Visiting the Czech Republic typically means seeing historic sights in Prague, but if you want to meet members of our church (there it’s called Jednota Bratrska) and learn of its ministry in a country where few identify themselves as active in religion and Christianity, travel about an hour north to Liberec and surrounding areas. When the Rt. Rev. Sam Gray and I did just that recently, we were blessed to reconnect with friends from our previous visits, meet new pastors and youth leaders and learn about significant changes that have occurred in the Czech church.
In our first four days, Czech bishops Evald Rucky, Petr Krasny, and Jan Klas talked with us about their province, the Unity and the 2015 Youth Mission Conference that Sam and I were there to help plan. Depending on the subject at hand, other church leaders added their wisdom to the conversation each day.
We were grateful to hear about a huge decision recently made by the Czech government, which has profoundly impacted the churches. When the Communist Party took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, the churches there were placed under state control. The state owned the buildings, decided who could be a pastor, paid pastors’ salaries and had the final word over any requests from churches concerning programs, outreach or facilities.
In the past few years, that has all changed. In 2012, the government agreed to return church properties seized in 1948. It is a positive thing, but it also means that the 28 Moravian congregations in the Czech Republic are now individually responsible for paying their pastors—not very easy when the average attendance in many of them is 20-30 people (although a few have up to 50).
We heard some of the creative solutions for making up the difference, including selling decorative bags of special coffee beans, setting up an ice cream parlor at the church, managing a nearby camp, operating a flower shop, making wooden toys for children, running a thrift shop and offering a handyman phone line for use when members need something fixed.
One provision from the government that will temporarily assist with this financial gap is the promise to pay the churches a lump sum of money, decreasing annually over the next 17 years. This represents the government’s apology for the many church buildings that were destroyed and the property that was seized.
Seeing ministry up close
After the days of conversation and planning, Sam and I travelled to nearby communities to see ministry up close. Our first stop was in Hradek, where we met pastor Patrik Muller at the building that houses an after-school youth club and is being renovated to include a space for worship.
In Chrastava, David Just (who volunteers with the youth) and Simon Dvorak (the pastor) showed us around their small five-story building that is being used for children’s clubs, youth groups on Fridays, senior fellowship with various classes and occasional Bible study, space for several mothers’ clubs and a small room for Sunday worship.
Mothers’ clubs are everywhere. The purpose is to give mothers a place to go with their young children, since apartments where most people live are too small to have much play area. And because the Czech Republic encourages new mothers not to go back to work until their children are four years old, there are many moms looking for daily fellowship and opportunities for their little ones. When one of these clubs is held in a church, the adults are gently exposed to Christianity, with the hope that their whole family might become believers.
On Sunday we were taken to the small town of Nove Mesto to attend worship. There we met the pastor, Jan Selnekovic, and one of the provincial board members, Martin Bukovsky. The building they use was once a cinema, so they left part of the theatre area in place for Sunday services and renovated the rest into mothers’ club rooms, spaces for seniors and a youth club for teens. The two-hour service was followed by lunch and then another two-hour service for a different group, the Roma people (Moravians in the Czech Republic offer a significant outreach to this overlooked group). These loving people invited us to stay afterward for some ‘refreshments,’ which turned out to be eight large platters of sweets and sandwiches, plus beverage.
On our last full day of experiencing the Czech church, Evald and Petr drove us two hours across the border to Nowa Sol, Poland. Because a thriving Moravian community was once alive there from the 1750s through the end of World War II, the province is taking intentional steps toward starting a new congregation, under the leadership of pastor Josef Seda and his wife Iva. We spent hours exploring the town with them and their three young children. They were pleased to show us the small structure that has already been purchased for the church.
When it was finally time to travel to Prague for the first leg of our trip home, Sam and I took with us a tentative schedule for next year’s four-day Mission Conference, to include 200 Czech youth ages 16 to 23. Nearly a dozen people came together to help begin the planning, and now Sam and I will fill in the details. I get rather excited as I wonder what God will bring about when we return in September! ν
Donna Hurt is a member at Home Church in Winston-Salem, and serves on the Board of World Mission and the Southern Province Mission Society.
From the January/February 2015 Moravian Magazine