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Teacher's love for Russia takes hold Missionary plans to return CENTRAL -- Union Mills * Westminster * Sandymount * Finksburg


Robin Espenschade loves Russian culture and helping people.

For the past six months, Ms. Espenschade, 28, has been able to combine her two loves by working as a missionary in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"Len Feidler, who works for the Board of Mission Services for the Lutheran Church, came to my parents' church [Faith Lutheran Church in Eldersburg] and gave a presentation and talked about what they were starting to do in Russia," she said. "Afterward, my mom went up to him and said 'You know, my daughter speaks Russian.' "

That was all it took to set up a meeting between Ms. Espenschade and Mr. Feidler. It led to her leaving her job with the Agency for International Development in Washington and traveling to St. Petersburg to work as a teacher and missionary. She had worked for two years in humanitarian aid at the agency.

The Missouri Synod, an organization of several thousand Lutheran churches, gave her and other missionaries some books on Russia and training on how to minister cross-culturally.

The books were not necessary for Ms. Espenschade, because Russian culture has long been a passion of hers. She has a bachelor's degree in Russian culture and literature from George Washington University, and a master's degree in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University.

"When I was a freshman in college, I was picking my classes," Ms. Espenschade said. "At the time I was considering studying the sciences, and I thought that it would be good to learn because a lot of research is in Russian."

The 1983 Westminster High School graduate's knowledge of Russia helped her to make the transition from living in the United States to living in a country that is slowly trying to emerge from the shadow of communism, she said. But it was not always easy.

"There's sort of a cultural clash because I'm used to my Cheerios for breakfast," she laughed. "In Russia, you eat what was left over from dinner."

Cheerios aside, Ms. Espenschade enjoyed her missionary work. Her job was to teach English as a second language and to provide basic Christian education for the second- and eighth-graders at Peterschule, a private school with German emphasis. She also was involved in an after-school club that taught the children Sunday school-type ideas "to make it a little easier for the little ones."

Now that the Iron Curtain has crumbled, there is a movement in Russia to restimulate interest in religion, she said. The Lutheran church in the United States is supporting the Lutheran church there in rebuilding and re-establishing itself. The Russian churches are very appreciative of the funds and support they have received.

"The parents are afraid that, with the disappearance of communism, the younger generation will have nothing to cling to, no ideology," Ms. Espenschade said. "The schools want the children to learn Christian morality, and that is why they want the teachers to come in; they think that we can serve as good examples."

When she returns to Russia in August, it will be her second visit. The first was a trip for intensive language training. Then she lived among the people, with a host family, for six months, and attended St. Michael's Lutheran Church.

Her host family consisted of a fellow teacher at the school, Elena; Elena's husband, Igor; their daughters Olga, 9, and Lera, 5; and the "babushka," the grandmother of the family. She paid the family the equivalent of $20 a month in rubles for her room and board. They, in turn, provided her with an inside look at day-to-day life in Russia.

Ms. Espenschade also discovered that grandmothers everywhere have something in common: They all want to feed you.

"She [the grandmother] would get very upset if I didn't eat, because she had survived the starvation blockade of World War II," Ms. Espenschade said. "One day, she made a fish stew, and I went to take a spoonful, and I looked down and there were these little fish whole. I figured I would eat around them, and then I realized that she had been scooping the bottom to give me the most fish, as like an honor.

"I told her, 'I'm sorry but I can't eat this,' " she said with a giggle.

During her stay, Ms. Espenschade visited the mass graves of the victims of the Blockade of Leningrad during World War II. More than 200,000 people died there.

"People know where their family members are buried. They come and leave food at the graves because the people had starved," she recalled.

She is determined to continue work in Russia. She has made a commitment for a total of 18 months, and says she looks forward to returning in August to complete the rest of her service. "It is important to the Russians that the American people not forget who they are," she said.

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