Recollections of Our Lay Sister Nina Sandovich

Love Dwells Near Suffering

Recollections of Nina Sandovich

After visiting the orphanage in Novinki, Nina immersed herself in a new world. She saw unconditional love and mercy in sick children and found God's love in the midst of their suffering. Her family had described her as having a heart of metal, but her soul ached and responded to other people’s misery.

“I was born into a family of believers.”

I grew up in a faithful Orthodox family. On holidays and weekends, my parents would ride a horse drawn carriage to a church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. I was baptised in a seventeenth century church on the banks of the Dvina River, three miles away from our village. I remember myself sitting on the steps near the altar and looking at the gleaming Chalice.

When my sister suddenly died at the age of 16, my parents accepted this as an impetus to treat their faith more seriously. After that, my mother attended all services in a black scarf and took care of the candles. My dad was a churchwarden. When they closed our church, he collected signatures and went to the Committee for Religious Affairs in Moscow with a petition to reopen it.

sister's Nina childhood

When I was older, I moved to the capital, got married and had children. On holidays, I attended church, went to confession and took Communion. It was a period of church life lacking a personal relationship with God.

“I found real truths in life”

In the mid-90s, I came to the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral for talks with Father Andrey Lemeshonok. In 1998, Metropolitan Philaret (Vakhromeev) blessed me to join the lay sisterhood. Father Andrei assigned me to the children's boarding home.

At the boarding home, I saw sick and deprived children who treated one another with mercy. Knowing everyone's disabilities, they lovingly helped one another lace up shoes and fasten buttons. I discovered some deep truths about life.

boarding home for children with special needs minsk

"There is a spiritual dimension to what the Lord sends to the sisters."

There were two lay sisters serving in the children's boarding home. Olga, currently the icon-painter, and nun Martha (Matveeva) was still a student. Despite being young enough to be my daughter, Olga was in charge. We would read prayers in the wards with seriously ill children and take the healthier patients to the Convent services.

“You again? When will you stop coming here?" Sasha shouted across the corridor while another seriously ill girl was trying to tear off my headscarf and cling to my hair. There is a spiritual side to what the Lord sends us. After a while, we saw how deeply this child felt the Divine Liturgy. She lived a life of worship while still being aggressive toward us. Sometimes the enemy was making them harass us. We had to accept and withstand it without being offended, or losing the love.

boarding home for children with special needs social ministry

Close People

We tried to learn which of the children were baptised. I went to infant homes and called parents on the phone. Some people said that they did not know or care, while others cried and felt sorry.

At one time, we provided diapers for the boarding home. It would seem like a small page in our ministry, but there was a lot of work behind it. Today the state provides for the children, but in those years, it was a problem. However, the Lord has always sent us people who were able to help.

On weekends, priests came to the boarding home and served prayer services outside. Then God gave us Father Valery Zakharov, a good priest and a kind, wise and understanding man.

bells in church

“You have this and that, but they have nothing…”

The time when I served at the children's boarding home was not easy. I was raising two children by myself. We were not hungry, but our living conditions were very difficult. I used to tell my own children about what I saw in the boarding home, emphasising the contrast. I told them that our lives were comfortable compared to theirs, where they literally had nothing.

Looking back, I see that as a mother, I did not give much to my own children. However, if I had my time over again, my choices would be the same.

One of the main reasons why I began serving at the boarding home is the hope that if I help these sick children, the Lord will not forsake my own.

My daughter has been coming to the boarding home to play with children since her school years. Today she is a member of the Sisterhood... And my lifesaver.

“I realised that I have no moral right to stop”

The children were growing up. The oldest of them eventually transferred to one of the city's boarding homes for adults. Due to circumstances, we were unable to continue to take care of them. Soon, about eighty more of our children were moved to another location. This time, we managed to continue to support them.

I was alone at the first meeting with the head of the new facility. The sister that I was supposed to accompany was stuck in a traffic jam, and I was not prepared for it.

lay sister serving at St Elisabeth Convent

I became the sister in charge at the new boarding home. Together with our priests, we were baptising its inhabitants and giving them Holy Communion.

“The main thing is not to leave them”

During that time, we often took the residents of the boarding home on pilgrimages. We always tried to combine the spiritual part with something like a campfire, a holy spring, or sightseeing. Even a bus ride and a simple meal became a great joy for these children because none of it was possible in the boarding home.

There is a place on the Convent farm where children rest in the summer. Even children like Shura, who is almost blind and rarely leaves his facility, can spend a wonderful day there, cooking sausages on a fire and enjoying nature.

boarding home for children with special needs convent

The late mother Vasilisa, abbess of the St. Xenia Convent once told me that the most important thing for me was to continue supporting these children.

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice"

The new head of the boarding home, a Catholic, whose believing Orthodox mother attended talks with Father Andrey Lemeshonok, invited us to discuss cooperation.

She immediately let us know that she did not object to building a church on their grounds. However, the people were already in need of spiritual life with regular services, so we suggested equipping a house chapel.

father andrey lemeshonok

In about a year and a half, a chapel was already functioning at the boarding home. On the patronal feast of the “Merciful” icon of the Mother of God, we gathered in this house church.

Quoting his spiritual father, Archpriest Andrei Lemeshonok then said, “...Although it is difficult to overcome selfishness and devote ourselves to works of mercy, seeing the response in these children's eyes makes it much easier. Who knows, perhaps these eyes will justify us when the time comes to answer for our lives.”

When Father Rodion Alkhovik graduated from the seminary, he began to serve at our boarding home. I think all this became possible through the prayers of the patients. When we travelled, I would always say, "Let us pray that the Lord would arrange for us to have a church in our boarding home." God has always heard their prayers, and I felt like a small cog in some big mechanism.

children with special needs

“How God hears these people”

Once we were on our way to the farmstead on a bright sunny autumn day. One girl kept asking me if we were going to go to the forest to gather mushrooms. Without paying much attention, I said "yes".

After a treat near a campfire, we rested for a short time and started getting ready to go back. Then the girl reminded me of the mushrooms. I took her by the hand, and before we went far into the oaks, I could not believe my eyes. There was a sea of mushrooms! I have never seen anything like that in my life. I am sure that in such a way the Lord answered a prayer of a sick person...

father rodion

Another episode took place on a cold, windy day in late fall. I was taking the guys to a place in Minsk called the House of Mercy, the Charitable works centre of the Belarusian Orthodox church. During the short walk from the subway, I was holding one of the girls by the hand. She kept asking, "Nina, take me to a cafe! Please!" Watching TV in the boarding home, they see a beautiful life, another world that they want to get a glimpse of.

Immediately after our tour of the House of Mercy ended, I saw a cafe right on the premises. The tables and chairs were upholstered in white fabric. It was still morning time, and there were no visitors. The young waiters were wearing black uniforms. Before long, we were sitting at the tables in a beautiful cafe, being served by waiters and drinking tea. This is how much God loves and pities these people.

children with special needs

“The Lord has brought them to the care home because He knew that you would come”

There are more than 160 residents in our nursing home. Besides the former residents of our children's facility, it is inhabited by unfortunate people of all ages. Many of them have children and families. In this life, no one is guaranteed anything. Only the Lord knows why He brought these people here.

One of the residents is a little over 40 years old. Once he was a banker and enjoyed popularity in the financial world. A stroke has made this intelligent man become a resident of a residential care facility. Next to him is an inventor whose ideas are patented in many countries.

My goddaughter Alevtina, a woman from Kazakhstan, used to run a travel agency in Belarus. An illness caused this successful person to lose her mind. Her baptism took place on the Feast of the Intercession. I still remember how clearly Alevtina pronounced her name, although due to illness it seemed impossible. She passed away quickly, but she died as an Orthodox person who received Communion.

Some of the old people here have never been to church, but now they accept God to the best of their ability and understanding. The Lord leads each person in his or her own unique way.

children with special needs in church

Our Ministry Continues

Two years ago, we built a bell tower in one of the boarding homes. During the quarantine, when it was not possible to visit the residents, our bellman Ivan came there almost every day to ring the bells. Bell ringing is associated with awakening and hope. Together with other sisters, we pray every day for the staff and the patients. Each of us reads an akathist prayer on a certain day of the week. Our service continues...

Sometimes I get calls from people whom I have not seen in years. This is also a part of the ministry. I recently heard from a man who used to work in one of the boarding institutions. He wanted to know how to pray for the souls of his deceased relatives. I was surprised that he still remembered me.

boarding home for children

Orphanage

Father Rodion Alkhovik once gave me a lift after a prayer service and said, "I am going to the orphanage. Can you help?" I was getting into his car still not knowing that the amazing providence of God was starting a new ministry of my life.

We came to an orphanage for abandoned babies and children, whose mothers and fathers are deprived of parental rights. Children come here from maternity hospitals and stay until they are 4 years old.

We have been serving at the Orphanage for several years. We baptise babies 2-3 times a year and bring them Holy Communion. One time we invited cadets to be godfathers, and our nurses became godmothers. It was truly beautiful.

The orphanage has an intensive care unit with ventilator breathing systems. Once we came there to baptise a child. His young parents were sitting near the baby. The child was baptised, and on the following day, he passed away. This is the Providence of God...

boarding home for children with special needs belarus

“Standing with a donation box is like standing before God”

After I left my secular job, I spent six months standing in the street with a donation box. The Convent was still under construction, and people did not know about it yet. Some people thanked us and said that they knew it was going to be a good day if they saw a sister in the street. Others would say, "You again? Go get a job!"

One weekend, I was standing with a donation box near a subway station. A group of young people, still tipsy after the night, got off the train. They stopped, looked at me and discussed something among themselves. One of them came up to me, donated some money and said, "Forgive us. We are from Moscow. We spent the whole night drinking on the train, and we don't have the right to approach you." To them, that moment was like coming in touch with some new reality.

Once a man came up to me and said with pain in his voice, "I cannot walk through this crossing when you look at me. This is unbearable." The Lord must have been using me to call out to this person. It was clearly an act of God.

lay sister

It is not easy to spend eight hours standing in the street with a donation box. At first, I naively thought that I could pray for many hours. However, standing before God in prayer is a difficult task. At the boarding home, I always perform some action, organising religious services or trips on holidays. All of this is Christian service, but standing in front of thousands of people with a donation box is different.

People can see whether you are praying or not. They feel whether you are empty or full. It works both ways. Sometimes I realise that it is going to be difficult to talk to a particular person, and I think to myself, "Please, keep walking by..." In such cases, I am afraid that my inner peace will be shaken and unsettled. Many sect members deliberately come and provoke our sisters.

A person wearing a church vestment is treated as a representative of the Church. You can hear anything, including complaints about the patriarch or someone's parish priest. At this moment, you are the one to give an account for everyone and everything. The time with a donation box was very important for my inner growth.

I have always been fuelled by our Sisterhood meetings and confessions with Father Andrey Lemeshonok. We are not on our own, but inside a large organism. We pray for one another, and this gives us strength.

lay sisters in boarding home

“You need to live peacefully and accept your sister”

I have been serving in our church shop for many years now. This work is versatile. It requires knowledge of the books and religious items that we have, but above anything, it requires serving people. Father Andrey always emphasises this. I remember him once saying, “The holiest object in our shop is the sister in whom there is God.” It is important to always remember this.

Our work requires a leader's qualities, as well as mercy and compassion. We are supposed to put ourselves in place of people that we would probably never encounter in 'real life'. God sends us many sick and lame people, suffering from abuse or mistreatment by their family. We also have our own weaknesses. There is hardly anyone perfect here.

“Obedience always teaches us something”

Working in the church shop is about people. We observe the lives of many families. People have small children, who grow up, enter universities, get married, separate, and then get married again... Someone may come up to you, having no idea about Christianity. At first, he just wants to talk, but then he may meet God, finish courses of catechism, and become a reader in church…

Once, a woman came up to order a thanksgiving service.

"Are you thanking God for something?"

"Yes. My daughter has died. I need to thank God. God is always to be thanked for everything." This answer threw me into a stupor. Such moments make you understand that there are people who are on a completely different level. They do not wear vestments and may not receive Communion every week, but they have a right attitude and inner strength.

lay sister in shop

During the pandemic, at first I was frightened by the desperation of the people who wrote prayer notes and asked for prayers. Today, people are still afraid, but there is no such hopelessness any more. When our loved ones fall ill, we begin to think about eternity, realising that not everything ends in this life...

“I draw strength in the Convent and the Sisterhood”

The sisterhood and the Convent are the most important things in my life; here I draw strength. I love our churches and our ministry. Father Andrey is the lighthouse that guides me.

Sometimes I come to our Sisterhood meetings with a storm inside my heart. I sit and listen until everything somehow falls into place. Being around Fr. Andrey and other sisters helps me understand that all my temporary problems are given for my salvation, and that I should be focused on the eternal.

Interviewer: Darya Goncharova

November 16, 2022
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