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Father Alexey’s Carpentry Shop

A Moscow parish's special ministry to men -- and to the memory of old Russia

Today is my last day in Moscow. I went to the Divine Liturgy today at St. Seraphim of Sarov in Moscow’s Raevo neighborhood. It’s my translator Matthew’s parish, and he loves it intensely. There I met its priest, Father Alexey Yakovlev, a great big bear of a man.

After liturgy and lunch in the trapeza, Father Alexey took me on a tour of the church complex. Construction on the church started in 2009, on the site of a former garbage dump. It was finished in 2016 — and today, it’s full of worshippers. It’s so new that the interior walls are mostly white (normally they’re covered with icons in the Russian church). The church compound is surrounded by a plastered wall. They have a church flower garden, a church hall, a gallery showing Fr. Alexey’s matushka’s paintings and other buildings.

Father Alexey was especially proud of the carpentry school there. We saw about ten men working hard in the cold rain, sawing wood, planing boards, and suchlike. They were doing this for fun, in fact. All of them are ordinary people who are learning traditional carpentry of the Russian far north. They will be helping in a project administered through Fr. Alexey’s church, in which volunteers travel to the rural northern part of Russia and rebuild abandoned wooden churches that are falling apart. The men I saw working today are being trained for free by a master craftsman (who was there supervising them), and in exchange for their training, they have to go on at least one of these mission trips.

The guys looked like they were having a great time. Father Alexey told me:

These men, when they come in here for class, they look like plankton. But then they take off their business suits, put on their work clothes, pick up a saw or a hatchet, and transform themselves into men. It’s an amazing thing to see. There’s something about working with your hands that is necessary to developing your masculinity.

Again, they’re not doing this because it’s a neat thing to learn (though it is). They’re doing this so they can put these skills to work restoring and recovering a precious part of their country’s religious and cultural heritage. The state isn’t paying them to do this. This is not a project of the Moscow Patriarchate. In fact, this year, Patriarch Kirill flew to a village in the Arkhangelsk region to see for himself the fully restored church where the project first started. Matthew told me that the Patriarch was delighted to see the fruit of their labor and praised the volunteers for their own initiative — that is, for seeing a need, and responding to it. I should mention that the project began when Fr. Alexey and his wife saw a man in his 70s fixing the bell tower in this village all by himself. Since then, the movement has grown, with over 370 expeditions in 13 years, and 153 churches restored. Moreover, the volunteers use their own vacation time to take part.

Here’s a short YouTube video about the project, with English subtitles:

Lots of churches do mission projects, of course. What I love about this one is that the church members and others who want to learn these traditional skills are engaged in rescuing holy buildings that have fallen into ruin. As Russians, and Russian Orthodox Christians, they’re also restoring something within themselves. Father Alexey invited me to come to next year’s summertime mission to the far north, and bring along believers who are ready to build. Any of you who are interested in this, let me know, and I’ll put you in touch with the folks in the parish.

What a great ministry within the local church, too: engaging men in learning a useful and often forgotten skill. That was a happy group of Russian men working there behind the church this afternoon.

I gave a talk later in the afternoon to a group from the parish. Well, not a talk, really, but just answering their questions about my work, and the challenges facing Christians in our time. I found myself sitting there telling a room full of Russian Orthodox Christians about Drag Queen Story Hour, and the other things that have become a normal part of US culture. Hearing these things come out of my mouth, and watching their faces as Matthew translated my words, really brought home how completely freaking insane we Americans have become. Someone asked if the churches were standing up to this madness. I had to tell him no, not really. Some churches bless it, a few oppose it, but most just want to be quiet and wait for it to go away.

A man in the back of the room said that it seems to him that we are losing the image of God in man. Yes, I said — and if we lose the image of God, then we will also lose man himself.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? It defies comprehension.

After spending the past few days here talking to men who endured prison and torture for their faith, or, as in the case of Father Kirill Kaleda, tends a mass grave where 21,000 people, including over 1,000 Christians, were massacred by the Bolsheviks — well, it really puts into perspective the triviality of US Christianity (that is, what we have allowed our Christianity to become). Don’t get me wrong, Russian Christianity has lots of problems too, and I’ve heard about them. But I really do wish that every American Christian could have the experience I’ve had these past few days, learning about what people suffered for the sake of their faith in God, and where they found the hope to stagger onward rejoicing. We Americans take so much for granted. It’s a cliche to say that, but it really is true. One of the many gifts Russians have given me this week is a new awareness of the cost of discipleship.

On to St. Petersburg in a few hours, on the overnight train…