More than two hundred homeless or alcohol-addicted men gather on a farm 19 miles from Minsk during the winter, where they are supervised by just a couple of sisters from St. Elisabeth Convent.
“I feel I can’t cope with all that,” Sister Joanna, one of the nuns of St. Elisabeth Convent, admits. She is entrusted with an obedience at Lysaja Hara, the rehabilitation center run by St. Elisabeth Convent and located 19 miles from Minsk. It is a place where men who found themselves in a difficult situation—the homeless, drug and alcohol addicts, or generally those who lost their path in life—can come and stay.
Currently, there are more than 200 residents at Lysaja Hara, with five sisters who look after them. There are few rules: the patients must go to church and work. They must abstain from alcohol, drugs, and foul language. It isn’t an easy task for the brothers who come to the rehabilitation center to comply with these apparently simple rules, though.
“I work really hard to do what the Lord blesses me to do. Unfortunately, I see that I cannot cope with all that. I’m weak and ill. I’m angry and impatient sometimes. I feel especially bad when I have to tell someone what and how they should do and God knows that I don’t mean to sound rude or patronizing but they still feel offended. It’s really painful…” Sister Joanna complains.
“The sisters hold the reins quite tight, believe me,” Maksim, one of the residents of the rehabilitation center—a “brother”, as they call them here—chimes in. Maksim is 33, and he has spent about 14 years in prison.
Valery has spent about thirteen years in the rehabilitation center at Lysaja Hara. He remembers how the sisters kicked off this project in an old wooden house without any amenities, including running water. There were 25-30 men in the rehab at that time.
“Of course, life is easier here nowadays, although sometimes it seems that it was easier in the beginning. There used to be fewer people and we were closer. Of course, it was a little worse comfort-wise: bathing was a non-trivial task. We didn’t have a wash stand and had to use a cup to wash hands. Life was harder but simpler. It was like a student construction team: in spite of lack of comfort, the atmosphere was awesome… We worked more because there were fewer people. You was always easy to spot,” Valery recounts.
He was an engineer in the past. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he tried to start a business but he failed and started drinking… Finally, he found himself at Lysaja Hara. He used to work in greenhouses, on a farm, in the candle workshop, and in the refectory… Now he works in the library.
There are few old-timers at Lysaja Hara: only Valery and another brother who works as a tractor driver. There are a couple of other people who have been in and out of the rehabilitation center for years. Only about a third of the current residents are those who really want to break free from the bonds of their passions. The rest simply come in search of a warm place to spend the winter. There are more than 200 brothers in the rehabilitation center in winters but their number drops to about 100 in summertime.
They come and go and then come back. They are given new chances all over again.
“It’s important that we give them that chance. They are probably waiting for us to reject them but we don’t. And they are hooked by this attitude. They start climbing out of the abyss. Sure, there are issues with us as humans, as living beings, and there are spiritual aspects, too. The spiritual is at the core of everything here, for sure. That’s the main thing. Otherwise, how are we different from other organizations?” Sister Joanna reckons.
The Nursery School
The rehabilitation center has changed significantly in the thirteen years of Brother Valery’s life here. There are new solid living quarters, a refectory, a church, and a detached workshops building.
The brothers live in cells: the more trustworthy ones in a room for two or three persons, while the newcomers live in larger cells for up to twelve persons.
“This is intended as a way for us to look after each other and not to fall into a temptation. If there are few people around, they will be able to hide in a private place and use the forbidden substances. Work makes us more responsible. When the sister in charge sees that one has enough self-control and is willing to change, then she’ll permit more comfortable terms,” Maksim says.
The newcomers go through the so-called nursery school. They have separate prayer times. There is a brother in charge of them. He talks with them and determines their labor duties on a daily basis.
“If the person pulls through the initial stage, he gets an assignment where he can earn some money as a way of encouragement. We’re not talking about wages here. It’s just an encouragement so that the brothers could buy tea or cigarettes, because most of them smoke. Without the money, they cannot buy anything. Well, and it makes them work harder,” Sister Joanna explains.
The most difficult types to deal with are homeless by choice, in other words, vagrants, and those who suffer from drug dependency.
“Drugs are a disaster! They warp one’s head and soul to such an extent… They even jump on trees and sit there like birds. There was a young man who was helping in the church. A boy, rather. He was possessed by demons due to drugs. He would talk in a strange voice in church and collapse. He would even bang his head against the floor and injure himself. It’s scary… As far as the tramps are concerned, they are used to living in the street. Here they get everything one may possibly need: a warm bed, food, and work… But they still prefer to wander around,” Sister Joanna sounds puzzled.
You won’t be able to stay away from work in the rehabilitation center. Both the newcomers and the old-timers work six days a week. Aside from numerous workshops (carpentry, locksmith’s, and candle workshops), there is a vegetable farm, a dairy farm, and greenhouses.
Every day begins with prayer, breakfast, and work. The brothers have lunch at around midday, and continue working until evening prayer. They work half a day on Saturday. Sunday is the day off. The brothers can leave the rehabilitation center at any time with the sisters’ blessing. Sisters emphasize that they don’t force anyone to stay in the rehabilitation center.
Maksim (who, as we’ve mentioned, spent 14 out of his 33 years of life in prison) has spent a year at Lysaja Hara, although he had planned to stay for one month. His friend had asked him to help the Convent to make church furniture. “I’ve spent thirteen and a half years in prison. I went behind bars when I was 14. I’ve been in jail for as long as I remember myself. I didn’t suffer from any drug or alcohol-related issues. I just… I was empty inside. I had money and a place to live but I was empty inside,” Maksim says.
He doesn’t feel empty any longer. He carries out his obedience in the carpentry workshop and dreams of getting married.
“I’m not opposed to family life. I would like to get married. And I would like to continue working in the Convent, too,” Maksim admits.
Sister Joanna says that she would easily let Maksim leave the rehabilitation center. She says that she’s been asking God to send him a good and faithful wife. Unlike Maksim, Brother Alexei is clearly unable to live on his own, she feels. He’ll go on drinking until he dies.
Alexei is a young man, a professional actor, who came from Moscow Region following the advice of his parish priest. He had expected to spend three months here due to his alcohol abuse issues. Instead, he has been living here for two years already. At first, he attempted to run away. Now he doesn’t, he says.
“I just can’t stop. You know, as it often happens: I’m late for a bus, I’m late for a train, but I’ll always come to the liquor store in time,” Alexei jokes.
“Do you think that we’d prevent him from leaving the rehab if he had a good wife and if he could control himself?” Sister Joanna adds.
“Some people simply cannot control themselves. The Lord uses this place to make some people strong enough to live in the outside world. We have another Alexei, a construction worker from Russia, who comes to us from time to time. He has been married and his wife is great. Unfortunately, our Alexei will hardly do on his own in this world. We talked with Nun Martha, who is in charge of the rehabilitation center, and she doesn’t want to let him go. Honestly, he’ll end his life in a ditch or on a road. That’s so appalling…” the novice explains.
It seems that Igor from Brest will also remain in the rehabilitation center. He came here to pull through the winter. He used to be in charge of a cafe. Now he looks after goats.
“If someone had told me a year ago that I was going to work on an animal farm like a pro, I’d have burst out laughing. I saw goats only on TV. When I came here, I saw lambing and calving. It was a revelation for me,” Igor doesn’t hide his feelings.
He came here in an attempt to escape alcoholism, emptiness, and loneliness. It was here that he went to the church and confessed his sins for the first time. He says he feels
the urge to start reading the Gospel now. When asked about his plans, he replies, “I’ll stay and work here.”
In addition to the brothers, there are about 30 dogs and 40 cats at Lysaja Hara. They have troubled fates, too. They were abandoned, crippled, and left to die…
For example, the cat named Kutuzov has only one eye. In fact, it was the reason why he got this name. However, he is brave like the famous general, too. At one point, he rushed to the defence of Sister Joanna when one of the brothers yelled at her.
In spite of all difficulties and the seemingly insufficient percentage of those brothers who return to normal life, Sister Joanna insists that their work is effective.
“Even if there is one person who gets saved and finds God after his stay here; if someone finds a family and gets reintegrated into the society; if there is a person who works and understands the true meaning of life—for the sake of others and for the sake of God—it’s already worth the effort,” Sister Joanna explains.
Anyway, all misunderstandings will certainly be forgotten on Sunday. It’s Easter time. The brothers are looking for the festive meal, lots of friendly conversations, and a solemn service in St. Elisabeth Convent. Easter is the great holiday that encourages everyone to hope for salvation.