Russian Guests Find 'Limitless Kindness'

Balay, Diane Huie. "Russian Guests Find 'Limitless Kindness'." United Methodist Reporter, 17 September 1999, 3.

Their names were Lolita, Sergei, Olga, Nicholay or Tatiana.

They were Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or of no faith. They came half way around the world, from Russia’s far east to its far west, to see a way of life most had only heard about. When they left, it was with hugs and tears and pledges of friendship for their hosts.

Many of these young Russian political and business leaders were hosted by United Methodists who became involved through the United Methodist Russian Initiative, a program of the General Board of Global Ministries headed by the Rev. Bruce Weaver.

The church is working with other religious and non-governmental organizations throughout the United States to host some 2,000 emerging Russian leaders in a program titled “Open World Russian Leadership Exchange.” The exchange was very recently developed by the Library of Congress and funded in part through the U.S. Congress, which did not approve funding until late July.

The hastily put together program has suffered some bumps along the way, but for the most part, Mr. Weaver said, the Russians have been good sports and the U.S. hosts have adapted with good grace. United Methodist reports from across the United States have shown the program to be successful in its goal to allow Russians to see democracy at work and Americans at home.

The U.S. hosts have done their best, Mr. Weaver said, to see to it that their Russian guests spent time with people in their field of interest, whether government or business. In addition, they visited hospitals, police stations, city council meetings, soup kitchens, court sessions and a host of other institutions. They went to shopping malls, concerts, museums, water parks, rodeos and cookouts. And they went to worship at United Methodist churches.

One Russian guest said they had been to so many church events that they would be saints by the time they returned to Russia.

Others said they were impressed that church buildings were used so many different ways: for worship, concerts, other social events and for ministry to the poor.

Challenge the system
The Russians also asked challenging questions about the systems they were observing. Among the challengers was Ludmila Zavialova, part of a group hosted by members of First United Methodist Church in Dallas. Ms. Zavialova reportedly would like to be president of Russia someday.

Ms. Zavialova, an elected member of her regional parliament, speaking through an interpreter, asked John Marshall, Judge of the 14th District Court in Dallas, if lawyers are necessary in a trial, and if lawyers are expensive, does money equal justice in the United States?

Judge Marshall, who is also a visiting professor of U.S. Constitutional law in Poland, answered briskly, “Not in my court.”

Ms. Zavialova was affected by the IMAX movie, fortuitously about the space station Mir, that she saw with the group.

At a farewell party, she told the U.S. hosts and Russian guests, “We’ve got lots of things in common and lots of differences. The problem that worries us is the problem of keeping peace. I believe we will. [While I was in Russia] America seemed so far away, but it’s so close. So close. When we went to the IMAX cinema, I realized that our earth is so small. We have to preserve it. It’s the only place we have to live.”

Another high-ranking Russian visiting Dallas was Nicholay Neznamov, who is the equivalent of a lieutenant governor in his province. Mr. Neznamov spoke little but watched everything.

In an interview with the Reporter on his last evening in the United State, he said that when he arrived he expected to see clean cities, lots of cars and tender but businesslike people. He expected “really strict, tough police to pop up often to enforce democracy.”

In reality, he said, he found clean cities and lots of cars. What he didn’t expect was the “limitless kindness” of Americans or that they would be so open.

It really surprised him, he said, that there were so few police. Now, he said, he understands that the incentive for order in the United States comes from the people, not the police.

“Russia,” Mr. Neznamov said of his country, “is really a wonderful, wonderful country and the majority of the people are kind, open and law abiding. Really good people.”

But Russia is enduring staggering economic and political chaos.

“What has happened,” Mr. Neznamov continued, “is that people don’t trust anymore. Now, what is happening is bad and people don’t like that.”

He said he believed that the leaders’ visit to the United States would help.

“We can see the real systems. For Russia to be happy, each person must take responsibility for himself. Systems must be based on the individual. We should help Russians understand this. At least a majority of the people would understand this idea. It is those people who will elect the right people to government.”

[According to Mr. Weaver, Russia is emerging from the old authoritarian Communist system, but the law is still built on the concept that the state controls the thoughts and actions of individuals.]

“I am convinced that each person is the beginning of his own happiness,” Mr. Neznamov continued. “This is what I am going to tell to my family, friends, everyone I see in Russia.”

‘Don’t push churches away’
Mr. Neznamov is a Christian who grew up in the Russian Orthodox Church. He said he knew almost nothing about The United Methodist Church until the visit. He had believed what he was taught, he said, that other denominations were wrong. Since his visit, he said, he believes that the American system of religion is correct.

“We must not push other denominations away,” he said.

Reprinted with permission of The United Methodist Reporter.

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