I am sending this brief newsletter after the completion of our project in the St. Petersburg region
of Russia with St. Olaf students who are a part of the Lilly International Service Learning program. The eight students and I are guests of the Ingrian Lutheran Church Missionary Committee. We lived in churches and were fed by congregation volunteers who cooked for us in the church kitchens. Ingria is the former name for the region around St. Petersburg. “Ingria” is still populated by a large number of people who speak a dialect of Finnish and whose ancestors knew this region as home centuries before the founding of the city in 1703. They, like the Finns to the west and the Estonians to the south, have Lutheran religious traditions that go back to the
Reformation. All the congregations we will visit on this trip are in the general region of St. Petersburg. This has been the fastest growing church in Lutheranism, since the freedom of religion was restored in Russia after Glasnost.
Being the guests of Ingrian churches was a very fortunate situation for us. We are housed in a safe, clean setting and are fed by women who are presented us with wonderful traditional Russian food. Some of the churches have been recently built or remodeled and have received support from the Finnish Lutheran Church. The churches are often modern, with new
plumbing, accommodations for apparently frequent guests and volunteers, and even such amenities as a sauna and a washing machine. Our guide, Alina, is a congregation member with excellent English skills who has led us through the daunting labyrinth of the St. Petersburg suburban bus system and the even more impressive underground metro. By the end of three days of becoming acclimated, we had already been down to Nevskii Prospekt in the city center several times, have seen important monuments and museums, and eaten many blinis. The food at the church is far better than anything in the restaurants, however.
The housing in the church was a bit cozy and so we had to keep things tidy and air out the rooms between nights. We had a stuffy nose and cough to attend to but nothing we couldn’t treat easily. The students baked themselves in the sauna every other day, which surely eliminated a lot of nasty germs and viruses. We managed to stay quite happy to be with each other, and be happy with our situation. It would be impossible for us to complete such a service project without the
advice and support of our hosts.
Our service activity was to provide some music for church worship services and prayer meetings in St. Petersburg. Though not our main intention, we have achieved some fame in the local churches with our singing of American hymns and playing the Finnish/Ingrian folk instrument, the kantele. While we’d be the first to say that our musical reputation here is highly inflated, this musical activity certainly opened doors for us and got us in contact with many people. We also learned some Finnish and Russian words and music, which added to the impact.
The churches also scheduled us to help with some building maintenance and repair activities including staining the exterior of the church we are now in and helping to remodel an older house that was purchased by the congregation for its new young pastor with a growing family. In the course of these weeks, we visited several churches, retirement homes, cemeteries, orphanages, and other institutions of the church and region.
The final project for us, just before departure, was to assist with a regional summer youth bible camp in the northern suburb of Jukki. For this four-day camp we assisted with musical activities, drama, games, sports. It was a highlight for our students to establish contact with the wonderful children who attended.
In St. Petersburg, we had opportunities to visit the Hermitage Art Museum/Winter Palace (twice), the Peter and Paul Fortress, and out of town, Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo. The highlight for many of us was attendance at a Mariinsky Theatre Ballet performance during the “White Nights” Festival- the Mariinsky Orchestra ad Ballet performing Chopiniana, Scheherzade, and Firebird. This was a surprise opportunity on one of our last days there.
More, photographs, reports, and responses, including student commentaries, will be added here soon.
We returned to Helsinki, Finland, by train on Wednesday, June 22nd and then flew back to the U.S. on June 24th.
Paul Niemisto, PhD
June 24, 2005