Not that long ago the Russians were the nuclear-armed enemy. "We almost hated them," recalls Jack Provost.
But now Provost, like thousands of other volunteers and members of charitable groups around the country, is intent on feeding Russian people who need help to get through a hard winter.
"The Russian people are in deep despair," said Provost, seated inthe tiny lunchroom of the warehouse that is the central collection point for a relief effort sponsored by the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
A letter went out to 36,000 churches across America asking people to contribute very specific food parcels. Each would contain 5-pound packages of flour, sugar, pasta, rice and powdered milk. Tea and shortening, soup and canned meats, poultry or fish also were included.
People were urged to go to moving companies and obtain book boxes and then to ship them here.
At the warehouse, volunteers check each parcel and insert a blue, postcard-size message that says in Russian, "This food is sent from Christians in America to Russian Christians in an act of good will."
Most of the parcels are shipped to the warehouse. But some people, such as Carol and Ron Nelson, save the shipping costs by driving a load to Maryland. The Nelsons brought 54 boxes from the United Methodist Church in Worthington, Ohio. It totaled 2,052 pounds of food from about 130 families.
On Friday,the first food shipment, a 40-foot truck trailer loaded with 960 boxes, sailed from Baltimore and is scheduled to arrive in St. Petersburg on Feb. 16. Provost said it will cost between $8 and $10 to get each box to Moscow.
Once unloaded in St. Petersburg, church volunteers will drive the shipment to Moscow, where the parcels will be distributed from a warehouse donated by the Red Cross.
American volunteers and Russian church groups work together to make certain the parcels reach people most in need.
The hands-on system is designed to ensure the parcels are not diverted into the black market.
The United Methodist program is a part of a relief effort coordinated by the World Council of Churches in which different groups were assigned geographic areas. The United Methodist Committee is targeting its assistance to the Moscow region.
Alice Provost recalled the telephone call she and her husband got right after Thanksgiving at their Gulfport,Miss., home from their friend Lloyd Rollins, a United Methodist relief official.
"He said, 'Alice, what are you doing for the next three or four months?' " Rollins told her about the Russian relief effort and she said she was certain they'd be interested.
Jack Provost,69, learned the warehouse business as a construction manager for Anaconda Mining Co. After he retired, he worked with Rollins on relief efforts in Guatemala and Jamaica.
Going off to help the Russians when many Americans are hurting economically wasn't universally popularin Gulfport.
"You know, in Mississippi we need help," he recalledpeople saying.
But he said he'd heard stories from Rollins and others who had been to Russian and had seen the despair.
"A person in Mississippi can go get food stamps, can go get state welfare, can get Medicaid . . . about every town has a soup kitchen," he said. "There's none of that in Russia."
Provost is mindful of the political stake in helping democracy survive in Russia.
"I try to keep my eyes focused on the humanitarian side," he said. "God has people who are hungry, and the biblical mandate is to 'feed my sheep' if you possibly can."
Information on how to donate: (800) 967-7301.