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Peacemaking program ties Sandpoint to St. Petersburg

From Sandpoint, Idaho, where Gary Payton lives and works as a mission co-worker for the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), he connects U.S. churches with Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran and Reformed churches and ecumenical church partners in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, Marina Shishova is one of those partners, working with both the Interchurch Partnership and the Orthodox Institute for Missiology and Ecumenism (PIMEN).

Gary Payton

Gary Payton and Marina Shishova

She recently was the guest of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest, visiting congregations in Sandpoint, Coeur d’Alene and Spokane, tangibly representing the partners for people in this region.  She came as one of 14 participants in the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, who dispersed through the United States.

Gary’s role as bridge includes managing a web page, keeping Presbyterians aware of 13 PCUSA mission personnel—also called “mission co-workers”—and visiting the partner churches and agencies twice a year.

With the 1997 Formula of Agreement of the United Church of Christ, Evangelical Church, Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA), Gary also works in partnership with those U.S. denominations to avoid overlapping ministries or investment in duplicative infrastructures.

“Every day is about communication and networking, sharing information and connecting people,” he said.

Until his wife, the Rev. Nancy Copeland Payton, accepted a call to be pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Sandpoint seven years ago, Gary served on the national PCUSA staff in Louisville, Ky., as coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaker Program. 

Now he is one of 20 mission co-workers in the United States, responsible for sharing with national staff the workload for a particular geographic region.  Gary said it follows the business model of sub-contracting.

Gary began studying Russian in the eighth grade in Independence, Mo., an outgrowth of fear in the United States then because of the Russian success in space.  The U.S. government funded teaching Russian language—as it now funds teaching Arabic.

“Fearing the Soviet Union as an enemy, I sensed a need for more people to understand the culture, politics and history of that nation,” he said.  “That decision shaped my life.”

For 24 years, he served as a Soviet area specialist in the Air Force, after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1972 in Russian studies and earning a master’s degree in that area in 1976 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The PCUSA has a long-term relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Interchurch Partnership in St. Petersburg.  Marina is president of the Interchurch Partnership, which brings together Orthodox, Lutherans and Catholics in St. Petersburg for common social ministry.

Marina said PIMEN, founded in 1994 by her professor, friend and co-worker, Father Vladmir Federov, builds ecumenical cooperation among confessions in Russia and links them ecumenically around the world.

“The Orthodox church has grown since the end of the Soviet period of militant atheism.  For 70 years, the church was forced underground, allowed to do no mission, education or social work,” she said.  “Our priests could only conduct prayer services, knowing that among the worshipers would be KGB observers.”

With the religiousrevival, church buildings destroyed or converted for other uses by the government are being restored.  With a shortage of priests, each priest serves several parishes.  They also need Sunday school resources.  Social projects once silenced, now communicate in language the people understand.

“In the 1990s, the patriarchy began devoting more resources to the church’s role in society,” Marina said.  “For the first time in its thousand years of history the church has a position and voice on challenges of the time, such as the spread of HIV and AIDS.”

There has also been energy in recent years to restore churches, nonprofits and individual involvement.  A cathedral in Moscow was rebuilt on the site where it had been destroyed and replaced by a swimming pool.  Parishes have Sunday schools, orphanages, homeless shelters, education programs and summer camps.

PIMEN focuses on research and analysis, mission and peacemaking, and projects with other religious, educational, scientific, social and public organizations. 

Since 2000, its Irenicon Peacemaking Center, an affiliate of Pax Christi, has worked for ecumenical dialogue and cooperation, and peaceful co-existence.  It also sponsors International Peace Routes for young adults and the Week of Peace in St. Petersburg.

Through International Peace Routes, 50 to 60 young people from 14 to 17 countries met in 2001 and 2002, respectively, and visited several cities to learn about human rights, religious life, autonomous republics or agriculture.

The Week of Peace organized six universities and churches for dialogue on current challenges such as ethnic, inter-religious and interdenominational conflicts arising from migration from former Soviet republics.

A summer Young Adult Peace Camp, “Overcoming Borders of the Past,” explored churches’ roles in reconciliation after World War II, focusing on the German army’s 900-day Seige of Leningrad in which 250,000 Russians and 113,000 Germans died. 

For three weeks, six volunteers from the Netherlands, Germany and the United States worked with six Russian and Kazakhstan volunteers to build Nevsky Peace Park, which includes the largest cemetery for German soldiers in Europe with 85,000 graves. 

An Orthodox priest convinced his parish to care for the cemetery and developed a museum in the church crypt and established a center for reconciliation and understanding among nations, Marina said.

Digging in the area, the young adults found remnants of the war—helmets, mines, face-masks and bones.  They spoke with veterans who lived through the war and now seek reconciliation.

“They listened and reflected to improve understanding, form friendships and establish a culture of peace and nonviolence they can take into their communities and into their futures,” Marina said.

Marina and Gary also recently helped coordinate a young adult travel study seminar on “Terrorism in the World.”

The Interchurch Partnership also promotes the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January.  Initiated by the Roman Catholic Church, it began to fade in Russia. So they tied Jan. 27, 2006, the Day of Remembrance for the Seige of Leningrad, to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In St. Petersburg’s historic Nevsky district, where many ethnic groups have settled, representatives of denominations processed from a presentation on tolerance at the Swedish Lutheran Church to hear the Roman Catholic archbishop, a leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a Russian Orthodox archpriest engage in dialogue at St. Catherine’s Church.

They then went to St. Peter’s Lutheran, where there was a public concert of the Russian Requiem, a cultural event with religious content. The day closed with agape refreshment at the Finnish Lutheran Church.

To foster global and ecumenical understanding, Gary “twins” congregations. 

The PCUSA has 45 relationships between Baptist, Orthodox, Catholic and Reformed Churches in Russia and Belarus.

In Sandpoint, he has matched First Presbyterian Church with a Russian Orthodox Church in Klin and First Lutheran with a Lutheran church in Novgorod.

In these relationships, partners gain sensitivity to understand their differing experiences and church traditions.

For people reared under the U.S. view of communist state-sponsored atheism from 1970 to 1991, he finds the twinning can open people to new perceptions.

Marina was an electrical engineer before perestroika—the rebuilding of society.  During perestroika, she began theological education at the Russian Academy for Women’s Theological Education.  Father Vladmir Federov, dean of the theological department, taught his students in an ecumenical atmosphere.

After she graduated, she was among several students who came on the PIMEN staff.

Seeds of ecumenism were nurtured when Orthodox and Baptists suffered in prisons, where they read the Bible, prayed and tried to survive together.

“Church and state are separate under our law of religious freedom that recognizes four traditional religions—Orthodox, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism,” she said.  “State support includes reconstruction of some buildings of well-attended city churches.

“In the countryside, churches are poor and attended mostly by older women.  Parishioners give priests eggs, bread, milk and other goods instead of salaries,” Marina reported.

Gary said thousands of church buildings were converted in communist times into secular uses for museums, factories, vegetable stores, clinics and libraries because they were sound structures.  The government is returning those buildings, as parishioners have the capacity to maintain them.

For information, call 208-255-7545.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © November 2006