I just realized I’ve made it almost five months without saying anything substantive about church here. That’s a shame, as going to church has been one of the more consistent parts of my life (yay, consistency!), and also one of the more culture-shock-ish parts (yay, culture shock!). Five months of potentially good blog posts, wasted. Whoops.
I guess I should begin at the beginning, which was sometime in October, when I first discovered that there was in fact a non-Orthodox church in Ukhta. This was wonderful news to me, not because I’m anti-Orthodox, but because I felt about 0% ability to participate in an Orthodox church (don’t speak Old Slavonic, can’t take communion, can’t figure out what the deal is with community). To the rescue: Baptists.
The church I found and have been attending is the most Baptist Baptist church I’ve ever been to, which is saying a lot, as I’ve visited/been a member of a good number of Baptist churches. Here in Ukhta, we have potlucks all the time. We sing out of a hymnal, either a cappella or with keyboard accompaniment. We have dozens of older women who like to give out only-mildly-appetizing candy to the dozens of small children running about underfoot. I think there’s a Bible study/prayer meeting every day of the week, if you’re interested. The church is strictly against alcohol and smoking. People are also pretty skeptical of all higher-liturgical traditions. And, fitting more to a stereotype than the reality I’ve encountered in the States, the atmosphere leans anti-intellectual.
It was hard for me, at the beginning… actually, for the whole first semester. I didn’t feel like I knew anyone really, and I despaired of finding the intentional-intellectual-spiritual community I was so spoiled by at Notre Dame/Fulkerson. Once you’ve had that kind of fellowship, it’s hard to live without it. I went to church every week, I chatted with the old ladies and the children, and I went to the potlucks, but I still felt kind of alone.
Another reason it was difficult was that I was translating all the time. There’s a student from Ghana here who wanted to attend church with me, and his Russian ability level in October was certainly not enough to understand a sermon/real conversation. So I offered to translate for him. Live translation is hard, especially when one’s own level is only enough to grasp 85% of what’s said. You hear a sentence, pause a few seconds to work out how to make it intelligible in English, say the sentence in English, and by the time you’re finished you’ve missed the next sentence and a half. To say this method leaves little time for personal reflection is generous.
But somehow, in the last two or three weeks, both of these problems have started to iron themselves out, and it’s made a huge difference, both in how I feel while at church, and in how I feel about my life in general.
First off, the community issue. Part of this solution was just me buckling down and Doing A Thing. By that, I mean not letting myself whine anymore about how the church wasn’t serving me and starting to serve the church (#Theology101 #thingsIthoughtIlearnedtenyearsago). I started an English class for interested church members. We meet on Mondays. It’s great. We’ve finished the alphabet/how-to-read and personal introductions, with sneakily added vocabulary and practice with pronouns. Surprisingly, this class resulted in me getting to know not only the people in my class, but also a bunch of young adults I wasn’t entirely aware existed. After one of my first classes ended, I learned that there was a young adult choir practice going on upstairs (we have a young adult choir? news to me). I actually can’t resist sitting in a circle and singing with a guitar, so I skipped dinner (sorry Mom!) and joined in. This led to learning about a young adult Bible study that happens on Wednesdays, which led to going to said study, which led to meeting people my age who care about their faith and are interested in thinking critically about it, which led to feeling a lot less alone at church. I’m not going to say this has solved every community-related problem for me, but it’s gone a long way.
Second, the translation issue. The solution to this one has been twofold: one, getting better at Russian (and specifically church Russian) so I can translate more efficiently; and two, going to church by myself sometimes. The first part of the solution is something that could only happen with time and practice; the second was more a matter of a picking myself up by my bootstraps and Doing The Thing. Going to church twice in one day isn’t something I’ve done since high school, probably, and then it was because I was involved in music and/or mime things. It took me 5 months to realize that translating was just as valid a reason to get into that habit again. Better late than never.
In conclusion: Church is a hard thing but a good thing, and now the balances are starting to tip more towards good than hard. And I’m going to say it was worth the five months of hard.
Here are basically-all of the pictures I have from church from the last five months… sorry there’s so few!