Vol. 15, No. 1
Christian Ministry to the Disabled in Russia
Robert D. Hosken and Cheryl Hosken with assistance from Mark R. Elliott
From her wheelchair Natalia takes online courses on ministry to the disabled offered by the Agape Rehabilitation Society in Moscow. This Ukrainian Christian could just as easily teach such courses. In 1998, Natalia, despite her limitations, launched a successful club for young disabled persons. Then, in 2003, with the help of sympathetic local authorities and her pastor, she established a Christian rehabilitation center in a vacant wing of a hospital. This outpatient clinic now has a staff of 11 dedicated to improving the lives of the disabled.
While no precedents from the Soviet era exist for such a remarkable success story of private initiative and persistence on behalf of the disabled as Natalia’s, the Bible does offer inspiration for such outreach. Although under the Mosaic law God did inflict diseases, among other punishments, upon the Hebrews for their disobedience (Deuteronomy 28), the Book of Job countered the prevailing belief that all illness and infirmity were God’s judgment for sin. Job’s “comforters” insisted that his material losses and his crippled condition derived from some evil in his life. But Job, who loved God with all his heart, denied the charge, and in the end, was vindicated.
The Old Testament requires followers of Yahweh to show compassion for the disabled and destitute: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:9). Also, “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear the Lord” (Leviticus 19:14).
Indicative of this concern is David’s treatment of a disabled person in 2 Samuel. When brought before the king, Mephibosheth asked, “Why should you notice a dead dog like me?” He felt himself unworthy because 1) he belonged to a defeated king’s family that was no longer in power in Israel; and 2) he was crippled. However, David wished to care for him out of respect for Mephibosheth’s father, Jonathan. David gave this disabled person land, an honored position in the court, and servants to ensure him a means of living (2 Samuel 9:11). God has provided us with this example as a picture of what we should do to assist those in need.
The rationale for Christian concern for the disabled derives in part from Genesis which affirms that man is made in the image of God. Likewise, Christ, born of mortal flesh, demonstrated that the human body is not evil in itself. On the contrary, it is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Scripture also provides the example of the compassion of Jesus towards those with physical and mental problems, whom He healed on numerous occasions. The New Testament records dozens of instances of Jesus healing the blind, the lame, lepers, the disabled, and the paralyzed. Christ was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a Messiah who would enable the deaf to hear, the blind to see, the lame to walk, the irrational to regain their senses, the mute to speak, and the brokenhearted to be made whole.
Henry E. Sigerist has written that early Christianity was particularly revolutionary in its attitude toward the sick (Civilization and Disease [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1945], 69). From its beginnings the Christian faith addressed itself to the disinherited, the sick, and the afflicted, promising them both spiritual and physical healing. It became the duty of Christians to attend to the sick and the poor. On repeated occasions, Christians demonstrated great courage in their care for the sick during outbreaks of plague. (See Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996].) They ministered to pagans as well as to believers and were sometimes called “reckless ones,” because of their devotion to caring for the sick during times of pestilence.
The Christian belief that humans are created in the image of God has had important consequences for the development of Christian ethics. First, it compels Christians to acts of love towards others, even those outside the faith. The New Testament is very clear that one cannot claim to love God without loving one’s fellow human beings. (See 1 John 4:20-21.)
It was Christian concern for all who bore the image of God and all who were in need that led to the establishment of the first hospitals in the fourth century A.D. Famous in this regard was the Basileias, founded in 372 by St. Basil, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. This early hospital which provided accommodations for the sick, the homeless, the aged, lepers, orphans, and travelers, became the model for many others founded in the Eastern Roman Empire in the fifth century.
The Christian doctrine that humans bear the image of God also supports the belief that every soul has inherent value and should be protected and nourished since Christ died for all. The dignity Christians ascribe to every human life also led to the early Church’s condemnation of abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and Roman gladiatorial games.
In the last years of the Romanov dynasty, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna, sister-in-law of Tsar Nicholas II and wife of the tsar’s uncle, Grand Duke Serge, gave impetus to Christian charity (miloserdie). After the assassination of her husband by revolutionaries in 1905, Elizaveta Fyodorovna took holy orders and founded a new Orthodox convent in Moscow that stressed charitable service to the most unfortunate members of Russian society. The work of her Convent of Sts. Mary and Martha was widely admired. But the Bolshevik victory in 1917 spelled the end to this and all other Orthodox charity as part of the Communist campaign to isolate and destroy the church. And it was in 1918 that the new Bolshevik head of state, Vladimir Lenin, ordered the execution of Elizaveta Fyodorovna, her sister Alexandra, Tsar Nicholas, their children, and other Romanovs who did not escape abroad. (See Hugo Mager, Elizabeth, Grand Duchess of Russia [New York: Carroll and Graf, 1998]; and Adele Lindenmeyr, Poverty is Not a Vice: Charity, Society, and the State in Imperial Russia [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996].)
Many attribute the callousness and cruelty of the Soviet era at least in part to the regime’s concerted efforts to stamp out all charitable initiatives not under state control. Soviet dictionaries even designated the word miloserdie (literally, tender-heartedness) as archaic. (See Michael Bourdeaux, Gorbachev, Glasnost and the Gospel [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990], 188-208.)
Nevertheless, in 1988, Soviet television surprised one and all by airing an unprecedented official meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Pimen. In that meeting the Soviet leader implored the church to assist the government with its efforts to restructure the economy and reform society. Orthodox and Protestants alike took advantage of this perestroika and glasnost (openness) to reestablish a variety of social ministries, with care for the sick prominent among them. (While not focused specifically on aid to the disabled, one recent study nevertheless deserves special attention for its in-depth analysis of the revival of Christian charity in post-Soviet Russia: Melissa L. Caldwell, Not by Bread Alone, Social Support in the New Russia [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004].) Today, churches in post-Soviet Russia engage in a myriad of compassionate ministries, including a small but growing number of efforts to assist the disabled.
The Orthodox Sisters of Charity quietly served in hospitals even before they were officially allowed. Over time their work was accepted as an important ministry to the sick (http://www.miloserdie.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=15&id=439). The Convent of Sts. Mary and Martha has reemerged and has reacquired portions of its former facilities on Bolshaya Ordynka Street, just a short distance from the Kremlin. This Sisterhood of the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna Romanov trains volunteers in charitable work and organizes ministries to the disabled, the elderly, and the sick in various hospitals (http://uic.nnov.ru/-dofa/sowr_R/elizav_fed-2i.htm). The Sisterhood of the Blessed Tsarevich Dmitrii also serves the needy in similar fashion (http://uic.nnov.ru/dofa/sowr_R/ses_dm.htm).
The Social Action Committee of the Russian Orthodox Moscow Eparchy also undertakes ministries to the sick, the disabled, and the elderly (http://www.miloserdie/ru/index.php?ss=1&s=8). The website of the Department for Church Charity and Social Services of the Moscow Patriarchate provides accounts of various current and ongoing church outreaches to the elderly and the disabled, for example, in the Arkhangelsk Region, in Nizhny Novgorod, in the Yekaterinburg Region, and in Cherkizovsky (http://www.diaconia.ru/index.sema?a=soc_service2&preview=1&pid=4).
The Orthodox Sisterhood in Arkhangelsk, led by Sister Anna Emke, ministers to lonely elderly in the hospitals of Arkhangelsk, Severodvinsk, and Mirnii, where nuns clean wards, feed and bathe patients who cannot care for themselves, and most important of all, talk to the patients (http://www.websupport.ru/seychaslOl.xhtml). Lina Ziovievna Saltykova leads the “Charity Group named after Fr. Aleksandr Men” at the Russian Children’s Hospital on Leninskii Prospekt in Moscow. This ministry raises funds to help treat children with a variety of serious diseases. Volunteers provide art therapy, a clown ministry, chess tournaments, English tutoring, toys, diapers, food, and wheelchairs (www.deti.msk.ru/en/).
The Orthodox “Charity Train” has provided medical care for over 1,200 people in the Perm Region (http://ru.www.st-sergius.info/index.html?did=77), while 35 additional Orthodox charities in Moscow feed the poor in church buildings, take food to home-bound disabled, and minister to the deaf and to developmentally disabled children (http://orthodox.etel.ru/2006/02/obrasch. htm). Finally, in neighboring Belarus, the All Saints Russian Orthodox parish in Minsk sponsors Dom Miloserdia [Home of Charity] for orphans, disabled children, and the elderly (http://www.pravoslavie.ru/news/010212/06.htm).
Catholic and Protestant Efforts
Catholic charities are also assisting the disabled in Russia. Most prominent in this regard is Caritas with centers in Moscow (http://www.caritas.ru/) and St. Petersburg (http://www.russialink.org.uk/charity/caritas.htm).
In 1988, as soon as glasnost permitted, women of the Central Baptist Church in Moscow began volunteer service in the Kashchenko Psychiatric Hospital, bathing patients, emptying bedpans, changing bed linens, and above all, befriending patients. The hospital director was so impressed that he visited the church to express his thanks. He shared that he had seen demonstrated that it takes more than medicine to cure the sick, that it takes love (Bourdeaux, Gorbachev, 202-03).
Russia Inland (“Na Rusi”), with ties to Evangelical Christians-Baptists, provides basic foodstuffs throughout the year to invalids, the sick, needy elderly, and orphans (www.eng.russiainland.org/). Also, the Christian Association of Medical Workers (KhRAM), which is housed in the Baptist Union in Moscow, assists the disabled and the elderly. Finally, Oleg Terentiev from the Moscow Central Baptist Church has an outreach to the deaf.
Many other Evangelical churches and missions work with the disabled. “With Compassion for the Deaf,” a charitable Evangelical foundation based in St. Petersburg, assists the hearing impaired. Rev. Oleg Shevkun, former pastor of Moscow Bible Church and currently a lecturer at the Russian-American Christian University, is legally blind. Despite his disability, Rev. Shevkun serves as a role model to the disabled, demonstrating the valuable contributions they can make in society.
The Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund (ROOF), with offices at St. Andrews Anglican Church in Moscow, operates a rehabilitation center in Belskoye-Ustye in Pskov Region for children graduating from the state-run psycho-neurological orphanage in the same location. This center trains disabled children to care for themselves to the limits of their ability (www.roofnet.org/abilitation).
Moscow’s “Blagaya Vest” Pentecostal Church, led by Rev. Rick Renner, underwrites “Dom Miloserdia” (House of Charity) with services to the needy, including the disabled (www.mercyhouse.narod.ru/eng/index.htm). In addition, the Salvation Army engages in a wide array of compassionate ministries to Russia’s poor, including the disabled (www.salvationarmy.org/eec/www_eec.nsf).
Finally, my wife Cheryl and I direct the Agape Rehabilitation Society, dedicated to helping Russia’s disabled (www.agape-biblia.org/rehab). Cheryl is a nurse and vocational rehabilitation specialist. Besides using my computer training to create web-based Bible study aids, I work with Cheryl in our rehabilitation ministry. Sometimes this involves working intensively with a client several hours a day, such as Serafima, a multiple sclerosis patient who needs help getting dressed, eating, standing, bathing, and exercising. At other times it means training a person to overcome the effects of a stroke. At age 45, Igor suffered a severe stroke that paralyzed his entire right side. After the obligatory three-week hospital stay, doctors sent him home to die. With the help of two to three visits per week to exercise his affected arm and leg, Igor now is able to hold a fork and spoon, walk, and climb steps. In addition, he now is beginning to talk again.
Each time we visit clients, we pray with them. So far none have refused prayer, although at times they do not want us to read the Bible to them. We witness God’s grace and power at work as we feed, bathe, clothe, massage, and exercise the disabled. People who were considered beyond hope have recovered.
I have worked to provide a theological foundation for ministry to the disabled through my doctor of ministry thesis completed in 2006: “The Ministry-Driven Church: The Biblical Basis for Ministry in Both Spiritual and Physical Spheres, and Its Impact on the Rapid Multiplication of Churches – A Biblical Theology of Social Ministry.” In addition, Cheryl and I teach a course on ministry to the disabled at the Moscow Evangelical Christian Seminary, as well as similar courses over the Internet (http://www.agape-biblia.org/plugins/pract-ministries/).
Ministry to the disabled is an imperative of Scripture. Likewise, it has significant precedents in the history of the early church and in Eastern Orthodoxy. Despite aggressive Soviet efforts to abolish all expressions of Christian compassion, post-Soviet Russia is witnessing a commendable revival of this old and honored tradition, including efforts to assist the disabled. While exemplary efforts in the former Soviet Union have been noted, a great deal more must be done by Christians of all confessions on behalf of the disabled.
Robert D. Hosken is director of the Agape Rehabilitation Society, Moscow, Russia. Cheryl Hosken is a nurse and vocational rehabilitation specialist.