Bulgaria-North Carolina Mission Partnership Flourishes
by Elliott Wright
New York, NY, July 20, 2009--A two-year-old mission partnership is bringing new energy for Jesus Christ to three small United Methodist congregations in Bulgaria and the West Market Street United Methodist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
A third annual mission team left Greensboro on July 20 for summer service with the congregations in the north of Bulgaria, including the city of Pleven, and the towns of Voyvodovo and Mizia. Summer activities will include children's ministry, pastoral training for outreach to youth, and building renovation.
The team of 11 will continue to work with local church members in restoring a church building in Pleven that was a communist-run puppet theatre for a half-century. The sanctuary was returned to the church in 2007. Worship was held there for the first time in 50 year last summer during the visit of a West Market team.
One highlight of the mission trips is joint Bible study using a bilingual devotional guide with contributions written by both North Carolinian and Bulgarian United Methodists. "This provides for the sharing of personal faith stories that are deeply meaningful despite cultural differences," says Elizabeth Montgomery, director of outreach for West Market Street and the primary organizer of the mission teams.
West Market Street Church, established in 1837, has an average worship attendance of between 500 and 600 persons, and on roll membership of some 2,000. It is also engaged in mission partnerships in Central America (Costa Rica and Guatemala) Kenya has always has one domestic project in the works.
Origins of Bulgaria-West Market Partnership
West Market's involvement with the Bulgarian congregations came through two routes. One was interest in Bulgaria generated by a talk that the Rev. David Melton, pastor of the Greensboro church, heard at a mission conference in Korea. The other was a suggestion from Richard Arnold, a consultant of the Untied Methodist General Board of Global Ministries and coordinator of the In Mission Together program, which helps to develop mission partners in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
"Pastor Melton had an interest in Bulgaria," Ms. Montgomery said in a telephone interview. "Then Dick Arnold came to speak to us and we asked him where he thought West Market might best serve in Eastern Europe. He said 'Bulgaria,' and I knew it was the work of the Holy Spirit."
A West Market vision team went to Bulgaria in 2007, making contact with local and regional United Methodist leaders. At the time, the Rev. Daniel Topalski, then pastor at Pleven and also an attorney, was negotiating with the government for the return of the Methodist church building in that city.
The Greensboro congregation to date has raised $50,000 toward the estimated $75,000- $80,000 cost of the Pleven church restoration.
The Bulgarian Congregations
In the summer of 2008, a team of 18 people from West Market went to Bulgaria to assist with cleaning out the building and starting necessary repairs. The team included educators, who worked with children and led seminars for pastors, and musicians, who held public concerts in Pleven, Voyvodovo, and Mizia.
"The United Methodist congregations lack validity in the eyes of many people in the community," Ms. Montgomery explained. "Most of the people are Eastern Orthodox. The concerts were helpful in opening doors. The mayor of the towns came and that gave a boost."
The church at Voyvodovo, near the Romanian border, is the oldest of the three. It was started early in the 20th century by Czech immigrants who were Methodist. While it is a small village, it is the largest congregation, with some 60 participants. The United Methodist fellowship in Mizia meets as a house church.
Pleven is a large city in a primarily agricultural area of Bulgaria. The United Methodist congregation was for years confined in terms of space to living quarters linked to the sanctuary, which it was prohibited from using. It currently has about 35 members. "The Pleven church now has room to grow," says Ms. Montgomery.
In 2008, the West Market team introduced a prayer shawl ministry that continues and serves both pastoral and outreach objectives. Bulgarian church members knit prayer shawls that are given either to those in the church or neighbors and friends who are having difficult times in life.
The Pleven congregation, according to Ms. Montgomery, is also engaged with children in an orphanage, outreach enhanced by a Pleven member who has a clown ministry.
United Methodist Church in Bulgaria
The first Methodist missionaries went to Bulgaria in the mid-19th century when the country was still under Turkish rule as part of the Ottoman Empire. One of the first two missionaries, Dr. Albert L. Long, made the first translation of the Bible into Bulgarian, according to a 2003 article in New World Outlook, the United Methodist mission magazine published by Global Ministries. The Turks were driven out during World War I.
During the communist era that lasted from the end of World War II until 1990, most of the congregations disappeared; but not all. The still existing, restored, and new congregations were reorganized in 1990 under the jurisdiction of the United Methodist Central Conference for Central and Southern Europe.
Becoming an In Mission Together Partner
Congregations are invited to explore In Mission Together partnerships with United Methodists in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Information on becoming a partner is available online at In Mission Together.
Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Jul 20, 2009