United Methodists News Release ( U.S.A.)
Posted on August 6, 1999
By Douglas Cannon
AUSTIN, Texas (UMNS) -- United Methodists from three annual conferences brought 19 Russian visitors to the Texas Capitol Aug. 2 to show them how state government works.
The Russians, participants in the "Open World, Open Politics" Russian Leadership Program, were staying with United Methodist families in eight Texas cities: Commerce, Eldorado, Houston, Lone Oak, Paris, San Angelo, Sulphur Springs and Uvalde. The cities are in the Texas, Southwest Texas and North Texas annual (regional) conferences.
The stop at the Texas Capitol marked the midway point in a 10-day visit by the Russian business, government and educational officials to the Lone Star State.
While at the Capitol, the Russians:
- Received a briefing on lawmaking procedures in the Texas Legislature.
- Questioned Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Eubank on the election process and operation of state administrative agencies.
- Heard Justice Nathan L. Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court explain the workings of the state and federal judicial systems.
- Met with state Land Commissioner David Dewhurst and Associate Deputy Comptroller Mike Regan.
The group also toured the Capitol building, stopping in the chambers of both the House of Representatives and Senate, which weren't in session, and visited the Lyndon B. Johnson Library at the nearby University of Texas.
The Russians questioned Texas officials about:
- How the state interacts with the federal government.
- Powers of the governor to influence or dissolve the state legislature.
- Possible consequences that state legislators could face for passing unpopular laws or disobeying statutes.
- Ways Texas deals with illegal workers from Mexico.
- Effects of Gov. George W. Bush's presidential candidacy on the Texas economy.
- The role of religious beliefs and political-party affiliations on judicial decisions.
In addition to seeing the state Capitol, the Russians met with business leaders and local officials in the cities where they were staying, toured historic sites, visited churches and church-related agencies, and observed operations of banks, newspapers, hospitals, schools and other enterprises.
The Russians, who arrived in Texas July 27-28, are part of the first wave of visitors from the former Soviet Union coming to the United States under the auspices of the Library of Congress. The visits are designed to show current and future Russian leaders how political, business and social systems work in the United States, said James W. Symington, executive director of the exchange program.
As many as 3,000 Russians could visit the United States by Sept. 30, exchange program officials say. United Methodists are expected to host as many as 1,000 of those.
The denomination got involved with the exchange program through the Russia Initiative of the United Methodist mission board.
"For nearly 10 years, the Russia Initiative has been a leader among churches and other agencies in fostering understanding and partnership between Russian and American communities and churches," said the Rev. Robert Harman, an executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
"The focus of our work has been both religious and humanitarian," he said. "It has helped Russians appreciate the role of voluntary and faith-based organizations in shaping the values and enhancing the delivery of vital social services in local communities.
"The U.S.-Russian leadership exchange program offers United Methodists significant opportunities to extend the social witness of our church in this context."
Other host organizations include Rotary International; Peace Links, an international network of women; the Episcopal Church; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and the American Foreign Policy Council.
Besides Texas, United Methodists played host to Russians in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland and Michigan. The first group of visitors, which included 32 who stayed with United Methodists, returned to Russia beginning Aug. 6. The second wave, expected to bring 50 participants into United Methodist homes, began arriving Aug. 3.
During the first week of August, six Russians went to San Angelo as guests of First United Methodist Church. Other host churches were First United Methodist Church, Commerce, one visitor; First United Methodist Church, Eldorado, four visitors; St. Paul's United Methodist Church, Houston, two visitors; Lone Oak United Methodist Church, one visitor; First United Methodist Church, Paris, two visitors; First United Methodist Church, Sulphur Springs, one visitor; and First United Methodist Church, Uvalde, two visitors.
Visiting Russians didn't know who their hosts would be until they departed for the United States, said Sergey Gatilov, 43, an official in the Russian Federation Ministry of Education who is staying in San Angelo.
"It was stated that we would meet many different people from many organizations," Gatilov said through an interpreter. "Among them would be religious."
Each visitor expressed interest in different aspects of American society.
For example, Olga Goryaeva, 30, student club director at Kermerovo State University, said through a translator that she wanted to "figure out if Russian mentality differs from American."
Many Russian legislators and future leaders have never been to or know little about the United States, said James H. Billington, librarian of Congress. "We hope that the opportunity to host so many important current and future leaders from across Russia will strengthen the ties between our nations that have already been established by earlier exchange programs."
*Cannon is editor of United Methodist Witness, the newspaper of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference.
News media contact: Tim Tanton· (615)742-5470· Nashville, Tenn.
[Permission granted by United Methodist Church]
[Reprinted with Permission]