of SU in Russia. Hilary Phillips, editor of @SU, met up with Vera at the Milton Street office and asked her a few questions...
This summer we were raising money at our holidays and missions to support what you are doing in Murmanskie Voroto. Can you tell us about the project?
The story goes back a long way, as the house we have there was originally the location for an underground church where my father was the pastor. Now, with a second house, the residential centre can provide camps for children as well as a safe place for victims of the domestic abuse that often results from high levels of alcoholism in the area.
The village is a very depressed area on the edge of Volkov. It is not an attractive place at all, but our centre is a tranquil haven, a sanctuary where people come to find escape and peace. I believe that God blesses the place, so even the flowers in our garden grow well! One young girl who visited for a holiday from an orphanage said, “When I open the gate of this house I feel like I am in a different world.”
What about your work in St Petersburg?
Ten years ago we bought an apartment which had previously been home to three families with a vision to turn it into a Bible Centre that could be a witness to God’s love and care. It was 100 years old and in a bad state of repair. After much work it was opened in May 2005 and now provides a light, bright, welcoming home where children, teenagers and adults can come to meet God through his Word and explore the Christian faith.
What does your working week look like?
Frequently I spend a few days in St Petersburg and then a few days in Murmanskie Voroto. It means a lot of travelling and a tiring, demanding schedule. Ideally I would like an assistant to help run the work in Murmunskie Voroto because it is so hard to try and maintain the ministry in both places. Everyone I work with at the moment is a volunteer and what they bring is so important, but there is also a need for another member of staff. God always seems to give us a vision to go to the places where there is the greatest need, so over the years we have worked with street kids, with those who are the poorest, with those who need help or protection. When we get together to read the Bible we always start meetings with food. People need to know that we care, so before we get to Bible teaching, it’s important to share food together.
How do you build connections with local people?
Many people in Russia have only enough money to buy food, with little left over for anything else. Gifts of sweets and food are much appreciated and this is a focus of our work, particularly at Christmas time. We work very closely with local priests to identify families that need help. Both Christmas and Easter are important times for us when there is more openness to the Christian faith and opportunities for us to both show what we believe and to talk about it.
Ten years ago I decided to worship in the Orthodox church. This was a difficult decision as I come from three generations of Baptist pastors. However, there is such a need within the Orthodox church for people to be able to read and understand the Bible for themselves (the majority of services are conducted in the old Slovanik language so people cannot even understand the words – but there is a movement to change this). Also the government allow many activities within the Orthodox church which would not be permitted otherwise.
How have you seen things change in Russia over the decades?
I started my first Bible group for young people when I was 17. At that point it was illegal and we met in secret with the venue changed each week to avoid discovery. While there are now more opportunities to run clubs and groups, particularly within the Orthodox church, the government is still suspicious of independent organisations and I suspect that in the future it is only going to get harder.
So what are the current needs?
Ah, there are so many. We need money to provide gifts and food for local people and support for street kids in St Petersburg. We need funding to continue to develop the centre, including installing a new heating system. We need resources to run our summer camps. And, as I said, we very much need to find the funding to employ someone to run the ministry in Murmanskie Voroto. That is my biggest prayer!
Have you enjoyed your visit to Scotland?
Yes, it has felt like a holiday! Even although I am spending time talking about my work and attending meetings, it is so different from my regular work to be away and in a different country. I am very grateful for the support from SU in Britain and it is wonderful to meet friends here, old and new.