Russia: Life on the Front Lines

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TEDDY BEAR SMILE–Captain Joseph Smith (l) and Lyle Richardson with a HIV baby. Richardson, who brought teddy bears for the HIV children in the hospital, has raised support for the caregivers.


by Judy Vaughn –
Golden State Division

Throughout the former Soviet Union, The Salvation Army continues its compassionate serving–undaunted by terrorist bombings, the threat of AIDS, or a failing economy.

After serving four years in Moscow, Captain Joseph Smith is now into his third in St. Petersburg. Director of The Salvation Army’s social services center, he enthusiastically greets the men and women lined up in front of the building. He shakes hands and reaches out with obvious affection. “This is where I want to be,” he says with a smile, “on the front line.” And that is just where he and his wife, Captain Pamela Smith, serve.

He reports 8,000 people a month go through this center on a heavily trafficked downtown street in the midst of construction and heavy equipment. There are six Army corps in the city with 250 soldiers.

This morning, a gathering is held in the basement room where there is a piano. Lyle Richardson, a Salvation Army volunteer from San Mateo, Calif., will perform. The audience is composed of 40 men and women whose common experience is that they all survived the relentless 900-day Nazi bombing of the city during World War II and they are now pensioners who live from month to month, hoping the pension will come. Many months it does not. There could not be a more appreciative audience.

Richardson is at his best. He sings, “How Great Thou Art” in English, which they know well in Russian. Then, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Clapping their hands enthusiastically and smiling widely, they quickly pick up on “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” As he sings “There is a Balm in Gilead,” there is a gentle, healing quiet.

Smith quietly indicates we must leave soon, but that people who would like to share their experiences about the siege should come to the front.

“These are people who, for the second time in their lives, have to make decisions whether to buy food or medicine,” he explains. They survived the bombs of WWII, worked hard all their lives, and thought they would have a pension in their old age. But now, the collapsed economy has put them at the bottom of the priority list. “Their pension, when and if they get it, is only $12 a month. Their children struggle to find work. Their grandchildren don’t listen. They feel betrayed and humiliated. Only at this program do they feel someone listens.”

Smith has developed a plan to provide them an extra $20 a month, food and medicine. The Salvation Army has indeed been their salvation and they’re very grateful. “Tell the Americans we’re grateful,” says Irina. “Tell them we remember what they do for us. Tell them we’re proud to be part of The Salvation Army’s first corps in St. Petersburg.”

(Note: Public Relations Director Judy Vaughn accompanied Richardson to St. Petersburg, where they visited the hospital in which the abandoned HIV babies live, and distributed teddy bears donated by Caring for Children. Richardson has raised nearly $5,000 for the support of Army caregivers for the babies.

Captains Joseph and Pamela Smith have adopted a child, Natasha, from the hospital. They recently discovered she no longer carries the HIV antibodies.)

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