Dr. Bruce Weaver has a personal definition of the word “neighbor,” and it extends far beyond the boundaries of his Lakewood home.
“After I retired in 1991, I was appointed interim director of United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR) traveling all over the world implementing disaster relief,” says Weaver. “It was while serving at UMCOR that I led the United Methodist Church into Russia delivering much needed aid.”
Within another year, Weaver was serving as director of the Russia Initiative Program (RIP), a direct extension of serving with UMCOR. “We have established 70 churches since 1992 and a United Methodist Seminary as well,” he says.
For eight years now, hundreds of Methodists throughout America have had personal interaction with Russians providing humanitarian aid. People helping people. And all the while getting to know and love those across the world as they traveled to help deliver supplies and build churches — or host visitors in their homes.
The latter development came about after RIP participants heard a stirring speech by Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress. The premiere Russian scholar so eloquently described what it would be like to bring young Russian political leaders to America — to provide them with an opportunity to see democracy in action — to give them direct communication with Americans, that the audience was moved to tears and a standing ovation.
The unprecedented program came to be known as the Russian Leadership Program (RLP), and is sponsored by the Library of Congress and implemented through the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries. What resulted was an unforgettable summer of international exchange.
It was the well-established personal contact that the United Methodist Church had in Russia that gave it the resources to host families and share their American homes with the Russian visitors in the summer of 1999. Once Billington received the grant money from Congress, the program was off and running. Dr. Weaver knew that his home office would not be sufficient for the job and he called on his long-time friend and neighbor Rev. Bill Matthews to help set up the new office.
Matthews too was no stranger to the Russian culture; he had led several groups to Russia while serving as communications director of Perkins School of Theology at SMU and had also served on the mission field when he and his family were in the Philippines and Fiji from 1964 to 1973.
“In 1997, I was on special assignment by the Church to once again do mission work. I began helping Dr. Weaver at that time before I officially retired,” says Rev. Matthews. “I was at the consultation where Dr. Billington spoke and was moved as well. When his grand design came to fruition, Dr. Weaver asked me: What are you doing next summer?”
Matthews hired another neighbor, Ilona O’Brien, to run the new office. To say the rest is history would better be said that the rest will affect history.
O’Brien, who is now on staff full time with the Russia Initiative Program, is “nowhere near retirement.” A life-long Dallasite and graduate of Hillcrest High School and SMU, she has lived in east Dallas for over 30 years.
“These programs bless everyone who participate,” says O’Brien. “Those who hosted the Russian visitors last year have made lifelong friends and opened up sensitivity between each other. Even the American children became involved.”
“Every Russian evaluated the program and, based on the feedback from the Library of Congress, there was an overwhelming sense of a positive experience from the Russian visitors,” says Dr. Weaver. He continues, “The personal interaction between the Russians and Americans last summer and over the last eight years has established lifelong friendships. This is the heart of the program, and the personal interaction is what made the RLP click so well.”
Last summer, the group successfully recruited over 700 host families, coordinated thousands of plane flights across America, and interviewed every group who participated — ending with a resounding desire to do it all again this summer.
“This year, there is a strong effort on the part of the Library of Congress to focus on the interest of the Russian visitors so they will be matched with American counterparts,” says Matthews. “This begins with the recruitment of the host families. We will all work together to link them together with commonality. This should strengthen their experience.”
Dr. Weaver is often asked why the United Methodist Church gets involved in working with governments. He says: “When it is no longer difficult for people to get to know each other and love each other, they don’t let governments build weapons to destroy each other.”
If you are interested in either the Russia Initiative Program or the Russian Leadership Program call 214-273-0262.