by Karen Maskiew.
So, what do you do? How many times have I been asked that question by Russians I meet in the stores, in my language classes, or just on the street!
They are intrigued that I, a Canadian, have chosen to live in their country and study their language. The first question they ask when they find out that I am a foreigner is, "Do you teach English?" So many of the English-speakers here do.
"No, I am with the Catholic Church," I respond. The next question is, "What do you do?" and I respond that we accompany people, listen to them, befriend them, pray with them.
"Yes, but what do you do?"
And so it goes until I start wondering myself just what it is I do besides studying Russian and befriending people.
The answer came to me by a circuitous route.
Beth Holmes came here to Krasnoyarsk, Siberia (in central Russia) from Combermere to be with me while Catherine Lesage was at the directors meetings. (Beth had spent a number of years at our house in Magadan in the far northeast of Russia.)
While Beth was here, she and I made a trip back to Magadan to visit our friends there; she had not been back since 2006 when Madonna House closed that house and opened the house in Krasnoyarsk.
This was my first trip to Magadan. The drive into the city was rainy, cold, and dismal, and my first impression of that city was of bleakness.
But it probably wasn’t just the rain and grayness. Magadan had been the administrative center for the nearby concentration camps or "gulags," and, because of the harsh and inhuman conditions, most of the people sent there, died there.
But when we started meeting our friends, I saw that the light of the city dwelled within them and that it was they who were bringing life to this pained land. (I was as welcomed "back" as Beth was even though this was my first visit.)
Our hostess for our week’s stay was Lyudmila Yeretik, a long time friend, who made our stay comfortable and brought us to all the people who wanted to see us.
One evening Lyuda shared and reflected on what Madonna House has meant to people. She told us stories, which Beth translated for me, since I am still working on my Russian.
Lyuda said that after Perestroika in 1990, people could start to talk about the way things had been under the Soviet government—except that they were not able to trust anyone.
This was the situation when Madonna House opened in 1993. People really needed to talk, and they needed a safe place and safe people to talk to. So they came to Madonna House and talked, and talked a lot, to the Madonna House staff workers: Marie Javora, Miriam Stulberg, and Alma Coffman.
Alma always had a big pot of soup on the stove, and she would feed them and listen to their stories, which was so very important. Alma did not have the language skills necessary to communicate in words, but she had a listening heart, and this was what was needed.
I believe that Lyuda shared this about Alma to encourage me in my "work" here in Russia, as I, too, struggle with the language.
At Madonna House Magadan, heart met heart. It was a true gathering place for all the people.
But even during that time, many people in Magadan were wondering what Madonna House staff were doing. Lyudmila said that it was only after we left in 2006 that people knew what we had done.
And so, I returned to Krasnoyarsk with these stories and the people I had met, in my heart.
In the words of our foundress, Catherine Doherty, "What you do, matters, but not much; who you are matters tremendously."
So what do we do in Krasnoyarsk? We have no projects, but we become sisters and family to all whom we touch. We become listening hearts, sharing in all the pains and joys, the problems and triumphs of ordinary life.
I see more clearly now in my own struggle to learn the Russian language that what is important is invisible to the mind but lives and thrives in the heart.
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