[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]n 1996, the Diocese of Southern Ohio was invited to join a radical program after the end of the Cold War with Russia. Fueled by citizen diplomacy, Episcopal Churches across the United States were asked to support the burgeoning re-opening of Russian Orthodox churches. More than 80% of Russian Orthodox churches had been destroyed or desecrated during 70 years of persecution under Communism. A group of Episcopal churches in Dayton became founding members of this movement and formed a partnership with St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Sablino, Russia, a rural community 30 miles south of St. Petersburg. Twenty years later, the partnership is still going strong!

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MVERN (Miami Valley Episcopal Russian Network) was formed with the leadership of dedicated volunteers in Dayton, led by Chris Saunders of St. Paul’s, Oakwood, and Fr. Nikolai Aksenov at St. Nicholas, with the help of Dr. Igor Tolochin, professor at the University of St. Petersburg. The 11 Episcopal and two Orthodox parishes of MVERN, the largest parish partnership in the country, have provided cultural exchanges, youth mission trips, education and financial support to strengthen both communities.

Through the support of MVERN, volunteers have helped Fr. Nikolai build a community center that has become an anchor of support for the Sablino community. The center has created afterschool and summer programs for children in religion, art, music, sports and theater. It is a haven for families in times of distress, providing temporary housing. Fr. Nikolai and his parishioners provide meals to the community, especially the elderly and infirmed. The doors to the center are always open and welcoming.

Fr. Nikolai initiated mission trip opportunities for our diocesan youth to help with the summer camps and create intercultural understanding. Adult travelers from our diocese have been welcomed into the homes of the parishioners in Sablino, to break bread together and create lasting friendships. Lives have been enriched and changed.

As a celebration of 20 years of a cultural and spiritual relationship between the two communities, MVERN has planned a Russian White Nights Celebration dinner on Sunday, June 26 at St. George’s, Dayton, at 4:30 p.m. Former travelers and friends are invited for a Russian dinner, entertainment with Russian dancers and your chance to meet Fr. Nikolai and Dr. Igor Tolochin, as well as a joyous reunion for hosts and travelers alike. We look forward to renewing our friendships and celebrating our many accomplishments.

On Saturday, June 25, there also will be a Pizza Party for former MVERN youth travelers and Episcopal youth for pizza and conversation with Fr. Nikolai and Igor. Come for a 5 p.m Vespers and stay for pizza at St. Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church, 4451 Wagner Rd, Dayton. Reservations are not required.

For further information about either event, please contact Bee Tanner at 937.454.5141 or tannerb@woh. rr.com. For more information on MVERN check out our website at www.MVERN.org.

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Anne Griffiths is a member of MVERN and a parishioner at St. James, Cincinnati. She has traveled twice to Sablino through MVERN cultural exchanges.