Russia: “Some mothers don’t even know that you have to bathe a baby”

The Orthodox Church has set up a crisis centre for women in Nizhny Novgorod with the help of the Catholic Church. In celebration of the “International Day of the Unborn Child” on 25 March, Peter Humeniuk, Russia expert of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need, talks about how the two Churches are working together to help women and children in need. The interview was held by Eva-Maria Kolmann.
You recently visited a crisis centre for women in Nizhny Novgorod that was founded by the Russian Orthodox Church in cooperation with the Catholic Church as well as the support of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). What was your impression?
Peter Humeniuk: I was deeply moved. I have travelled extensively and seen a vast number of projects, but this was truly an overwhelming experience. Lives are being saved there! For one, the lives of unborn children who would otherwise have probably been aborted, and, for the other, the lives of absolutely desperate woman who are left with nothing.
What specific case touched you the most?
Peter Humeniuk: As an example, there was a young mother who came from the Far East. She was a member of one of the ethnic minorities who still follow a shamanistic nature religion. By her own choice, she had already been baptised in the Orthodox faith as a young girl. When she met a Russian man, she left everything behind because she believed that he would marry her. However, when she became pregnant, he threw her out of the house. She was literally turned out into the streets – pregnant, all on her own. She thought that having an abortion was the only choice she had left. However, somewhere on a placard hanging in the street she saw the phone number of the crisis centre of the Orthodox Church. It was impressive to hear this woman describe her unwavering faith that the Church would not abandon her in her need. She called the number and did in fact receive immediate aid.
We met this young woman with her baby, who was to be baptised the next day. The woman herself had in the meantime found a job. And so it is a story with a happy ending.
What kind of help do the women receive?
Peter Humeniuk: The first contact is usually via the emergency number. Women call the toll-free hotline, for example after fleeing domestic violence with their children. Others are pregnant and in despair, others may have just gotten out of prison and don’t know where to go. Sometimes it is their husbands who are in prison.
The problems are diverse, and a range of different services has been developed to address them. These services include psychological, pastoral and legal advice, material aid in the form of children’s clothing or food, as well as accommodation at one of the two existing women’s shelters. At the moment, unfortunately, there is not that much room, but plans are in the making to establish a third women’s shelter – a project we are supporting – so that, in all, there will be room for around 30 women and their children. The employees of the women’s crisis centre often have to protect the women from violent ex-partners. It is impressive to see that, despite the modest circumstances and the limited space, excellent work is being done.
Who works at this centre?
Peter Humeniuk: The centre is run by a priest and every house has a chapel. It is important that the women also receive pastoral care and that they know that the help they are receiving is an outgrowth of Christian charity. The spirit of the Gospel should be tangible. However, the shelters are there for anyone who needs help, irrespective of the religious denomination or affiliation of the person seeking assistance. You don’t have to be baptised to receive help.
The employees at the centre are psychologists, physicians and experienced caregivers. It is also important that the employees live and act in faith. This work requires a deep love for others, but also a high degree of professionalism. There are very difficult cases that also deeply affect the caregivers. Some of the women come from such dysfunctional families themselves that they have to be painstakingly taught the most fundamental things. Some of them don’t even know that a baby has to be bathed and that it regularly needs food. Not to mention attention and love. They themselves never experienced this kind of care and cannot pass it on. It impressed me to see how lovingly the caregivers take care of these women, familiarising them with their role as a mother step by step.
Why is the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need helping in this case and what does the Catholic Church have to do with a project that was established by the Orthodox Church?
Peter Humeniuk: Our pastoral charity has been promoting the dialogue between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Church for 25 years. The historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Havana in February 2016 revealed new ways and areas of cooperation. In their joint declaration, the two Church leaders emphasised the protection of the family and particular of unborn life as one of the greatest challenges that the two Churches would like to address together. This is an issue near and dear to both Churches and an urgent cause for concern in this day and age. The problems are basically the same everywhere, and both Churches agree wholeheartedly in their assessment.
How can one imagine this exchange of experiences in concrete terms?
Peter Humeniuk: In Nizhny Novgorod, where this women’s crisis centre was established, the local metropolitan set up a round table to discuss this with Catholic experts. A growing number of similar initiatives are emerging in other eparchies as well. This led to the dedication of a similar women’s crisis centre in Stavropol in autumn 2017, a project that was also supported by ACN and is doing excellent work.
The exchange of experiences is taking place on several levels and is promoted and intensified by an ecumenical working group, of which ACN is also a member. Last year, for example, the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate held an international seminar, during which Catholic and Orthodox experts discussed the topic of abortion prevention.
What are your thoughts now after your trip?
Peter Humeniuk: I am happy that the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches are working ever more closely together to help people in the spirit of the Gospel, because they recognize Christ in those in need. For our pastoral charity, it is also an incentive and encouragement to continue along this path and find new forms of cooperation.

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