Monday, May 30, 2011
Here are our hosts enjoying the meal: Gunars, Christine, Unda and Arnes
Dagnis, Olesja, Anna, and Laimons:
And here are Olesja and Hazel keeping warm in the cool evening:
Hazel had shared a sauna on Saturday evening with Anna, which is their weekly ritual for Saturday nights. Ronald and I had expressed an interest in trying a sauna as well, so Laimons stoked the fires for us Sunday afternoon and once the dinner was over we took our turn enjoying this wonderful (and steamy) tradition! It was really fun and relaxing. This is the entry to the sauna, on the right, and the private area where we could come out and douse ourselves with cold water after sitting inside. We did this five times, according to the instructions of our hosts.Later in the evening, we returned to see Unda and Arnes once more before they returned to Riga on Monday morning for their work and study. We offered our various thank you gifts to the family and were able to see all the boys modeling their new Albert Lea Tigers caps (a gift from Todd). Here are Rolands, Arnes, and Gunars:This morning (Monday) we began a day of sightseeing with Anna and Laimons. We were joined by another member of the congregation named Mareks, who served as our second driver and capable translator. He was a Rotary exchange student in high school, and spent a year in Missouri. Ronald and I rode with him and really enjoyed hearing about his work as an electrical engineer and sharing stories. Our first stop was to see a very old water tower that exists on the site of a psycho-neurological hospital. Then we made several stops along the beautiful Gauja river (pronounced something like GOW-yah), which meanders across most of Latvia. We also visited a very old church - first built in the 13th century. I believe the town was called Travika? It has been damaged many times over the years due to fires and wars, and the current condition is from a renovation in the 1930s.
We had a guided tour of the church building, including the crypt (no longer in use) and the bell tower. I also had the chance to play the organ, which dates from the 1850s.
We toured their Parsonage, which is undergoing repairs and renovations. They have spaces in use for Sunday School and also use a larger room for worship during the winters, since the sanctuary is so difficult to keep heated.
Following this we went on a tour at a very large tree nursery.
Large, well-managed forests are a prominent feature of the landscape when driving around Valka. Timber is one of the most abundant natural resources of Latvia. It is a very common way of heating homes here in Valka. In addition to providing a variety of plants and bushes for landscaping, this tree nursery grows the saplings that help regenerate the forest for the logging industry. We literally saw millions of young trees here, growing on pallets. In about 80 years, they will grow into the large trees you see in the background. Right now there only about 3 inches high.And of course, all those trees come from seeds! The state forestry service operates several pinecone drying facilities in order to get the seed. We visited a building that used to house one of these drying facilities until 1965. It now serves as a museum and educational site. It was quite interesting to learn about the process. About a bushel of pine or spruce cones will go into each of 24 cylinders, to be heated from belowfor about a week, rotated twice a day, until they open up and their seeds are released to the floor below. The newer drying plants now complete the process in a single day, enough to provide 45 million seeds each year.
We made a number of other stops as well with our very capable guides! One was a settlement of older houses, now used as a set for historical film making. These houses use reeds from the riverbed as roofing material:We also stopped at a beautiful lake that could have been transplanted from northern Minnesota or Wisconsin:And then one more stop at the Gauja. The riverbanks are very sandy - like an ocean beach - and the annual spring floods result in an ever-changing path for the river. We visited one site were there was once an oxbow in the river. About twenty years ago the river cut a new path, cutting off an old road and creating an island. It was a lovely spot and provided a nice hike into the woods to see the various flowers and evidence of beavers. Here is our group (minus Ronald, who was our photographer): In the evening, we returned to our respective host homes for supper. Todd, Ronald and I enjoyed a couple of walks with Gunars and Rolands around Valka. This included a visit to their newly renovated art school for students 9-14 years old. It is a wonderfully spacious building, filled with light and creative energy.
Ronald and I have still not had the opportunity to meet our hostess, Liga, and are unlikely to before we go. She continues to be away from Valka, visiting her mother who is seriously ill. We are praying for them both and hoping that things will turn out alright. I hope you will pray for them as well.
This is our last night in Valka. Tomorrow we will get to do a walking tour of Valga, the other half of the city that lies in Estonia. Then we will see Pastor Girts again, seeing another of his congregations and then riding with him back to Riga and Dagnis' home. I'm not sure of our plans from there, but we will be flying out of the Riga airport at 2:40 in the afternoon on Wednesday for our journey home.
This has been a long and wonderful journey. These last days have offered some quiet for reflecting on our many experiences. We are anxious to share them with our friends and family at home!
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Friday morning we said our farewell at the Novasaratovka Seminary in St. Petersburg. As we were leaving, the students who were graduating were on their way into an important meeting to discuss their plans for the future. They were meeting with the faculty and Archbishop Kruse, who is the bishop over the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia and Other States (ELCROS). (To correct an earlier post, Dietrich Brauer in Moscow is bishop over European Russia, and there is another bishop over the Siberian region.)
The conversations over breakfast on Friday were much more relaxed. The students had been taking exams all week and we could tell that they were over just by the decrease in the general stress! Here are the soon-to-be graduates:
Then we headed out of town to visit Tsarskoye Selo (formerly called Pushkin), the location of St. Catherine Palace and Alexander Palace. We again had a beautiful day for sightseeing, though it was a little cool at times. The entry times for individual tourists and for tour groups are separated; we spent more time waiting in line than at other stops, but it was not really very crowded. The palace and its Baroque interiors are quiet spectacular. In earlier days, the entire facade was also guilded. I overheard a guide say that in those days, it was hard to look at the building and it looked like it was on fire. The other highlight of the palace was seeing the Amber Room, which has been fully restored since my previous visit. Just amazing.
Late in the evening we took our next flight to Riga, Latvia. The flight itself was uneventful but we were quite early and had a long wait at the airport. We also found out that our flights were on an airline that charges for the first checked bag, so the check-in procedure was complicated by having to visit a separate cashier to pay the baggage fees. It was only a short flight, about an hour, before we arrived and were met by our host Dagnis. Here is a photo of him the next morning with his wife Alicia and their daughters Eliza (pronounced eh-leez-ah) and Liva (lee-vah). Alicia is wearing a prayer shawel from Grace Lutheran. Todd also presented Dagnis with a Twins sweatshirt and Ronald and I brought some Minnesota wild rice.
Saturday morning we were able to share a brief visit with Arnes, who was the pastor in Valka for many years. He moved to a new parish and responsibility as a regional dean about 3 years ago. He invited us to attend a special worship service with him in Jurmala, a resort town nearby. He is part of the planning team for a Via de Christo weekend and they were starting a day of planning with this Holy Communion service.
Later in the afternoon we were able to do a walking tour of the Old Town region of Riga. The day had turned cool and quite windy, but we still enjoyed the walk and a chance to take an elevator to the top of the St. Peter church for a scenic view of the city. I found it a very interesting blend of old and new architecture.
Then we travelled with Dagnis' family to Valka in the evening. Here, Hazel is staying with Anna and Limones, who are old friends of Grace who have welcomed visitors in the past. Todd is staying with Unda and Rolands, and then Ronald and I are staying nearby in the home of another church member named Liga. (Unfortunately, Liga had an emergency with her mother and had to leave town, so Unda and her family have been providing hospitality for the two of us as well.)
This morning we worshipped at St. Catherine Church. It was wonderful to finally meet this congregation, after hearing about them since my arrival at Grace!
Pastor Todd assisted in serving Holy Communion, which was very nice. He wore the pastor's black robe which was a bit too long. Then, after the service I was able to offer a greeting to the congregation, with Dagnis providing the translation. Here is our group after the service, together with Pastor Girts and Anna. Girts is pastor for three congregations, and has been serving in Valka for about two years. Following the service we shared refreshments in the Parish House next to the church. They served soup together with coffee and tea and a wonderful cake. We were able to share quite a bit of conversation with Pastor Girts and some other members of the congregation, thanks to the capable English speakers among us. We also were able to look at some pictures of the church history and recognized some familiar faces like Milt Ost at the anniversary celebration a few years ago.Then we took at tour of the Kindergarten facilities in the same building, and also climbed the church steeple to view the town. Here is Pastor Todd with Unda, as well as her sons Gunars and Arnes and Christine, who is the girlfriend of Gunars.Following all of this, Hazel returned home with Anna and Limones and the rest of us planned to take a walk and cross over to visit the Estonian side of the town, but the weather turned quite damp and rainy. So instead we returned to the house and have been sharing a nice visit with the family. The boys recently completed a "strong man" race that involved running through a collection of obstacles, and they were able to show us pictures of this. Unda and Rolands are also interested in mountain climbing, so we were able to see photos of their trip to the Alps last year.
Later in the evening we plan to reunite with Hazel for a barbecue there. I'm not sure of the plan after that, but we are in good hands!
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Over the last three days -- Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday -- we have enjoyed some wonderful sightseeing here in St. Petersburg.
On Tuesday we visited Peterhof, one of the restored palaces of the tsars that was largely destroyed during the seige of Leningrad in 1941-44, but which has now been fully restored. It's located along the Gulf of Finland and has some of the most spectacular gardens and fountains I've ever seen.
Wednesday was a rainy day, perfect for spending in the Hermitage, a giant art museum housed in the Winter Palace complex in the city center. We spent nearly 6 hours there and barely scratched the surface. We decided to drive in to the city, since we had the car, and that led to many driving adventures. Those adventures and the time involved convinced us that though the car is ideal for getting us to sights outside of the city center, otherwise it's best used to get us to the Metro station so we can take the subway!
Today we spent walking around the city center visiting the Peter & Paul Fortress, the Church of the Spilled Blood, and the Lutheran Church of Sts Peter and Paul. This last is very interesting. Like many churches, it was converted to other uses in the 1930's, for storage and other things. In the 1970's the nave was converted into a swimming pool, where several diving events for the 1980 Olympics were held. The church has been partially restored and is now the home of a worshipping congregation again. The swimming pool is still there, just located below the floor of the restored sanctuary. The bleachers still remain, though!
Aside from the rain yesterday, we've had good weather in this part of the trip. It has been much cooler (in the 50's and 60's) and windy, but perfectly good for our activities. This included Tuesday evening when we enjoyed attending a barbecue put on by the seminary in honor of the conclusion of the seminar for their visiting "extension students."
It hasn't been only sightseeing, though. Tuesday and Wednesday morning we were able to attend morning worship with the students, and share breakfast with them. Wednesday breakfast we spent talking with one of the female students that speaks English and that was very good. Sasha is 27 years old and comes from Moldova, a small state near Romania. She grew up in the church there and hopes to get a job working in the parish (though not as a pastor). Our conversation with her reminded us of the great diversity in circumstances presented by the Lutheran churches of the former Soviet Union. Those that relied on the Russian-German population are struggling the most. But, at least in the case of Moldova, other communities may be more stable and have a different variety of ministry opportunities.
We have also been able to spend some more time with Anton Tikhomirov, the present of the seminary. He greatly enjoys teaching and seems to know the students well. But he is also quite anxious about the financial situation the seminary faces. They rely on sponsorships and partner organizations to pay their budget (approximately $300,000 annually). As with so many other organizations, fundraising has been particularly tough since the recession began in 2008. They recently lost one faculty member who had been provided through the ELCA. Another of their professors will retire this spring. In order to address the faculty situation and reduce costs, they are moving to a "modular" system next fall. Instead of having three different years of classes that run by semester, all the students will study together in 2-3 week intensive module units. He said some topics will be more general (the Gospel of Mark, or Preaching) and others will be more specific (topics in theology or ethics, for example). The modules will be taught by visiting professors, primarily from Germany, Russia, and the United States. It will be a very big change for the community, but it offers a great deal of promise.
Tomorrow we will say our good-byes here, then plan to visit Catherine Palace before we catch our flight in the evening. Since we will be staying with hosts, I am not sure how much access I'll have to the Internet.
Thank you for your continued prayers as we travel!
Monday, May 23, 2011
Following the service, Sofia served a simple but very delicious lunch. Then we returned to the city, a journey that took about two hours.
We flew to Moscow, then transferred to another airline for our next flight to St. Petersburg. The big adventure of the afternoon was that we had decided to rent a car for our stay. This will give us more flexibility when it comes to our sightseeing excursions, since the students are busy with their finals right now. Todd had done all the research in advance, including the application for an International Drivers License. Finding our way to the Hertz office was quite a challenge, but at last we zipping down the freeway in our rented VW. We only got honked at once, which seemed like a major accomplishment!
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Our host here is Andrey Filiptsov, who is the pastor of three congregations in an around Tomsk: the city church, and two congregations that are located out in the country. Travelling to them takes 90 minutes for one, and three-four hours for the other, which he travels by bus. Todd and Hazel met him in 2005, when he was attending the seminary in St. Petersburg. When he worked on the staff of a Bible camp in northern Minnesota in 2006, they arranged for him to visit Grace and Albert Lea. When we arrived at the Tomsk airport at 6:00 am, Andrey was there to greet us and accompany us in the hotel van, and help us get settled in at the Hotel Siberia. It's a lovely hotel and we were able to eat breakfast at their cafe before having some time to rest and clean up before beginning our day. (We were only able to get a little sleep during the flight and needed some sleep!)
Andrey had arranged for us to take a city tour with an English-speaking tourguide, and we met up with her and our driver after lunch. Our guide Marina is an instructor at one of the local universities, teaching engineering students how to prepare "perfect presentations" in English for the business world. She also works for the tour company giving tours and was full of information to help us learn about the city, its landmarks, and its architecture.
One of the first stops was to see the Park of Peace, a memorial to the Great Patriotic War (World War II). The monument features a massive bronze sculpture of a mother sending her soldier son off to war, calling to mind that 50% of the soldiers never returned from the war. It's a beautiful memorial, and it overlooks a spectacular panorama of the River Tom (after which the city is named).
Friday, May 20, 2011
This is the interior of the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral Church of Sts Peter and Paul, the bishop's seat for Dietrich Brauer, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of European Russia (ELCROS). As I mentioned yesterday, Dietrich and his family have been hosting us in their apartment near the church. He is married to Tatiana, whom he met at the seminary at St. Petersburg, and they have one son. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner out with them last night. The conversations we shared over the meal, and throughout the visit, have given us a chance to hear the latest news and challenges that ELCROS faces. These include not only issues of sufficient funds to pay pastors, but also challenges surrounding who actually controls the church buildings and their efforts to cooperate with other Protestant churches. The relationships between the various churches in Russia are far from straightforward, and divisions often divide along a "liberal-conservative" line rather than strictly according to denomination or adherance to theological doctrine. Dietrich and the 170 congregations he leads certainly need our prayers and support.
Yesterday we did some sightseeing around the city, with a member of the church as our guide. Her name is Helen, or Leana, depending on who you ask! Her English was quite good and although she is a lawyer, not a tourguide, she did quite well with guiding on a walking tour of the central city. Here is a photo that shows Tatiana and Leana:
She met us at 10:00 am and we didn't return until about 6:00 pm, so we had lots of time to chat as we went. She is about the same age as me, and it was very interesting when she was willing to reminisce and share her perspectives on the changes that have happened in Russia over the last twenty years. Her perspective on the Soviet era is not entirely positive, as one might expect! And the structure of society impacted every aspect of life. Joining the communist youth club, the Pioneers, was essential for anyone who wanted to enter a skilled profession, for example. And many of her friends were only children, like her, simply because the housing was too cramped to allow for larger families. I thanked her for sharing - and apologized if my questions were strange - but this is the only way we can really get to know another culture, by hearing their personal stories.Of course we had fun along the way, too! Hazel is doing quite well at keeping up with us pastors, keeping us in good humor and well-fed with the snacks she brought along.
And of course, Pastor Todd is making sure that we make regular stops for ice cream. Here he is enjoying our break by the Moscow River.
Today we toured the Kremlin on our own, after a friend of Dietrich's made sure we got to the ticket offices. Ronald was the only one who had never visited the Kremlin. Todd and Hazel of course visited during previous Grace trips, and I had visited it in 1996 during a trip with my mother. We had a very beautiful day, and lots of sun. It was fun to see the groups of schoolchildren on their field trips. The architecture of the cathedrals is quite interesting and our tour book gave enough guidance for us to recognize the key features.
Here we are by the Holy Trinity tower and gate:
That's all for now. We will take the metro and airport express train to the airport tonight, where we will catch at 10:50pm "red-eye" flight to Tomsk. We'll arrive at 6am. The time difference there is exactly 12 hours from Central time. I have no idea what time my body thinks it is, but that's just the way it goes with a trip like this. We sleep when we can and "bear with one another in love"!