“When We Serve Our Neighbor, We Serve God.”
Interview with Protopriest Victor Potapov
Hello, this is Ilya Agaev. Today we are speaking with a member of the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Protopriest Victor Potapov.
- Good day, father!
- Hello, Ilya.
- Fr Victor is visiting Russian from America to lead a seminar on the topic “Social Service of the Orthodox Church in the USA.” What does social service consist of?
- First of all, for the Orthodox Christian, social service is the fulfillment of God’s commandment, the second part of the one that says “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” When we serve our neighbor, we serve the Lord Himself. You know that the Gospel says “for I was ahungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: naked, and ye clothed me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” So if we serve our neighbor, we fulfill Christ’s main commandment-to love.
- The very existence of this seminar demonstrates that this topic is crucial today.
--It is very crucial, of course, because there are a great many people in need throughout the world, especially in our time, when all nations are undergoing an economic crisis. In our Orthodox midst, in America, there are also many people in need. Many come to America from Russia in hopes of a wonderful life, and do not find it, unfortunately. When misfortune befalls them, you know the saying: “If the thunder isn’t loud, the peasant forgets to cross himself.” Where is he to go? They find their way to a Russian church and seek help there. Even if they are not church members, but heard that the Church of God teaches charity, then maybe they can find help there. Our church in Washington is often visited by such souls. My matushka devotes all her time to this, she helps people with immigration woes, she feeds them-of course, the parish helps, and she spends all her time on this. There are a great many people in need, both here and over there.
- That is to say that the people you help are those who are left penniless, without documentation and a means to support themselves?
Basically, yes, but there are also many homeless Americans. Our church is in the center of the city, they come all the time, we feed them, help them with money, we provide other forms of help. We find a lawyer when someone is facing trouble. There are Russian immigration lawyers who help us pro bono. Sometimes we have to pay them to resolve their problems. The help comes in various ways.
- I read that you even help those who suffered from the tsunami in Japan and the hurricane in Haiti.
- Yes, our parish helped, as did many other churches of the Church Abroad and other Orthodox churches. When such disasters strike, like in Japan, we read sermons from the ambo and call for generosity. We sent tens of thousands of dollars to Japan through the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Although Japan is not one of our targeted charities, we sent them the money that we collected for them. In Haiti, where a terrible earthquake struck two years ago, a great many people suffered. All kinds of Americans donated, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, to help restore this poor country, which had always suffered poverty. It is horrifying over there! We have seven thousand Orthodox Christians in Haiti, and not one Russian among them, but they are all members of the Russian Church Abroad. We have five or six parishes there, and only two priests-genuine podvizhniki! Can you imagine their situation?! Many of our parishes have taken on the responsibility of hosting one family. Every month, through the FfA and our Florida Mission, help is sent there. We “adopted” a family and send them money to support them. Our FfA helps them rebuild their churches and schools. We sent two of their readers to Paris, to the seminary of the Moscow Patriarchate. Why Paris? Because they teach in French. We hope to expand our program, because seven thousand is a great number of people, and their mission is growing. We also helped those who suffered from the wildfires in Russia.
- You mean last year’s fires?
- Yes. We raised a good deal of money to help families that suffered. Although our efforts are directed at the diaspora, we could not but help when our compatriots in Russia were suffering. We do the best we can. The main goal of the FfA is to help the poorest priests of our Church, and they are many. Our Church is different from yours in that many priests must also hold lay jobs. This has been the case from the very beginning, because our communities, at first the emigres after the Revolution and World War II, were very poor. Many priests had to find other work, and this is the case even today. This is not a tradition, it is a necessity. With some exceptions, parishes are small, especially the mission communities of the Diocese of Eastern America and New York, where the number of members is low and they cannot pay their priest a good salary. They do pay him something, they help, but the priest must work at other jobs anyway. We have priests who don’t have medical insurance-and in America, that is a terrible predicament. Our Fund does everything it can to find these priests and cover their expenses. Then there are priests whose families are experiencing a crisis. We also have a youth program. It is very important that our young people don’t forget their Russian roots.
- Tell us more about this.
- We have a few children’s camps that we support. If a family has several children and cannot afford to send the kids to summer camp, we help them. We also help youth conferences. Last year the Orthodox Youth Conference was held in Paris. It was great to see that young people came not only from the Church Abroad but from Russia. So this was actually a joint conference. We hope that such conferences take place every two or three years in other cities, with the participation of kids from Russia and the diaspora. It is important for our youth to get to know each other. We live in the Western world, in various countries, different continents, and the groups of young people are isolated from each other. And when they can meet at these conferences, camps, they get to know each other and stay in touch-often this results in Orthodox marriages.
On December 25, during Western Christmas, we have conferences on both coasts of America, the so-called St Herman’s Conferences. Why St Herman’s? Because on this day, the Russian Church Abroad celebrates the memory of St Herman of Alaska. It is also a holiday period, and youth gathers for two or three days. They generally speak English at these events.
- The children of immigrants are considered citizens of the nations in which they are born. Do they also have a yearning for their Russian roots?
- Of course they do. A great deal depends on their participation in church life. I see Russians who come to teach in various institutions, there are a lot of them in Washington. At first, they settle down, but they don’t go to church. So the children of these people lose their “Russianness” very quickly. Those who rear their children within the Church or at parish schools remember their roots and don’t lose them. Our challenge is to attract them. They grew up in an atheistic country, they come to church out of a sense of nostalgia. Alright, so they settle down, but then what? Having a good career does not always bring happiness. Parents who live a comfortable material life see that their children are breaking away. They offer them this American culture, but they don’t have spiritual values. They come to church in search of help. So the matter of youth is very important for them. Our FfA does everything it can to help the Church hold onto these young people in the Russian spiritual tradition. Our third program is helping with spiritual education. The FfA provides scholarships for seminarians who can’t pay their tuition. Our Mid-American Diocese established pastoral courses for priest, and for those who cannot leave work to spend 4-5 years at seminary. These correspondence courses are very good. We try to help such people enroll. Most of them already have some lay education, graduated college and university. Many learn theology for themselves, which is also very important, because they can become catechizers and teachers of the Law of God, they can help their priests. Other priests and deacons simply wish to improve their knowledge. So these are the three directions we are working in. The FfA holds weekly teleconferences, at which we discuss our problems and challenges.
- Have you been able to learn anything from your Russian colleagues in social work? Anything that you could utilize in America?
- I read the website miloserdie.ru, and I see that more and more people are being drawn into this important work, and it brings me joy. I hope that more people continue to join in this effort.
We cannot simply attend church services! There is egoism of this world, and an ecclesiastical egoism. We cannot live our personal spiritual lives and fail to see what is going on around us. We cannot ignore the needs of others, we must manifest our faith in deeds. Faith without works is dead. I hope that charitable work in Russia blossoms, that it becomes an inseparable part of the life of every parish. I shared our community life with the other participants of the seminar. I told them how our Holy Protection Sisterhood hosts luncheons. The proceeds from these go into our account, and we can share money with those in need, and help Matushka and those who are helping with this charity work. We hold two-day festivals of Russian culture, we offer Russian food to Americans, for them it’s exotic. But the main thing is that we open up the doors of our church. We also offer half-hour tours of our church, thereby doing missionary work. During Cheesefare Week, the Russian Embassy lets us use their hall and we hold a high-end event attended by wealthy people. All the revenue goes towards helping the poor. When a need arises-the wildfires in Russia-we hold plate collections two or three times a month. We preface this with a sermon. And people don’t grow weary of helping. Can you imagine, if 200-300 people offer 20 dollars each, we can collect a significant amount. We don’t have wealthy sponsors. These are donations by regular parishioners.
- Batushka, to end this interview I’d like to ask: is there a website for those living in America where people can learn about Orthodox life?
- Of course, first of all, the website of our Russian Church Abroad, just Google the name. There is also the official website of the Eastern American Diocese, a very rich site where news is posted every day. My parish website is also in two languages: St.John DC.org. You can see what we do, the website is updated every month, it is actually a website for the parish, which was established by St John of Shanghai and San Francisco in 1949. What a founder we had!
- Thank you for your time.
- Go with God!