As Russian President Boris Yeltsin's successors are jockeying for position, it's certain that the Russian people are wondering what will become of their economy - and their religious freedom - once a new coalition government is appointed.

A Utah congregation is no doubt wondering, too. Christ United Methodist Church in Holladay is one of several United Methodist congregations nationwide that have entered into a "sister-type" relationship with a similar congregation in Russia.Eric Laursen, associate professor of Russian literature and language at the University of Utah, has facilitated the "adoption" of a sister congregation in Voronezh, Russia.

"The relationship right now is financial - we provide money for the pastor's salary and rent. Eventually we'd like to get our youth group involved and get into a pen pal relationship with congregation members," but the arrangement is so new that hasn't happened yet, Laursen said.

"The national United Methodist Church relief organization has been involved in Russia with humanitarian aid, food supplies, and partnerships between U.S. and Russian hospitals to provide training and supplies. Partly as a result of that, there are now 35 Methodist churches in Russia. They need a lot of support right now. As you know, it's getting more and more difficult for churches, other than the Russian Orthodox Church, to survive."

When the national United Methodist Church put out the call for U.S. congregations to partner with the Russian churches, Laursen was asked to help facilitate an arrangement for his congregation.

"We haven't received a lot of information about them yet. We know the name of the pastor, but that's about all. It's a new congregation, so we're still waiting for some information."

Still, the Salt Lake congregation has "already apportioned a certain amount of money" toward the partnership. Laursen said fund-raising drives will be conducted this fall. "We'd like to get the youth group involved doing it and let them learn a little bit about another culture and another country."

Laursen said he was pleasantly surprised to find Web pages for Voronezh on the Internet - in English no less. "I think they're very eager to do business in the West. I've already been promised an e-mail address for the pastor."

Are there currently plans for some type of trip or exchange to meet their new Russian friends?

"That was talked about when we started, particularly for the young people. Now that things are just beginning, our immediate goal is fund rasiing - we're just trying to establish the relationship."

As for the political situation, Laursen says it's a "scary time for Russia right now, with the devaluation of the ruble" and Yeltsin's search for leaders to succeed him. "It's especially difficult for small churches in Russia, I think. They rent church buildings because they don't own the land."

Particularly with the specter of communism as a potential influence on the new government, the Russian people are "always subject to someone else's whims. With economy the way it is, who knows whether the congregation members are being paid themselves?"

For more information about the United Methodist Church's Russian Initiative, see the Web site at (gdgm-umc.org/europe/russia/index.html).