|I serve as a deacon in the Church built by first Russian immigrants, the White Guard soldiers, on the 153 street in Manhattan. It is serene, quiet and cozy in the temple, the church is filed with the nice and educated people, there is a wonderful regent and a loveable priest. What else is there to wish for?
An acquaintance, a businessman, once asked me a question: “What drives you, brother? What makes you tick?” I responded: “…I strive for the homeless, troubled and dying souls, which were handed to us by the God himself…”. “Look at that! You just have nothing to do, that’s all!”- he replied.
|The story started in December of 2002, when into the Church of New Martyrs or Russia in Brooklyn where I was serving at the time, came absolutely non-orthodox young woman and ask permission to speak to parishioners after the Liturgy. “Do you know that there are Russian orthodox people dying in the cold on the streets of Brooklyn.” – her short statement sounded informative – the way you would announce a departing train…but I was astonished by it. I understood that with this young woman the Christ Himself came into our temple…
The things I saw on the streets made me forget the comfort of my own life. The trouble, that these drinking and sick people were in, has been long roaming the streets of Brooklyn. The trouble spoke poor English or just as poor Russian, had a look of a barely alive alcoholics, who lost their age and sex.
These people were freezing to death. They were sick and poor people who got into trouble and were driven by alcoholism to the lowest stages of human existence. These people, helpless and forgotten by everybody, could become a danger to society – since a drunk person cannot control himself – but they needed compassion and help.
New York Department of Correction
|Originally our team consisted of two people: the compassionate souls who came into the temple, and me, the sinner. By then the young woman already had a lot of experience in working with the homeless, has been helping them for several years and had spent $30,000 from her very modest earnings to help people in need.
Problems and obstacles were in excess: the city services and social organizations refused to help – out poor guys did not speak English, and it was impossible for the doctors to communicate with them; the majority of private charity funds belong to synagogues, catholic and protestant organizations, which only help of their own faith. In addition, there were immense bureaucratic barriers and convoluted administrative tricks utilized by hospitals and rehabilitation centers allowing them to send the dirty and unattractive looking people back to the streets.
It was with the great difficulty that we initially were finding places for our people in need.
Spiritual conversation with homeless in a first shelter in basement.
One of the first homeless: drunk and bitten.
|One of the memorable people was Valeri Klimov. He ended up on the street, because he got a serious spine injury at work. He became a drunkard. Despite all obstacles, we got him out of the nightmare that he was in and had him treated in the clinic. When I first gave him a ride in my car, read “Tzaru Nebesni” and put a cross before our path, he started crying: “This is our people, the Russian Orthodox!!! Forgive me, father. It is just that on the streets I have not met anyone except sectarians and Protestants. ” All the way on the way he was telling me his story: “…he was a sailor in Odessa, once in the Pacific the ship was in a terrible storm…The team understood: it was the end.” ” This is when I started praying!” – remembers Valeri, – “Our only hope was St. Nickolas the Wonderworker, our protector. He saved us.”
We helped Valeri to find a place in the dormitory. Of course, the enemy was always on the alert – Valeri met people, drunkards that got him very drunk until his heart could not take it and stopped. Thank God that we could conduct a proper religious service for his burial. Valeri is berried in Orthodox Cemetery in Novo-Diveevo.
The Vinogradov’s family, Igor and Elena, became the God’s wonder – the first positive sign of our efforts. We found them on the streets, on Brighton 5th street. It was a cold and windy day of January 2002, they were freezing. Igor’s legs were damaged by cold. He had to help him to our car. We managed to treat the couple’s alcoholism, put them through rehabilitation programs, and secure a job with living arrangements in the Candle Factory of the Diocese. Recently, I met Elena at the factory – she was helping with the dinner at the service. I could hardly recognize the old Elena in a tidy, intelligent woman. She had a completely transformed face – the kind Orthodox women have.
|The Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville heavily participated in our work to the Glory of God. We’ve sent several of our patients to carry out obedience at the monastery, and one of them, Sergey, who stayed to help as “trudnik”, is loved by the brotherhood. Another person was baptized in the honor of Saint Blagoverni Kniaz Igor, and carried out an obedience of a cook for six months.
We were afraid to send another of our patients, brother A. to the monastery. It was difficult to communicate with him – he cursed a lot, and often was angry with everyone, without a reason. After six months at the monastery, his manner of speaking changed completely. There were no traces of anger or curse words. At the end of the phone conversation he would always say: “Save you God”, sincerely wishing salvation.
Unfortunately, he had to be taken from the monastery, and sent to the Long Island rehabilitation center for more treatment. Soon there were seven of our patients at the Long Island center. Brother A. surprised us with his decisiveness to understand and learn more about the spiritual part of life. He asked to send him spiritual literature, and for a priest to perform confession and to partake in the Holy Communion.
Protoierei Sergey Klestov, warden of St. Seraphim church at See Cliff, happily answered out call for help. Despite the fact that the rehabilitation center is almost an hour and a half drive from his house and despite immense private and church duties of father Sergey, he never needed to be reminded of our needs. He visited our brothers at the rehabilitation center, and they loved him with the sincerity of simple affection.
It is truly remarkable that brother A. organized a small prayer group in his room, and all the others go there for the evening prayer.
The Elder Siluan Afonski precisely once said: “God patiently stands over the heard of each and every one of us and awaits when the heart will open itself to him.”
We started realizing that it is not enough to just put a suffering person in the hospital, and forget about him. It is necessary to bring them back to life with all the strength, to get them out of the devil’s paws, and bring them to Christ.
It the beginning of the summer I met, in the most miraculous way, brother S., an educated and talented young man. I received a call from his attorney, who somehow found out my phone number, and asked me to come to court hearing. He also asked if I would agree to take S. to be treated in rehabilitation center for alcoholics. S. was supposed to stay in prison fro a long time, but the judge was giving him a chance to prove, that he really wants to quit drinking and start a new life. The poor soul turned out to be a frenzied drunkard: he twice escaped from the program and went into the drinking binge despite the elementary logic.
I was able to bring S. into our church. He has undergone a long confession with Reverend Alexander Botchagov, our priest. Father Alexander admonished and put some sense into him.
Then there was another drinking binge, and shocks of alcoholic epilepsy. Thank God that at that time he was arrested and put in jail – it saved his life. We visited him regularly, brought spiritual literature and icons. In the beginning he used to complain, that he had a hard time focusing on prayer, but at the time of our last visit he gave us the good news that it has gotten better – he got used to a small evening prayer. He asked us for help with opening a prayer house in jail. There was a synagogue, the mosque, and the Catholic temple in the prison, but there was nothing for Russian Orthodox inmates. Russian-speaking inmates had to look for comfort from a Rabbi, just because he spoke Russian. That is how Russian Orthodox people embrace Judaism in jail.
We were not forgetting our wards from Brighton – we came to the ocean’s shore, were they lived, every Tuesday. The unfortunate men knew of our visits. They knew that there will be deacon and his helpers, and were waiting for us. We put out portable iconostas with the three icons: The Saver, The Mother of God “Neupivaemaia Chasha”, and St. John of Kronshtadt, started the reading of the prayers… The last prayer, before “Dostoino est” was always to the Mother of God, as they used to pray in Russia for the deliverance of drinking: “Hear us, wives, children, and mothers…cure our brothers and sisters and close ones falling from salvation.”
Regular Tuesday’s prayers on Broadwalk in Broooklyn, NY.
Another of our patients: drunk, bitten on streets and sick.
|On the 9th of August, 2004, Bishop Gabriel blessed the opening of House of Mercy named after the John of Kronshtadt on Brighton Beach, so we could bring out suffering men closer to Christ. The bishop blessed the title of our mission “The house of the love of labor”, following our holy protector – St. John of Kronshtadt, who in the beginning of the last century, was able to turnover Kronshtadt, who was full of homeless people in those difficult times.
Unfortunately, we did not have enough resources to afford an appropriate shelter for the House of Mercy. But people responded with help, especially the Russian Orthodox couple , Vitali and Olga, the owners of Moscow bakery “Pobeda” (“Victory”). We are very grateful to them – without their help it would not have been possible to institute the house of prayer, which we have long dreamed of and prayed for.
Initially our friends from Moscow donated an icon and kanon, and then, when they realized the depth of the problem after meeting with people who needed help, they made a decision that it was necessary to open the House of Prayer (the house of the Love of Labor). “Deacon”, Vitali said, “do not worry about the means, we well help and support you!”
The search for the place had begun. We had a difficult time – no one wanted to rent a space for a Russian Orthodox house of prayer. They were saying “…we have a Jewish community here on Brighton, an established lifestyle, and you are a major disturbance to us…” And so on it went.
|But once, three months ago, I came to talk about our mission in more detail with Bishop Gabriel and showed some pictures. He asked about the status with finding the place for our mission. I could only say: “…It is not working out, Vladika, – please pray for us…” Bishop sat quietly, and then said – “Will pray….”
The same day we got a phone call from an owner of a place on Brighton 1st street who offered us to look his place. We came to look, and we saw that this was exactly what we have been looking for – an excellent room filled with light, and one more underneath it, which could be used as a living quarters for the homeless! It was God himself pointing to this place!
The process of the move started. Russian Orthodox felloes, who just recently have been dying on the streets of Brighton, were spending days and nights in the House of Mercy – carving the altar, and other things needed for the holy services – Zertvennik (?), table for the Kanon(?) for the remembrance of the dead.
After one of the first Tuesday’s services in the House of Mercy on 1st Brighton Street, Brooklyn, NY.
|The first Akafist in out House of Mercy is unforgettable.|
|I took the holy cross from Prestol Bozii (?), my assistants took icons in their hands. We went as Christian Course (?) down to Brighton Beach! We went from Brighton First to the Fourth.
Brighton has never seen anything like this. We walked to the very place, where we used to pray with our wards. After that we read Akafist to the Mother of God in Our House of Prayer! On Brighton Beach!
It is hard to watch without tears, how Christ touches people’s souls. It seems that they have completely forgotten their Creator. It is a miracle that these people, who suffer and frequently cannot stay on their feet, sincerely pray, crying with the tears of repentance, fall on their knees, kiss the holy icons and touch the holy cross. It is amazing when they decide to take on the path of change, and join the rehabilitation programs.
God help them all!
|There are many humanitarian programs that exist in New York, including those that help alcoholics. However, all of them are for Americans or legal immigrants. A person, without citizenship or a legal status who doesn’t speak English cannot participate in these programs. The wards of St. John Foundation for the homeless often do not have any documents since they are either lost or stolen. Many people are illegal in this country.
It is a vicious circle: the sick people are here but he will not be treated. Unfortunate and the hungry are here but no one can help them since the documents they have are not sufficient. No person – no problem? According to statictis, or the lack of thereof, the Russian homeless do not exist!
This is the official position of the government, multiple funds and humanitarian organizations. It is hard to discuss anything with these institutions. It is difficult to find a place in the hospital, hard to find necessary program to provide medical assistance.