Partnerships Aid Fledgling Eastern European Churches
by Alice M. Smith
POWDER SPRINGS, Georgia -- When the Iron Curtain fell in Eastern European countries after 1989, many in the west thought there would be a magical transformation to governmental stability, religious freedom and prosperity.
That's far from the case, however, as the countries -- and within them small United Methodist congregations - struggle for stability, according to United Methodist Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Conference of Central and Southern Europe. He spoke at the Eastern European & Balkan Consultation III Oct. 26-28 at McEachern Memorial United Methodist Church.
"Only a few [individuals] made money, really big money in Eastern countries," he said. "The big majority became poor, very poor, poorer than they had been before."
Streiff spent some time outlining the realities of life today in Eastern Europe, in part to emphasize the fact the United Methodist Church in these countries is in need of assistance on a continuing basis. "It will help us understand why the church still needs a lot of support from the west and will become self-sustaining, at best, within 10 to 20 years," he said.
Two programs seeking to provide ongoing help are In Mission Together of the United Methodist Church's General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) and the Connecting Congregations program of the evangelism unit of the World Methodist Council (WMC). The two groups were co-sponsors of the Eastern European consultation.
In both programs, churches in wealthier western countries are linked with struggling congregations to share love, faith and financial resources. "It's good if we from Western Europe and the U.S. ... share with those in need what we have received from God," Streiff said.
Streiff's conference has some western European countries - Switzerland, Austria, France - and two countries in northern Africa, Algeria and Tunisia. Former communist countries include Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania.
Methodism in Eastern Europe and the Balkans dates back more than 100 years and remained alive during the communist years except in Bulgaria. The total number of United Methodists in the conference is about 30,000-40,000.
In Mission Together
McEachern Memorial is affiliated with In Mission Together (IMT) and has been linked with the Jihlava United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic since the end of 2000. The partnership is one of 28 which involve churches in the U.S. with two churches in Poland, one in Hungary and the rest in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The mission-minded McEachern church became involved in the program after Dick Adams, then chair of the missions committee, visited the Czech Republic while on a business trip. "He fell in love with the people, the countryside, even though it was winter and people came to church on cross-country skis," summarized the Rev. Donna Goff, a staff member who works in the area of mission.
From there the relationship mushroomed, and each year members of the Jihlava and McEachern churches visit back and forth. The past three years the Georgians have conducted English camps in the summer for Czech youth and adults.
Eighteen traveled to Jihlava this summer, including the church's senior pastor, the Rev. Robin Lindsey, and his wife Kathy. The ability to speak English is a skill the Czechs value but few posses, so the idea of the English camps originated with them.
Dick Arnold of Blacksburg, Va., a retired businessman who serves as a consultant for GBGM for Eastern Europe and the Balkans, knows firsthand the blessings of mission involvement, since he helped start a church in Kerch, Ukraine, after the fall of communism.
During that time, he recalled, he often was asked basic and probing questions about the Christian faith, such as "What is prayer? Does it work? What is Christmas? What are worship services?"
As he was able to formulate answers to these questions and articulate his faith, he realized how enriching it is to be involved with new or re-emerging Christians who are excited and committed and eager to learn. "That's what it's all about," he said. "When you link up ... together with your brothers and sisters ... everyone is strengthened."
The Connecting Congregations program of the WMC's World Evangelism has been around longer than IMT, starting in 1992 with eight congregations in Czechoslovakia, which at that time had not split into two countries. Two of the original partnerships involved Georgia churches - Statesboro First United Methodist Church and Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta -- and continue today with congregations in Slovakia.
Three other Georgia churches are connected with congregations in Bulgaria: Northwoods in Doraville, Norcross First and Dunwoody First. Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church in Augusta previously partnered with a church in Slovakia but now is involved in Indonesia. Additionally, Connecting Congregations is active in countries in Central and South America and Africa.
The heart of the program, said the Rev. Eddie Fox, director of World Evangelism, is "each one sharing what you have - faith, love, hope - and, if you have it, money." U.S. churches that are part of the program generally commit to supporting the pastor's salary of their partner church, which is normally $3,600 to $5,500 a year.
He emphasized the importance of mutuality in mission and of both sides giving and receiving. "The reason I want our people involved is for us to know how to depend on God and the Holy Spirit," he said. "We think we can save ourselves, and when we get involved with them, we know what our hope is."
Both Fox and Arnold pointed out that the linking of congregations across cultures and countries is the new face of mission, which, like the Volunteers in Mission movement, allows people hands-on involvement and the chance to build meaningful relationships.
"It's a new way of doing [mission]," said Fox. "People want to have that [personal] connection directly. That's where the energy comes."
Giving and receiving
The mutual nature of mission partnership was highlighted at the conference by the fact that each presentation on a specific country - Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Macedonia, Serbia, and Bulgaria - featured both a person from that country and one from its partner church in the U.S.
The Rev. Janusz Daszuta from Poland described the problems in his country - high cost of living, low salaries, political instability, and the migration of young adults out of the country in search of higher-paying jobs. In a country that is 96 percent Catholic, the small United Methodist Church - with a constituency of about 4,000 - also faces prejudice.
He found that especially true when he moved to a small country village, but was able to win over the hearts of the people when his United Methodist congregation took the initiative to build a much-needed children's playground.
For three years, church members prayed for the playground, which ultimately was built through the efforts of a group from Acworth First United Methodist Church joining forces with the villagers.
"In the history of the village there was not another such event that brought everyone together," Daszuta said. "The playground not only is a place for children to play but became for us -- a small United Methodist Church -- a place of ministry.
In response, Debby Vest of Austin, Texas, described how she has been to Poland six times. "It's my heart," she said. "It's my family. It's about falling in love ... [and] taking care of one another when it's so hard over great distances.
"They need our love, our support, our prayers," she said. "We need their love, their support, their prayers. We grow in Christ by being in this important relationship."
For information about Connecting Congregations, visit worldmethodist.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn about In Mission Together, access www.inmissiontogether.com or email email@example.com.
Alice Smith is the editor of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate. This article used by permission of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate.
Date posted: Nov 20, 2006