That's what Ellen, our PCUSA Russia Mission Network partner says. We are at Katyn. Not the Katyn in Belarus. That story is hard on its own. This is Katyn about 10 minutes outside of Smolensk. Under the roots of these trees are buried countless, and I do mean countless, Poles and Russians.
The Poles fled Poland after Nazi invasions. The Soviet government at that time executed them for one reason or another. Alongside of them were executed Russians who were deemed enemies of the state. Christians. Many priests. Pastors. Victor, our Russian-partner pastor, tells us his grandfather is somewhere in this soil.
Every step of Katyn a reminder of what happens when xenophobia, the lust for power, the idol of control, racism, and jingoism take control over people's thinking and actions. Such ideologies are best left in the past. Such places as Katyn must be visited and remembered. They are the only defense we have -- these memories -- against such horrible things happening again.
"The trees are a witness."
Yes. And we walk among them. And tell the story. On this blog. In a sermon. Person to person. And we become witnesses too.
(The names of the thousands of Poles buried in mass graves here stretch on and on and on).
(So many Russians were buried here that many will not ever be identified. This area was completely closed to any and everyone - guarded and fenced - for decades. It has been open to the public since the 1990's).
Now of course, the Russian and Poles are not the only victims buried around here. It is worth noting that the first mention of Smolensk occurs in the year 863. It is certainly much older than that. Half way between Germany/Poland and Moscow, and half way between the Black Sea and Scandinavia, and located along the strategically important Dnieper River, which runs to the Black Sea, and not too far from Ukraine -- well you get the picture. The fighting here in World War II was as savage as anyplace in Europe. By the end of the war 95% of this city had been destroyed.
It was occupied by the Germans for two years. And, as a circumstance, less than a mile from the camp where we are staying, is a huge German cemetery. Soldier upon soldier is buried here.
See the name Peter Gleich above. 19 years old. 19. My oldest child is 14. I wonder what he thought he was fighting for? I wonder if he knew it was futile in August of 1943. I think about his mother. What did she think? Father? How about him?
Of course these monuments are all over Europe. This one happens to be here. Only minutes away from where I type. Where I sleep tonight.
"The trees are witnesses."
Yes they are. From one cemetery to another they are witnesses. And, for at least a day, so were we.
One more tree. This one very different.
(Yes, that is me planting a tree).
This little tree is one hour south and east of Smolensk. It is at a modest home which is a rehab center. A halfway home for 7 men trying to beat addiction. If any of you know a rescue mission or the Healing Place then you know where we were. Each man living and working in community.
They shared their stories. Veterans of the war in Chechnya. Unemployed. Former prisoners. Drugs. Too much alcohol. Families lost. Rock bottom. Turning to God when the choice was recovery or death.
It is modest. Meager. But goodness it is powerful. Supported by our partners at Smolensk Baptist Church, this little home is a place of healing and recovery. We could not have been more welcomed. We could not have felt closer to the goodness of the Holy Spirit.
And we planted a tree. A memory of our visit. A witness to the fact that there are people in the world -- us this day, you as you read these words -- who will remember these men and pray for them. Their lives are modest. Their home is as simple as any you can imagine. Their heat is firewood they cut themselves. But there is power there. Faith. Brotherhood. Community. Three things we all can use as much of as possible.
Jesus calls people together. Once together, God gives them strength to do incredible things.
And the little tree I planted? It can be a witness to at least as much. It's a witness too.
Hope can grow where the truth is told and where faith is shared. No matter how unlikely the place. There are stories everywhere. You only need stop and listen. It is always a Godly thing to do.
-for the seven men we met today. Pray for them. They are praying for you. Their motto everyday: "Work with no prayer is slavery; prayer with no work is meaningless."
- for the church services tomorrow. That we will pray, sing, and preach well. We hope to represent our church well.
- for continued good weather. It was much warmer today!