Minsk Essay 2018 by Alexei Ohotin
This year’s youth trip to the Saint Elizabeth convent in Minsk, Belarus, led by Father Andrei Sommer was one of importance and occasion. Ten young adults, including myself, traveled Minsk with a packed schedule of meetings and church services. We met with countless native Belarusians and held open conversations about our common faith. We traveled with the holy relics of Saint Elizabeth to religious and cultural centers of faith in Minsk, and we visited orphanages to deliver to them a large sum of money donated from American parishes. This trip was a truly profound experience for all of our youth, and we certainly left an impact in the Orthodox communities in the nation of Belarus.
The youth’s visit to Minsk was highlighted by Sunday’s Orthodox youth symposium, taking place at the Theological Academy of Minsk. Ten Orthodox youth from America presented to over a hundred Belarusian youth on the topic of living a Russian Orthodox life in America. We read aloud prepared essays and showed photographs documenting our lives, answering their questions for over two hours. Their questions ranged from how we grew up Orthodox in a secular society, to what our personal Russian reading lists were, to how we interacted with non-Orthodox American peers. They were all extremely interested in how youth from America can live traditional Orthodox lifestyles. We were buzzing to explain this all to them, and after the symposium we were flooded with Belarusian people asking us even more questions! I met an Orthodox teenager who wanted to go to college in America to study computer programming, and I referred him to the multitude of American schools he can attend. I met with two Belarusian women, who confessed to me that they had held rather negative views about American culture before our symposium, but were truly touched by our fervent Orthodox lives, admitting they had learned a lot from us. One of these women, Halina, I continue to exchange words and Orthodox material with online. I also befriended a Belarusian Orthodox camp scout, Anton, a member of the Belarus Scout Organization, and we both learned a lot about each other’s scout camp experiences. The ten of us American youth exchanged our contact information with dozens of native Belarusians who wanted to prolong their conversations with us about America and even Orthodox life. We were all amazed at how intrigued these people were with our lives, and still communicate with many of them today.
Our trip to Belarus was hosted by the Saint Elizabeth convent on the outskirts of Minsk. I am truthful when I say that I have never experienced more gracious hosts than the people of this convent. The convent gave us rooms in their pilgrimage center, and even without hot water, it was a very pleasant stay. Wherever we went, we were met with extreme gratitude for our presence. We conversed with nuns and members of clergy of this convent about our lives in America, about life at the convent, and about Belarus. The convent was visited by tens of thousands of people over the course of just three days who traveled from across the country to venerate the relics of Saint Elizabeth. These travelers visited throughout the day and late into the evening; buses of people arrived into the early hours of the morning each night, full of Orthodox believers wishing to see the relics in the convent. The holy relics were also greeted at the Holy-Spirit Cathedral of Minsk by Metropolitan Paul of Minsk, with thousands more worshipers lining up to see them. The sheer number of people that the presence of the relics was able to summon was astounding to all of us.
The philanthropic goal of our journey to Minsk was to donate a large sum of money to an orphanage for disabled children supported by the Saint Elizabeth convent in Minsk. This money was donated through the “School Piggy-Bank” program in Orthodox parishes across America. Hundreds of American children donated their dollars and change to fund the construction of a sensory park for the disabled-child orphanage, the first of its kind in Belarus. The ten of us American youth toured their orphanage facility on Monday and were treated with a musical performance there as well! Disabled children of the orphanage performed with volunteers of the National Belarus Musical Academy to deliver beautiful singing and dancing for us guests. Afterwards, we held discussions with the volunteers over tea. Our youth group also enjoyed the musical performance of the adult care center also supported by the convent, after which many hugs were exchanged with the performers.
The youth trip to Minsk was beautiful and profound. It’s hard to believe that the ten of us did so much in just 5 days in Belarus. We toured famous cathedrals, national monuments, cultural centers, and the city. We talked with countless nuns, priests, the Metropolitan, young adults, and children. We made friends with Belarusian youth, traveling with them to big bonfires and city centers. We treasure the times we spent with our Orthodox friends in Minsk: Anton, Nikita, Daniel, Katherine, Sasha, Elizabeth, George, Issa, another Anton, Maria, and of course Father John. The ten of us American youth bonded during this trip but came home with heavy hearts, missing our new friends and our experiences. This trip was certainly a blessing for all of us and we eagerly await our next chance to travel abroad in the name of Orthodoxy.