Feeding the Poorest of the Poor Just for Love
Strumica, Macedonia, December 16, 2008--The tiny United Methodist community in Strumica, Macedonia, feeds some of the city's poorest of the poor on a regular basis, and a society that is predominantly Eastern Orthodox and Muslim has taken notice.
On December 11, the Miss Stone Center of The United Methodist Church of Macedonia received a special award from the city for its five-days-a-week Meals on Wheels program.
Mayor Zoran Zaev presented a certificate and medal on the Day of the Holy Fifteen Martyrs of Tiveriopol, an Orthodox commemoration of the faith of a group of priests killed in Roman times. Tiveriopol was the ancient name for Strumica, located in the southeastern part of Macedonia, one of the Balkan countries.
Pastor Mihall Cekov and Mitko Konev, director of the center related to the 13 United Methodist Macedonian congregations, received the honors.
The center, named for a remarkable missionary, provides meals five days a week to 108 of the poorest people in the city. Most recipients are persons, regardless of religious affiliation, identified by the local government as really, really poor. Friends and neighbors identify others in great need. Elderly people also receive medicine, clothing, bedding, and firewood from the center. A few persons contribute a small amount for the meals.
Church officials note that Strumica residents were initially dubious about the United Methodists providing food. What do these "Protestants"—the name Methodists are called—want in exchange for nourishment? To attend their church?
Gradually, people came to realize that the United Methodists were acting out of love, asking for nothing.
The program started with 12 people in 2001 and has grown to the present 108. The hot meal, five days a week, consists of soup, main course, and dessert. The "Protestant program" has become a model for the region. Farmers who know about it donate vegetables or cheese. Strumica is in a major agricultural region.
Persons from the Miss Stone Center bring food and other necessities to the recipients. They also offer friendly ears, listening seriously to those in need and giving them a sense of worth and hope for the future.
The Miss Stone Center continues the spirit of work started more than 100 years ago by one of the most famous missionaries of the early 20th century. Miss Ellen Stone, a native of Massachusetts, was a pioneer in the organization of schools and the training of Bible women in the Balkans, in the years when the area was part of the Ottoman Empire.
She worked through the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which had Congregationalist roots. After some 20 years in what is today Bulgaria and Macedonia, she and a pregnant woman companion, the wife of an indigenous Protestant pastor, were kidnapped and held for ransom by Macedonian freedom fighters. A massive public solicitation in the United States raised around $65,000 and the two women, plus the newborn, were released by what the press at the time called "brigands."
Upon release, Miss Stone, the companion, Katharina Tsilka, with baby Elena in her arms, walked out of the hills into the village of Gradosorci and were taken to the Protestants in nearby Strumica.
Miss Stone returned home and spent much of the rest of her life promoting the rights of religious minorities in the area she had served. She also won congressional approval of a subsidy to repay the people who raised her ransom.
A dozen Macedonian congregations related to the American Board were transferred to the Yugoslav Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church because of shifting political lines following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The American Board had offices in what became Greece, while the Methodists operated within the borders of what became Yugoslavia, incorporating Macedonia.
Macedonia would become independent only with the dissolution of Yugoslavia toward the end of the 20th century.
The United Methodist Church in Macedonia is part of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe and has close ties with United Methodists in Germany and Austria. Partner relations through the In Mission Together program also exist between congregations there and those in the US.
Urs Schweizer in Zurich, Elliot Wright in New York, and Missionary Carol Partridge in Strumica contributed to this article.
Date posted: Dec 16, 2008