The “telebridge” connecting the youth of St Petersburg and New York took place on Saturday, May 2, 2009, the eve of the feast day of the Holy Myrrh-bearing Women.
The idea of establishing a telebridge arose during the Nativity Readings in Moscow, in which Protopriest Andrei Sommer of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia participated this year.
Dmitry Baranov, journalist and member of the “Pokrov” Inter-University Spiritual-Moral Association, proposed hosting a virtual teleconference of youth and have a cross-oceanic conversation on parish life, missionary work of youth organizations in Russia and the US, and discussing details of such work in each country.
The “teledialog” was organized with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Fr Andrei, Vice Chairman of the Synodal Youth Department, organized the event and also hosted it at his apartment.
The young people who gathered in New York for the teleconference were descendants of the first and second wave of Russian émigrés. Decades ago, their ancestors were cast by fate on the North American continent, where, as Russians did throughout the world, they built churches as a first order of business.
Among those who participated in the dialog were Maria Wolkow, a parishioner of St Seraphim Church in Sea Cliff, a suburb of New York City. Last summer she visited Moscow for the first time not as a pilgrim or a tourist, but on a business trip as an employee of Troika-Dialog Bank.
Dmitry Dukhovskoy, a student of Russistics and economics, sings in the choir of Epiphany Church in Boston. Dmitry visited Russia three times, specifically to St Petersburg, which he considers his native city, though in contrast with the other participants, he learned Russian in college. Alexander Djurdjinovic serves as an acolyte at the Synodal Cathedral and is an administrator with St George Pathfinders (ORIUR). Alexander Stepanoff, a graduate of Connecticut State University, is a mechanical engineer and the only one who is a full-time employee, in fact, of a helicopter company founded by our famous compatriot, Igor Sikorsky.
Before the exchange began, the participants greeted each other with the traditional Khristos Voskrese [Christ is Risen]. The St Petersburg contingent led off the discussion.
Vladimir Goriunov and Alexei Kotenkov, students at Mozhaisk Military-Space Academy, talked about how young people are supporting the renewal of spirituality in the army, building a church inside the Academy’s walls and is helping a church in the village of Kamenniki in Ivaonvsk oblast.
The matter of restoring and building churches is not an abstract idea for the youth in the USA. Masha Wolkow recounted how the Sea Cliff church was built by her grandparents, scraping up building materials in difficult years, collecting sundries like nails. Later on, these churches erected on the meager incomes of the Russian immigrants would sprout parish schools.
The students of the higher educational institutions of St Petersburg, St Petersburg Theological Seminary and Academy were interested to learn how their counterparts abroad, thousands of miles from Russia, preserved and continue to preserve the tongue of their great-grandmothers, their Russian culture, and remain Orthodox Christians amidst the variety of temptations of the Western world.
Alexander Stepanoff told them about how he began to study in Nyack’s parish school at the age of three, graduating at 19. In these schools, children from Russian families meet every Saturday, make friends, learn Russian grammar, literature, history and the geography of Russia.
Fr Andrei added that the Russian school in Nyack was founded by Fr Seraphim Slobodskoy, the author of the textbook Law of God. This was one of the first books sent from America to Russia, with the blessing of then-Archbishop Luaus in the 1980’s.
The youth across the sea were surprised to learn that the books actually reached the addressees. “Not always,” said Fr Andrei, “and for this reason we sent literature to private addresses, sometimes 3-4 items per package, so as not to arouse suspicion.”
No one could imagine that they would open churches in Russia, that the time would come when in St Petersburg alone there would be 22 churches at higher educational institutions, which constitute a separate deanery.
One of the leading themes during the conversation was missionary work, preaching and the various forms it can take.
Zoya Vasilieva talked about how difficult it is to be a tour guide in Valaam. The greatest reward is seeing how at the end of a pilgrimage to a holy site, atheists are transformed into grateful listeners.
Dmitry continued the topic, telling his counterparts in St Petersburg about how students worked on building a house for a new monastery in West Virginia. Such cooperative efforts unite Russian youth who live far from their historic homeland. He discussed Orthodox summer camps in America, including scout camps, and traditional benefit balls. The youth especially remember last year’s pilgrimage “In the Steps of Moses” to Mount Sinai and the Holy Land.
Fr Ioann of the Stavropol-Vladikavkaz Diocese, participating on the Russian side, spoke about a unique camp—an Orthodox/Muslim venture, organized with the blessing of His Eminence Archbishop Feofan, the Ruling Bishop. He concluded that such inter-confessional camps are vital in a multi-national state.
One of the real problems facing missionaries in Russia is helping orphans and the aged. It is important to develop familial bonds, said the youth from the northern capital, who are members of the St Matrona of Moscow Benevolent Organization, who help people overcome loneliness and illness.
In America, because of the laws and way of life in the country, a greater value is placed on moral support. During holidays, young missionaries visit the residents of Russian nursing homes who have no surviving relatives.
The New York contingent talked about the work of the group “Russian Gift of Life,” which helps those who need medical treatment in the US. Under this program, Americans of Russian descent provide housing from patients and their relatives who sometimes need to stay several months during treatment and cannot afford other housing.
The discussion became livelier when they began discussing student dances; on Pokrov [Protection] of the Most-Holy Mother of God, St Tatyana Day, the Day of Victory in Russia. Joint plans began to take shape. Dmitry suggested to Fr Andrei that he and a group of youth visit St Petersburg and celebrate Students’ Day, which in Russia is a state holiday.
Three hours flew by almost unnoticed. The virtual meeting between Orthodox students from the cities on the Neva and Hudson Rivers proved interesting, beneficial and earnest.
Two years ago, before the reestablishment of Eucharistic communion between the two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church, such an exciting event would be difficult to imagine.
Those who took part in the New York end of the meeting said they are prepared to meet their counterparts in St Petersburg as early as this summer, when a youth group from the USA visits Russia. This trip is part of a program celebrating the Year of Youth in Russia, with financing coming from the Russian government.