The Episcopal Church has a long history of cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church, going back to the early 19th century when Episcopalians in California offered hospitality to Russian congregations and cooperated in pastoral work in Alaska. Decades later, Orthodox Bishop Tikhon was made an honorary member of the Episcopal House of Bishops when he accompanied Russian laborers as they arrived on the East Coast.
Before the advent of communism, Orthodoxy had been a guiding light for the majority of Russian Christians. However, everything changed as the communist Soviet Union sought the elimination of religion. In two short decades, the Soviet Union became a predominantly atheistic society.
In 1991, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church was again free to function and experienced a resurgence in activity. But the Church was faced with thousands of desecrated or destroyed churches and a critical shortage of priests. In 1993, Patriarch Alexei II appealed to the late Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning for help in restoring and revitalizing the life and ministry of the Russian Orthodox Church. In response to the Patriarch’s plea, a parish partnership program was designed to bring people together to build personal relationships and create mutual understanding and support between American Episcopalians and Russian Orthodox.
Chris Saunders and Joey Thiele, parishioners of St. Paul’s, Oakwood, accepted that challenge and set to work to form what was to became the largest and most active Episcopal/Russian Orthodox partnership in the US. The Miami Valley Episcopal Russian Network, MVERN, is a consortium of 13 Episcopal and Orthodox churches in the greater Dayton/northern Cincinnati area, and is linked with St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in the village of Sablino, Russia.
During the past two decades, MVERN has taken more than 300 Americans, including 119 youth, on 20 pilgrimages/mission trips to Russia and brought 29 Russian teens to Dayton. In addition, they have provided tens of thousands of dollars in support of the outreach projects of Fr. Nikolai Aksenov, the visionary rector of St. Nicholas. With MVERN’s help, Fr. Nickolai has expanded St. Nicholas three times, and a dilapidated youth center has been transformed into a spacious facility that welcomes both children and adults to classes seven days a week in addition to hosting a large summer camp.
In November 2002, MVERN sent a 40-foot container to Sablino, filled with more than $200,000 worth of medical supplies for the regional hospital, computers for the local schools, sewing supplies and coats for the prison, and Christmas gifts for the children at St. Nicholas Church and the orphanages. MVERN has continued to provide school supplies, clothing, medical supplies and toys for both the nearby Municipal Orphanage and School For Developmentally Disabled Children, and also sponsored an alcohol and drug addiction program in nearby schools.
Additionally, MVERN provided funds to help build a freestanding chapel in a nearby women’s prison, the first in any Russian prison. And with a special grant from the Diocese of Southern Ohio, MVERN also helped to build a chapel on the foundation of the sanctuary of the original church, which was destroyed during World War II.
On June 26, MVERN celebrated 20 years of mission and friendship with a gala at St. George’s, Dayton. More than 125 people enjoyed a festive evening of Russian food and culture, reconnected with friends and reminisced about Russian trips with fellow travelers.
After 20 years, MVERN’s original mission has been achieved. We have witnessed an increased understanding between the people of two Christian faiths and spiritual growth in both communities. We will maintain our relationship with St. Nicholas and continue to be a conduit for funds for Fr. Nikolai’s extensive ministries. Although MVERN will no longer organize trips, we will facilitate visits for Americans interested in visiting Sablino and perhaps staying for a few days in the Youth Center.
The challenge to Episcopalians and Orthodox Christians is to celebrate the amazing evidence of God’s grace and faithfulness at St. Nicholas Church in Sablino, and to continue to consider ways in which we can work together, as neighbors, offering our witness in a tense and divided world.
Chris Saunders is one of the founders of MVERN and attends St. Paul’s, Oakwood.