Verily, verily, I say to you: if a grain of wheat
falls to the ground and does not perish,
it abideth alone: but if it dies, it bringeth forth much fruit.
John 12: 24
Julia Sysoev, a mother and widow, established a fund to support the families of murdered priests—something she dreamed of along with her late husband Father Daniel Sysoev. Her fund operates as part of the Missionary Center named after her late husband.
—Did you create the fund after learning about a particular tragedy, or was it an abstract idea?
—I once came across an internet posting about a mother who was left a widow with five children in her arms, one of whom was ill with acute leukemia. The situation shocked me. People spread the word and raised money—but on their own, without any particular organization. And then I thought that would be good to create a fund that could help organize assistance for these families.
But the business of everyday life did not allow me to turn this idea into reality. Sad as it is, the impetus for the implementation of this idea became the death of Father Daniel. That's when I realized it is impossible not to do this.
—Was it hard at first?
—The most difficult thing was to make myself to it. For example, Daniel had a great desire and tremendous energy energy. He continually burned with zeal for his work. Most of us become buried in the business of everyday life… and sometimes become cold or lazy towards even the more burning of initial desires. I am a passive person by nature. I usually need a push, while Daniel was able to work without any such external motivations. But the main thing is to to make ourselves start. There are of course many subsequent problems, but all are overcome with God's help. I view them as challenges. There is a problem—how will I solve it?
—What does the Fund look like today?
—Our center has three main directions: Missionary work, publication and philanthropy.
Missionary work includes missionary training and an education program. We print materials and distribute them to churches and parishes. This is important—people read, fill gaps in their knowledge, and strengthen their faith.
Missionary training was Father Daniel’s idea. We accept applications from Orthodox Christians who know the catechism and want to become missionaries.
Publishing is a self-sustaining project. Basically, it is also the legacy of Father Daniel—not all articles have been published yet. Now we are preparing to publish memoirs about Father Daniel’s life, including a collection of testimonies and recollections of eighty people who knew him. My contribution was two large parts about my relationship with him. The book is almost ready—we’re working on the layout. We hope, with God's help, it will be released soon. Incidentally, a portion of the proceeds from the publishing house will go to families who we are helping. Donations are not always enough, so revenue from publishing is a big help for us.
—There are thoughts on the organization of missionary pilgrimages to holy places, which do not typically cater to pilgrims. This, incidentally, was also the idea of Father Daniel. After all, most pilgrimages follow standard routes. And we want to come up with something special, unusual, because a lot of places and churches are “off the beaten path,” are forgotten save but to a few people. But I do not know how soon we will carry out this idea: We only have about 20 full-time employees, and unfortunately have no volunteers.
—And how many of these 20 employees oversee the Charity?
—When the fund was established, we immediately started to support the initial group of families. First, there were six families, today there are about forty. And our charity totalled three people: Myself, my assistant, Matushka Lydia, and our Director Sergei, who in addition to charity is also involved in other directions. But mostly we find out through Matushka Lydia who has what need: Perhaps someone needs to repair a roof, another to send a child to summer camp, yet another needs medical treatment. We work mainly through Skype, are on the phone all the time—as these families are scattered in different regions of Russia. But if the opportunity presents itself, we make sure to visit. Thus, we communicate remotely, but personally with everyone. The easiest way, of course, is to transfer some money—but as much as possible, we try to help by solving the problem itself.
—Do you find those who need help by yourselves?
—There are times when we ourselves find families who need help, sometimes, others tell us. In any case, we connect directly with the family and check the accuracy of the information. Because, unfortunately, sometimes crooks try to access the fund for their own selfish purposes… in fact, even extort money, under the guise of the widows of priests who beg for an operation or repair. But this is usually quickly revealed. It often suffices to mention to them that we first need to call the diocese, or priest—and such people just fade away.
—And you are not accused of trying to “cash in” yourselves?
Sometimes we are asked whether those are real people on our website, sometimes people doubt it, but we are ready to provide any information to donors and report results. We do come across very different people. Most donors and good, gracious people who genuinely want to help—but we also get those who are not, who might call us out of the blue with accusations. To our question: "Why do you think so?" sometimes they might answer: "I can not get through to such and such a widow. The telephone number is fake, this widow does not exist, you are cheaters." And the fact that such a widow might not immediately hear the call and pick up the phone within five minutes does not occur to them. Or we get donors who call us a few times a day, asking if we’ve sent their $100. And every time we'll explain we must first accumulate a certain amount, and then send it. For such things the key is to react calmly.
—Are most of the donations amounts made up of smaller, more modest donations—or are there cases when someone donates the whole sum at once?
—All donate as much as they see fit. But as you know, it’s usually in small increments... It is clear that when a pensioner sends 200 rubles—it is a big part of their pension. Wealthier people donate more significant sums. We have in the fund a donor who sometimes donates very significant sums of money—but does so on the condition of anonymity, except for asking widows to remember him in their prayers.
—Do people donate with a specific widow in mind, or do they simply donate to your fund, for your dispersal as you see fit?
—If someone wants to help a specific family, we carry out this wish. Others donated to our fund in general, which we distrubute at our discretion to whoever is most urgently in need. We first cover urgent needs. Recently, a widow’s roof collapsed and needed urgent repairs. Of course, first we deliver money to these types of cases, and only then will send kids to summer camp. Some things can wait, others not. Indeed, 90 percent of our beneficiaries are widows. They need help the most. Because when a family loses a breadwinner, to survive—especially with children—becomes very difficult. So they are glad for any help. The only thing we do not accept are used articles—we do not work with the homeless. But new things we take, especially children’s clothes.
—Do you get assistance from the Diocese or the Government?
—The government pays a death benefit pension—3,800 rubles per person. At this, their assistance ends. Maybe some offer a travel tour to rest. And with the diocese, it depends on how lucky you are. Each dioceses and Bishop is different and offer different help. I know that one Bishop helped solve the housing problem of a deceased priest’s family. There are times, though, when widows are left with nothing. But we have no right to criticize or judge others. It is not our business. We are responsible for our own affairs, not for the affairs of others. In any case, often even if you get some assistance it does not cover enough.
—Do you go beyond helping with the pressing problems of widows?
—Of course, to help in acute needs is very important, but sometimes you just want to make people happy in other ways, to do for them what a widow with children can not typically afford. For example, to organize a vacation by the sea—for many of our families this is unimaginable luxury. Therefore, we are organizing such vacations in Anapa for the second year now. Last year, we sent nine widows with children to the ocean, and this year just as many. We sent two widows to Cyprus this year at the invitation of the monastery in Kikos. We hope that Cyprus will continue this project with us. We pay for travel, and the monastery donates accomodation. In general, we want to organize more such trips.
—Do you provide widows with material help, or also try to provide moral support?
—Of course! We deal with all of the widows personally. Our conversations with them of course have different natures. There are widows for whom it is very difficult survive the tragedy of their husband’s death, and seem to permanently reside in their grief. They usually try to avoid contact, so with them it is very difficult. But mostly widows are very friendly, lovely women, in spite of such tragedy.
Some of their husbands passed away from disease, some were killed in accidents, some were murdered. For example, in Podolsk, Father Alexander Filippov was shot in the stairwell of his apartment. Father Anatoly Sorokin was shot near his church. In 2005, Father Vladimir Ivusov was killed during a robbery, and at the same time Father Eugene Adigamov was brutally murdered. But we do not differentiate the causes: in all cases, it is a tragedy.
—And how do you help to survive this tragedy?
—Everything depends on the person. We don’t force our way into their hearts. If a person does not want to talk about their distress, we don’t pry. Others, on the other hand, long to share, and those cases we try to offer words of comfort. But most work to adapt quickly and regain their composure. Most don’t necessarily need words of comfort—just normal, adequate assistance. If one were to look at many of these widows from the outside, it might seem that they are just going about living a normal life: going about their business. The myth of widows as constantly weeping, grieving women dressed in gray and black robes exactly that—a myth. I myself have experienced these unpleasant moments, when people talked with me not as with normal person, but as with a patient. When they learn that you are a widow, for some reason their tone of voice changes. I was often put off by this. There is no need to weep for me—please talk to me like a normal person. I learned to avoid these ‘overly pitying people.’ I think other widows deal with similar issues.What was most difficult for you after the loss of your spouse?
—It's probably as it is with all the newly widowed: most difficult is learning to live again without him. Life is divided into “before” and “after”—into different eras. But it is necessary to begin a new life, not to pull the load of continuous, depressing memories and resentments. This period of transition between one state and another was the most difficult. But from the first day I saw that the Lord intervenes in all situations, arranging the necessary route. The Lord leads me. This gives us strength.
—Do you think that Father Daniel pictured just such as Fund as yours?
—In life, he could not imagine that our idea of aid to families of the priests would result in a whole center devoted to publishing, and a missionary center—which, incidentally, Father Daniel tried to create during his lifetime, but it did not happen. After his death, this idea took flesh. His other works also to live on. I devoted myself to the fund, his parishoners continue his missionary work, his other friends finished building the church, the construction of which Father Daniel started. This is God's Providence. Father Daniel, being there in heaven, continuing to help us here. We are convinced that everything is done with his help and his blessing. Therefore, we always pray and serve a memorial service at the Father Daniel’s grave before taking important steps. As for me, the Fund has become a matter of life. I now have two issues in my life: There are my children who must be raised, and there is a fund that must continue to grow.
For details on how you can join the work of the foundation, and information on how to make a donation—click here (in Russian).