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Bishop’s work team gives hope to Russian seminary

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by the Rev. Greg Cox

The Rev. Eric Park cuts tiles for Bishop Tom Bickerton to lay on the seminary floor.
Oct. 20, 2005

By Jackie Campbell*

MOSCOW (UMNS) — Bishop Tom Bickerton spent a lot of time on his knees recently — laying tile on the third floor of the new Russia United Methodist Seminary building.

Bickerton, who leads the United Methodist Church’s Pittsburgh Area, organized the first Volunteers In Mission team hosted by the seminary.

The seminary’s staff and students expressed amazement and gratitude that volunteers, including a bishop of the church, would travel so far and work so hard to help them.

“You give us hope,” said Valentina Ignatova, a first-year student who travels two hours one way to get to classes at the seminary.

“You even bleed for us,” said Andrei Kuznetsov, a second-year student, who noticed bandages on Bickerton’s fingers, which were cut on sharp edges of tiles he had laid.

Bickerton had been disturbed to learn that funding cuts made by the 2004 General Conference were jeopardizing efforts to educate pastors for the emerging church in Russia. In June, he put out a call for volunteers to go to Moscow and finish renovations, so that students and visiting professors would have housing.

The seminary, which had operated since 1995 in two cramped rented classrooms, moved last February into a former kindergarten building purchased with a $750,000 grant from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. The churchwide Board of Higher Education and Ministry gave $250,000 to begin renovations.

The cut in funding and escalating costs halted work on the living space, but when completed, the living quarters are expected to reduce operating costs considerably.

The seminary currently spends $800 a month to rent a two-room apartment for visiting professors and also rents apartments for students to share for $700 to $800 a month. The highest-paid pastor’s salary is $350 a month. Because of the high price of housing in Moscow, the units are some distance from the seminary and require travel through areas where safety is a concern at night. Two students were hospitalized recently after being beaten and stabbed in separate incidents.

Bickerton sees the seminary as key to spiritual renewal in the former Soviet Union, which he calls “an unbelievable 21st century mission field.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by the Rev. Greg Cox

Bishop Tom Bickerton (wearing cap) shares a moment with students at the seminary.
In a little more than 10 years, 100 United Methodist churches with a total of about 5,000 members have been established in Russia. Of the 77 students who have graduated from the seminary, 55 are serving an appointment. One of the first graduates, the Rev. Sergei Nikolaev was installed Sept. 10 in the Ruediger and Gerlinde Minor Chair as an E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism.

Nickolaev noted that the seminary “is not only about providing theological information for students, it’s about forming them in a Christian way of living. The majority didn’t grow up with a Christian background.”

Bickerton and a team of 30 volunteers from the Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia annual (regional) conferences traveled to Russia for two weeks of work Sept. 20-Oct. 4. Nineteen of the group members were assigned to the seminary, and the others worked at a government-run orphanage.

Volunteerism is not common in Russia, a nation where individuals struggle just to survive day to day, Nikolaev said.

To those skeptical about volunteer workers, seminary President Tobias Dietze said, “They worked like ants. Each had a task, and they worked from morning until night.”

The Rev. Scott Gallagher, pastor of Fredericktown and Denbo United Methodist churches in Western Pennsylvania’s Washington District, acted as project manager/foreman, along with Steve Fedosik of Christ Community United Methodist Church in Butler, Pa. Gallagher and Fedosik both have construction experience.

They divided the seminary group into teams — door hangers, spacklers, sanders, painters, etc. — and managed the flow of work. The team lived in the work area, resting in sleeping bags on the concrete floors.

Bickerton and the Rev. Eric Park, pastor of Central Highlands United Methodist Church in Elizabeth, Pa., formed the nucleus of the tile team, laying a ceramic tile floor the entire length of the building from the visiting professor’s apartment into two large social/study rooms at the opposite end.

The team took few breaks but paused to participate in another first for the seminary, a live webcast Oct. 1. Bickerton, backed by a choir of team members, used a webcam and the seminary’s new DSL Internet connection to fulfill a commitment to speak to the Connellsville District United Methodist Women meeting in Uniontown, Pa.

After two weeks’ work, the seminary work team had removed debris, hung doors on all rooms, installed tile, patched and painted walls in the apartment, eight student rooms and social rooms, and prepared the stairwell walls.

“You left very good results after you, and now there is a team from Virginia to follow up,” Eurasia Area Bishop Hans Vaxby wrote in an e-mail to the Rev. John Flower, chairman of the Western Pennsylvania Conference’s Russia Initiative. “It is a small team, but my wife worked with them two days, and this week persons from my staff and from the Central (United Methodist) Church (which is housed in the seminary building) will join them.”

“What happened during our two weeks had much more to do with the relationships that were built, rather than the work that was completed,” Bickerton said. “Orphans found their smiles. Seminary students found hope. We found Christ at work through us and around us.

“We blessed these people with our presence. They blessed us with their fresh faith and deep-seated commitment,” he added. “We came home far different than we left. They were blessed, but we were transformed.”

*Campbell is a staff writer for the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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