A Fund with Time to Spare for Other People’s Problems

How much help do we, the faithful children of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, offer to our own brethren, never mind those who are further afield?  Often, we think that our Christian duty consists solely of prayer, church attendance, observance of fasts and the participation in the sacraments.  However, helping our neighbour is also our direct responsibility. The Lord says that this will be asked of us on the Day of Judgement, “for I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me” (Matt. 25:35)

The austerity of the living conditions of the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is frequently a source of surprise for the clergy newly arrived from Russia. There are those in our Church, however, who are far from being indifferent to this situation — regarded as normal by many —  and are engaged in trying to bring about positive changes.  One of these people is Matushka Alena Plavsic, the Development Manager of the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

Alena, what is the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia? What does it do?

In my opinion, the Fund for Assistance to ROCOR is the most marvelous organization in the world.  It is a very small organization, set up at grass root level, by ordinary people who understand that the Church needs help in coordinating aid.  For example, if somebody donates $5 to help needy clergy, they need to know that their hard-earned money, will not be used up to decorate a room somewhere, but will be sent to its proper destination.

It all started 55 years ago and continues to this day.  The Fund for Assistance is engaged in providing aid to the clergy in need.  This is necessary because, as far as I know, over 90% of the ROCOR clergy are obliged to take on two jobs, namely, they are on call 24/7 in their parishes and, on top of that, five days a week – or more – in regular employment.  In other words, they are burning the candle from both ends ‑  is that the expression?  In short, they are slowly killing themselves ‑ or indeed killing themselves fast.  So, we help the clergy and we also help the youth who, as Metropolitan Laurus has said, are our future.  Because, if we forget about the young people, the Church will simply come to an end – at least round here ‑   the youth will leave and that will be that.  We also help different ROCOR missions around the world, for example in Haiti, Uganda, Mexico and so on.

The main difference between this organization and other charities is that we deduct no money for ourselves, that is, we don’t keep a percentage of the donations for our own needs.  In other words, if you donate $10 to Mexico, $10 will go to Mexico.  Our own work is paid for by the donations made specifically to the general fund or from the donations by the members of the Directors’ Board.

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I see.  What sort of things inspire you in this work?  What makes the work in this organization worthwhile?

 In the first place,  I am inspired by the fact that we are helping the Church at all.  Whenever I am preparing an appeal ‑ say, I am writing, “Please, donate to the ROCOR Assistance Fund”, I always treat donations to the Fund as offers to help ROCOR at a whole.  I think this is true for all the members of the Directors’ Board.

I am inspired when we receive regular help; it’s as if you come home and find yet another gift from somebody, even though it’s not for you personally.  Nevertheless, when you open PayPal and see yet another donation from the same person, you think to yourself, “What a wonderful man!”  I‘ve only just realized how much I love this about my job.  Somebody sends in $2, $5, $10, $15, $150 and you get to open it and say, “What a great person!” (she laughs).  In other words, you’ve got  a veritable generator of positive emotions and good thoughts about people right there. Come and work for us, but unfortunately we have no funds to pay you.  We always try to help in any situation, even if we have no money.  Well, not always; if the situation goes against our – how would you say it?

Mission statement?

Yes, If a request goes against it, then, of course, we can’t help, even if we very much want to.  This is the only reason for declining to help.  But what is so joyful is that we are helping the Church. It’s heartening to see various positive changes.  It’s not always possible to show this to our donors.  We are a small organization and can’t afford to visit the places we support.  We rarely travel anywhere, but collate reports of concrete changes from the different countries we have helped.  For example, a parish might need our assistance to expand, and now we see how a little bit of our money has helped this parish to grow, we get sent photographs and accounts of real events happening there and this makes us very  happy. You see the fruits of the people’s hard work – some of our donors literally send in their last dollar. Many times we receive letters to this effect ‑ here, take this dollar, that’s all I can give you, I am on the poverty line myself. And still, they make this sacrifice and send this dollar in, because to them, that’s helping the Church.  And then you see how their last dollar goes on to make wonderful things happen.

I see; these examples are amazing, of course.  And now a converse question: do you ever come across totally hopeless work situations?

In all honesty, I’ve never encountered this and I have been working here since 2008.  This is by far the best job I’ve ever held.  We have a completely remarkable team working for the Fund,  with each member totally dedicated to the task, even if they can’t devote all their time to it because of other commitments.  For example, Fr Victor Potapov – he is a priest and his parish is his first priority.

Of course, we all have days when things don’t go well, but this is usually to do some internal matters which don’t affect the whole. For example, sometimes we have difficulties  in getting the people we’ve helped to submit a report.  You have to understand that reports are extremely important in this business;  we simply must show our donors, many of whom are in want themselves,  how their money has been spent  to benefit the Church. For some reason, certain people find this hard to understand.  I mean, everyone is happy to receive the money; they think they would write in and say how grateful they are and that this would be enough.  But as far as giving concrete examples of how our support improved their lives, or the parish ministry, or anything else good that’s happened as a result – getting this from them can be hard. Maybe, that’s because some people are uncomfortable with talking about themselves, or they don’t like writing.  Whatever it is, reports are the hardest part.

Actually, I sympathize with both sides here, but this is very difficult to get across because it’s natural to want to know that the money you’ve donated has gone to a good cause. You give money because you love the Church, right?  You want to help. And then all you get in return is “yes, thanks, you’ve been of help” —   and nothing else. In short, this is very upsetting to the people who’ve donated the money.  On the other hand, the recipients of this money are often very grateful; they just don’t always know how to express this. That’s all.

Yes, it isn’t easy. I remember when we were working on the wording for the appeal for my website, it was difficult to find the right words, to express exactly what I wanted to say.  But we have only one Fund, so how many of our people are actually involved with its work?  How much attention is paid to social mission anyway?  Can more be done and is it perhaps a problem area for us?

Yes, there is a problem there. Every charity has its so-called “gate-keepers”, its natural supporters. In our situation, it’s the clergy.  In the course of just the past year, we have had numerous appeals from the clergy who simply have no one else to turn to.  And not necessarily because the diocese is so bad  or unwilling to help  — often there is simply no money in the diocese to help with.  I am sure that any hierarch would want to help his clergy but we are often guilty of …  not doubts exactly, but…

Do you mean skepticism?

Not exactly.  I can’t seem to find the right word.  I mean, a kind of slowness to act. That’s because our clergy are expected to be survivors – that’s the main reason. The clergy are expected to survive themselves and make sure their parishes survive too. Our job is to help them, but at the same time, our appeals for help can put them in a difficult position

Presentation at the Youth Conference, San Francisco in 2014
Presentation at the Youth Conference, San Francisco in 2014

Do you mean the priests end up being in a difficult position?

Yes, and it’s only natural.  Say I am priest and tell my parish, “Please support our Assistance Fund”.  What happens then is my parishioners donate the little money they have to the Fund rather than to their own parish to pay for electricity or heating.  However, experience shows  ‑‑ and it’s not my experience either, as I have only been doing this job for seven years, which isn’t very long ‑   this is the data from researching charitable activity patterns: donors who give larger than average amounts and to more causes are also more reliable in their charitable giving.  Research shows that a person who supports only his own parish usually gives small amounts and generally doesn’t think this support is essential. However, a donor who supports both his parish, and his diocese and other causes generally gives larger amounts and on more occasions. That’s because this donor believes in what he is doing and knows that his support is really needed.  Also, we have the example of Fr Victor Potapov, thankfully, a permanent member of the Assistance Fund and a onetime Executive Director too.  He heads one of America’s  biggest ROCOR parishes which also happens to be one of the most generous ones  ‑ at least in the Eastern American Diocese.   “The hand of the giver shall not lack”, isn’t that right?  And there is another saying in America, “No one has ever become poor by giving.”

Fr Victor’s parish is unique, and, perhaps, it would unfair to use it as an example for the rest of us.  After all, there are all sorts of parishes; some are very small or have a particular socio-economic composition which is also significant.  Nevertheless, one doesn’t get the feeling that charitable support for the needy is very prominent in our parishes.  Quite possibly it exists behind the scenes, it’s just not very apparent to me.

t would be unfair to blame our people for this. This is something that has to be nurtured from childhood, and if you’ve grown up in the Soviet Union, for example, where there was nothing like that, how would you know?  Also, there is a prevalent attitude that everything in the Church is free. In principle, that’s true. Yes, the sacraments are free of charge, but remember what Apostle Paul says about supporting the priest so that he doesn’t have to do extraneous work? (1 Cor. 9:13)  The laborer is worthy of his … salary (laughs).

What can be done to change such attitudes a little bit, to show that caring for our neighbor, ‑  both nearby and those in Haiti – is our direct Christian duty?

Perhaps we must talk about this more but I don’t think the priests should be doing the talking.  A very remarkable woman,  Matushka Anna Lardas once said that whenever somebody new comes to the Church, they usually come to get some relief, some help from God, if not actual material help.  At this point, the priest’s first task is to explain what the Lord says in the Gospel, but often he is forced to act outside his brief and start asking for financial aid for the church. Well, maybe it is also a part of the priest’s role to say this, but mostly it brings no result at all, and some people treat such requests with real hostility.  Sometimes, they believe that the clergy are all “stuffed full of money, and they all drive Mercs” and so on.  One often hears, “What, give money to the priest? Whatever for?  He only works two or three hours a week”.

Yes, I’ve come across this.

Not everyone, thank God, but many people have a complete misunderstanding what the priest is and what he does.  That he is not just a dressed-up clown doing his stuff up in the front.  You can understand them:  here comes a man, all dressed-up in splendid vestments, with a gold cross around his neck, he must be rich, right?  And who says you need to help the Church?  Look, all their icons are covered in gold! They don’t think that the gold might be … I don’t know … artificial (laughs).  In other words, the people know that the Church is free but don’t stop to think who pays for it all.  Not because they are bad or stupid people, it simply doesn’t enter their heads, because the Church – well, it’s always just there, isn’t it?

I also want to make one thing clear.  I don’t know how it sounds but I just want to make you understand that no one thinks badly of those who don’t support the Church or the Assistance Fund.  Usually, they just haven’t thought about it, or nobody told them or they have plenty of their own problems. They are still great people, because they are in the Church. That’s what I think.

What about the youth? Can you estimate what percentage of donors are young people?

Not a large percentage, as far know, but I don’t have exact details.  Again, this isn’t because the youth are callous or bad – it’s totally natural.   Anyway, statistics show that donors are mostly people over 38 or 45 years of age, something like that. That’s because, they have a wider life experience and generally more disposable income than kids who need money for college or to buy food…

Sure, because the rest of us don’t need to eat?  You don’t need to eat once you are 45!

(laughs)  That’s right; these people are in a period of life when they want to start giving back.  I am not saying that the youth just want to take, but their general needs are so great that the thought of giving simply doesn’t enter their heads.

In conclusion, Alena, what can we say to those who are reading this interview?  How can we appeal to them to support the Fund?

In the first place, we can say, “Thank you for reading this”. Secondly, “Thank you for your interest in supporting the Church”  Thirdly, “Without you, we are nothing”  The Church needs our help.  If you are able to, please support us.  If you are not, pray for us.  This makes us truly grateful.  I can honestly say that all our work is one big act of thankfulness for our supporters.  Some workers ‑  not from the FFA, but representatives of other charities I get to meet ­ say to me, “People don’t understand what we do, we need to educate the masses” and things like that. They get upset that they don’t receive the support they want.  That’s not us; we are truly grateful for any help for the Church. It’s so great that people want to help the Church, because the Church never forgets and God never forgets.  Besides, they are not only helping here on earth but are also storing up a treasure for themselves for afterwards.  Anyway, no one’s asked me to preach, thank God, so that’s it – I am done.

Thank you, Alena, thank you.  And once again, I want to thank through you the Assistance Fund which you represent.  Without its support for this website, we could never have financed the work of the translator, webmaster and editor.

Direct mail to support a ROCOR priest in Buenos Aires
Direct mail to support a ROCOR priest in Buenos Aires

Further information about the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia can be obtained here: http://ru.fundforassistance.org

Source: Conducted by Deacon Andrei Psarev

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