Window on the World - Bulgaria
We are mission partners in Shumen, a town in North East Bulgaria, and have been here in total for about thirteen months. The American Methodist church sent the first Methodist missionary, Dr Albert Long, in the late 1880s and Methodism in Bulgaria developed steadily until the communist era (1946 to 1990). Then many pastors were arrested and tortured as the communists wanted to snuff out belief in God. We have heard accounts from older people who remember this time and tell of church services where 'informers and spies' were in the congregation. Preachers were replaced with 'watered down preachers' who were not necessarily Christians. We may grumble in the British Methodist Church, but we should remember how things have been for other Christians in parts of the world under the communist regime.
At the end of the communist regime in Bulgaria in1991 only five Methodist pastors were still alive. Slowly but surely the Methodist church re-emerged (though being a Protestant church, having to apply for registration was made more difficult by the heavy bureaucracy which is a part of life here). Bulgaria's dominant church is the Orthodox Church (again reflecting the tie to Russia?) and they appear to have a lot of influence within the government and in the society and culture as a whole. About 85% of the population claims to be Orthodox, but nowhere near these numbers regularly attend church. There are now about fifteen Methodist churches in the country with about 35 different congregations. For example some churches have Bulgarian, Armenian and Turkish speaking congregations. There are also a few Roma (gypsy) Methodist churches mainly around the Black sea areas of Varna, Stara Oryahova and Burgas. Christians in Bulgaria are eager to read and study the Bible.
In Bulgaria we have already experienced a great deal. Shumen is an American style church; the United Methodist Church in America and parts of Europe provides a lot of sponsorship links with most of the Methodist churches here. There are approximately 45 people who come to the church in Shumen, opposite which is a social centre and hospice formed and managed by a working group from a Methodist church in Germany. We help with the social kitchen - which to us is really 'Christ in love and action'. Every weekday the centre provides free food for around a hundred people who come in to collect food. Many are pensioners and some are unemployed. Pensioners who come to the kitchen (or ‘Lord’s table’ as it translates) are on pensions of an average of 40 leva per month (roughly £14).
Since October 2004 about thirty children aged 7-9 (nearly all of them from Roma families) come from a nearby school into the centre for lunch. We help to serve food and talk with them as best we can (because the language, from the Slavonic Cyrillic language, is not easy!). We also go into the school most Friday mornings to play games and sing Bulgarian and English songs! This is not as easy as it sounds because of the communist style presence that still lingers in the country as a whole - institutions can be a little suspicious of foreigners, particularly religious groups. We are thankful to have this little time with the children because sadly the Roma community suffer a lot of prejudice. We hope the link with these noisy but lovely children can continue.
We also went to the Roma Pentecostal church in the 'Gypsy Quarter' of the town. It was a cold, basic building with a log burner but full with about 150 people; the atmosphere and worship was fantastic. The Roma community appear very open to the Christian message. Recently a UN-backed initiative called ' 2005-2015 Decade of Roma Inclusion 'was launched in Sofia, Bulgaria with heads of state and Prime Ministers of some of the Balkan countries. We spoke to a young Roma lady from a Pentecostal church who is a teachers’ assistant to the children that come for lunch to the Methodist church social kitchen. She was a little sceptical of how much impact this initiative would have in her community. She told us that locals regard the school children (and the Roma community as a whole) as ‘bad dirt’, but she said three words that have stayed with us: Bog obicha treax (God loves them). Yes, God loves them! Maybe we should all remember that, whether it’s Roma people or asylum seekers in any country.
After a year or so here we see Bulgaria as a country of contrasts. Some parts of Sofia (the capital) have facilities that are similar to those of cities in Western Europe, and resorts on the Black Sea coast are full of McDonalds, KFCs and resort entertainment that attracts many British holidaymakers every summer. On the other hand, many towns and regions are dreary and grey with high unemployment and communist factories standing empty. Some older people we have spoken to tell us they would probably welcome communism back because 'though you didn't have a lot, you had enough'. Many young to middle-aged people, however, are happier with democracy. Young people are learning English, Spanish and German as they do not see many prospects for their future in Bulgaria, though they are hopeful that when Bulgaria joins the EU (probably in 2007) the economy will improve.
One word stands out for us: hospitality. Like many other Balkan countries, Bulgarian people regardless of their status are so friendly and hospitable. They love to offer gifts, be it knitted shoes, pumpkins or grapes.
Please pray for
- The Methodist Church in Bulgaria as it strives to rise above bureaucracy and suspicion (many Bulgarians regard Methodism as a sect).
- The social kitchen and hospice in Shumen, for strength and wisdom in all decisions.
- For the Roma community in Bulgaria.
- For the old and vulnerable.
- For the children in orphanages.