There is nothing impossible unto those who believe; lively and unshaken faith can accomplish great miracles in the twinkling of an eye. Besides, even without our sincere and firm faith, miracles are accomplished, such as the miracles of the sacraments; for God’s Mystery is always accomplished, even though we were incredulous or unbelieving at the time of its celebration. “Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?” (Romans 3:3). Our wickedness shall not overpower the unspeakable goodness and mercy of God; our dullness shall not overpower God’s wisdom, nor our infirmity God’s omnipotence.” — Saint John of Kronstadt
Our experience of being foreign citizens nevertheless engaged in founding a philanthropic venture in Russia has profoundly affected ROOF’s philosophy. Over time, we have come to understand that we seek to engage and work according to an authentically Russian philosophy of philanthropy. For us this means an authentically Orthodox Christian culture of philanthropy, the essence of which is the willingness to step across the divide and decide to suffer alongside those whom we are called to console. In an eloquent discourse on the difference between the Russian and English cultures of charity (c. 1940), Russian exile to England Julia de Beausobre explains that [the Russian] culture of charity isn’t possible “on the grand scale” or “without losing caste”, saying “it can only be done from man to man; by no amount of organization or subscriptions, but only through complete dedication of oneself, because the Russian’s chief aim is not to sweep away relatively superficial, secondary conditions of poverty but to help the wretched individual to overcome his misery of heart and mind.”
Seventy years later, we can see more easily that the culture of philanthropy about which Julia de Beausobre speaks is not just natively Russian – it is also natively human and authentically Orthodox Christian. In fact, any philanthropic strategy that smacks of the Soviet mentality is going to be as far from the culture of philanthropy that de Beausobre calls “Russian” as the western NGO approach is.
The battle for the heart of philanthropy in Russia today is indeed between those – both Russian and non-Russian – who would propose various solutions “on a grand scale” that can be accomplished “without losing caste”, and others – both Russian and non-Russian – who quietly have personal compassion for their neighbours by participating in their lives. That same battle for the heart of philanthropy in Russia is raging in each of our hearts; do I take pity on people in need or am I willing to serve those people and let them serve me in their turn, as in a relationship of equals where both parties remain open to being challenged and changed in the relationship?
In 15 years of trial and error, we have learned that the “grand” strategies – or indeed any strategy that is primarily systematic as opposed to primarily personal – does not ever take real root. Programs of this nature exist for several years and then die out when funding runs dry or when the organizing principle is for some reason removed. By contrast, seeds planted in the depth of personal relationship remain and grow – taking on a life of their own and passing on new life to others. It is a great though painful blessing to be used as a channel for this sort of life. A blessing that brings great joy and true freedom. This personal approach to philanthropy is what we at ROOF now consciously aspire to.
The relevant excerpt from Iulia de Beausobre’s book can be read in the post: “Approaches to Philanthropy.”