Forward in faith: following our forbears’ footsteps

“Brazen and Blazin’: Being Bohemian in 2023” read the flyer.  “The Moravian Young Adult Convo” for young adults ages 18-25. 

My interest was immediately piqued…Convo was going to Prague, the Czech Republic, and Herrnhut!  I’d get a chance to walk in the footsteps of our Moravian forebears, something I’d wanted to do my whole life. I immediately registered and began the long wait.

Six months later, we touched down in Prague. The long flight left me exhausted and I wanted nothing more than to dump my luggage in the hotel room and breathe. But I was determined to make the most of this trip – who knows when I would be back here? So after a brief rest, I ventured out into the city before we had to return for dinner. I wanted to explore!

The very next day I was biting my words as our first full day in Prague was spent taking a walking tour of the city. We saw a lot—Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, the statue of Jan Hus in Old Town Square and Bethlehem Chapel to name a few—and in the evening, had dinner before attending evening program and communion at St. Michael of the Archangel Lutheran Church in Prague. It was a very fast paced, hectic day (as were most of the days to follow), with very little time to process, but enjoyable nonetheless.

While Prague was beautiful, the experiences that made the biggest impression on me occurred after we left the city. The first of these happened when we arrived at Kunvald (the town in Moravia where the Unitas Fratrum was formed) and walked down to the Valley of Prayer.

Pastor Daniel from Usti nad Orlici had joined us for the day and spoke to us about the history of Moravians hiding and having secret communion services in the Valley. Then he told us he had a surprise and pulled out the original chalice the Moravians had used for communion. He even let us hold it and pass it around! I was shocked, as were many I think, to be able to hold a 500+ year old chalice in my hands, but then it got even better.

Communion that day was held using the chalice underneath the Linden Tree the Moravians had planted before fleeing the country. In that moment, having just taken communion from the original chalice our forebears used, under the tree they planted before fleeing, I looked up at the sky from beneath the leaves and felt as if the tree was embracing and protecting me. It was like I was being hugged by the Spirit and I was so overwhelmed by the connection I felt that I nearly missed the exchanging of the right hand of fellowship afterwards.

That same evening we heard from the Bishop for the Czech province about the history of the church in the Czech Republic and some of the struggles they faced over the years. He spoke passionately about how their membership may be low but they do a lot of good work and that they put their trust in the Lord to provide the funds. “We are called to be salt,” he said. “You don’t need too much salt. You need just enough.”

A prime example would be the congregation at Nova Paka. Instead of investing in a traditional church building, the Nova Paka congregation purchased an old hotel and renovated it. On their ground level floor they run a thrift shop on one side and a coffee shop on the other. All coffee sold is roasted in their roastery downstairs and all profits from both shops go to support the church’s various mission projects.

The former hotel is also used as a worship space, living accommodations, communal gathering spot, and youth hangout space. The ballroom, one floor up, serves as a multi-purpose room and it is here the congregation worships. As for the living accommodations, it is truly amazing to see God’s hand at work.

Initially, the rooms were intended for students needing housing for the school year. But when the war in Ukraine brought an influx of refugees to the town, the Nova Paka congregation opened their doors and provided housing to those seeking shelter. Now, as the refugees start to move out, the rooms are being used as originally intended—for student housing.

From Nova Paka we travelled to Herrnhut, our last major destination. Here we had worship in the gorgeously simplistic Saal where light streamed in from the floor-to-ceiling windows behind the pulpit, evoking a sense of freedom and bringing a further openness to the room. Our first night we had a Singstunde, the next morning a Lovefeast following Sunday worship. Both services were conducted in English and German and it was truly something special to hear the beautiful chaos of multiple languages mixing in the air as we all lifted our voices to the Lord, united in our faith. 

While in Herrnhut, we visited God’s Acre and Zinzendorf’s manor house, saw where the Daily Texts are drawn as well as the collection of Texts dating from 1731 to the present kept there and, on our last morning in Herrnhut, shopped at the Star Factory after learning some of its history. It was a whirlwind of activity to wrap up our journey, stopping off in Dresden for only a few hours before heading back to Prague, but I couldn’t imagine it any other way. In just a few days we had followed our forbears’ paths through the Czech Republic, into Germany and back again and now we were preparing to return home.

I left Convo with a renewed purpose and two ingrained sets of lessons. From the Czech Republic: We are the salt of the earth. It doesn’t matter how few we are if we have but faith in the Lord. And from Pastor Charlie McDonald’s closing sermon: We, the youth, are not just the future of the church. We are the church, here and now. Together, we all can make a difference.

In conclusion, I had a wonderful time on Convo and I would encourage anyone considering attending a future Convo to do so. However, I wasn’t on this trip alone, and now I would like to offer up the page to those who walked alongside me.

When asked what the most meaningful part of the trip was for her, Maggie Stephens of Sturgeon Bay, Wis. had this to say:

“It was incredibly meaningful for me to learn about Moravian history in the places where it happened. Travelling from Prague to Kunvald and then Herrnhut really helped me visualize the journey of early Moravians as they fled persecution and searched for a place where they could practice their faith and way of life. I particularly enjoyed the Singstunde and worship in Herrnhut. It was amazing to sing traditional Moravian tunes and participate in a bilingual worship service with their congregation. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison, although in different languages, was an especially powerful moment for me.”

One of the group leaders, Pastor Charlie McDonald of Chaska, Minn, found the most meaningful experience “was to see just how wonderful of a group I am sharing my denomination with. It was a blessing to interact with, get to know, and just simply observe what wonderful human beings our church has produced. It inspired me, and helped me to see in real life form, the most difficult essential to speak of: hope. Faith and love we could spend hours upon, but during this Convo I got to witness living breathing hope, in the form of the participants.”

Like me, both Dominic Blair of Covenant, Kingston Jamaica, and Megan Curtis of Nazareth, PA, found the communion under the Linden Tree to be one of the most meaningful aspects of the trip:

“There was a strong connection between the historical connection to these [the Linden Tree and Berthlesdorf Chapel] places, and our being there in a similar fashion. This, I believe, elevated the worship experience and made it memorable,” shared Dominic.

Megan added, “The chalice was divided into three separate pieces that would be put together when they reached their secluded place of worship, so no one person would get caught carrying the cup. Partaking in communion this way, I felt spiritually connected to our ancestors of the church and gained a deeper understanding of the lengths they had to go to, to hold true to their faith.”

Dominic also shared some of the insights he gained on this trip, saying, “This experience has solidified my knowledge of the history of our Moravian Church. The visit presented itself as a journey of the ancient Moravians, and walking their footsteps gave me an appreciation for their dedication and sacrifice. It makes me even happier to be Moravian and strengthens my resolve to be faithful now.”

“As we visited the Czech churches, talked with the people and toured their buildings, a common theme emerged: ‘Our church is small. We don’t have a lot of people, but we have this big ministry…’,” said Sarah Hriniak of Nazareth, Pa. “I was impressed by the variety and amount of outreach ministries…So many of our Moravian congregations in America complain about low numbers, but these churches showed us that small congregations can still be sustainable and serve the local community.”

Similarly, Evan Watkins from Hope, Ind., said, “Convo made me consider the role that the Church as a whole, and Moravians in particular, can have in today’s world…What I saw in the Czech Republic and Germany were rituals, areas of mission, and other goings-on that were inconceivable to me before. Most prominently, I think the Moravian school in Nova Paka was an example of this that I had previously never considered, and haven’t stopped thinking about since.”

I also asked participants if they had their faith or understanding of Moravian history strengthened on this trip and Kim Rogers replied, “Of course it strengthened me in my faith and my understanding of the Moravian history. I’m able to comprehend the reasoning behind the way Moravians pray and worship the way they do now. Before they couldn’t praise or pray unless they were hiding somewhere in the bushes. Now they’re able to express their gratitude for God in Christ. That’s a blessing that this generation of young people take for granted. Lord have mercy on us.”

When asked how the trip affected his spiritual journey, Igli Bushkashi from Albania answered, “Oh yes, this trip made me want to be closer to God and made me realize that God is with us through thick and thin. Even when the world didn’t want us as a church, he was there to protect and provide.” He also wanted to extend his thanks to Home Church in Winston Salem for making this trip possible for him and Xhoi, saying, “Words cannot express the feeling that I have inside, but I will say thank you, thank you, thank you to each and every one who contributed and organized this event…The Moravian Church in Albania will always be thankful and as for me personally, I could not stress enough how important it was for me and my faith. God truly works in unexpected ways and this one was made possible by all of you. Thank you again!”

Anna French is from Hellertown, Pennsylvania and is a member of Nazareth Moravian Church in Nazareth, Pa. Photos by Emily Lippert of Schoenbrunn, Ohio.