By Sandra Brands
General Board of Global Ministries
Gathering in Russia in August, United Methodists from throughout Eurasia as well as the United States, England, Germany, Switzerland and Korea honored the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the first Methodist missionaries in St. Petersburg, Russia. Among those gathered were Russell Davis and Rev. Scott Parrish representing the North Georgia Conference. The event celebrated the history and looked to the future of the United Methodist movement in Eurasia.
The early Methodist missions and churches were shut down in the 1930s under Communist leader Joseph Stalin. The Methodist movement was reborn in the 1990s, and, in the past two decades, new churches have been planted throughout the Eurasia Episcopal Area, which includes Estonia, the Ukraine, Russia, Belorussia (Belarus), Moldova, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan. Although it still needs support from partner churches around the world, The United Methodist Church in Eurasia is working towards self-sufficiency.
“Preserving traditions, we transform the future” was the theme for the festival at Camp Crystal near Voronezh, about 350 miles south of Moscow. A highlight was the presentation of “The Last Room Left,” an original musical by Oleg Pozharsky. Another was the baptism of a new member from the Bishkek United Methodist Church in a local river. Worship, Bible studies, sporting events, music, workshops and photo exhibits were also part of the celebration.
(From left) Retired Bishop Hans Växby, Üllas Tankler, David Freeswell, Simon Zuercher and others assist Bishop Eduard Khegay (kneeling) in planting the commemorative tree at Camp Crystal. Photo: Ullas Tankler
The festival meant a great deal to Bishop Hans Växby, former episcopal leader of the Eurasia Area. “I rejoiced seeing the spiritual maturity and my heart rejoiced because I saw how dedicated these people are, especially (to) making the worship experience diverse in order to help people grow spiritually.”
For the Rev. Dr. Üllas Tankler, Global Ministries Executive Secretary for Europe & Eurasia, Mission Relationships, the festival was important because it helped United Methodists there celebrate their unique identity while building relationships with other United Methodist churches in Eurasia and throughout the world.
The focus on both the past and the future meant that the Eurasian “United Methodist Church is willing to make a difference in their culture. They started small, and they started with a lot of help spiritually, culturally and financially from the West, but they are becoming an indigenous church,” he said. “This event was a very strong sign of their maturity as a church and their understanding that we are being called by God to be here and to carry the Methodist values into this society.”
Reflecting those values, Tankler said, was the fact that at the same time tensions between the Russian and Ukrainian governments were rising, Russian and Ukrainian United Methodists worshipped and prayed together. A youth band from the Ukraine provided the music for much of the celebration.
“It was symbolic that as two countries are fighting with each other, Christians and Methodists from these two countries are praying together and supporting one another,” he said. “It was such a counter-culture thing. I found it very moving that United Methodists publically showed their support to their brothers and sisters.
Approximately 130 United Methodists from throughout Eurasia and the rest of the world gathered at Camp Crystal in Russia to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Methodist movement in Russia. Photo: Ullas Tankler
“It was an inspiration to everyone,” Tankler said. “Most people present were from Russia, and we put together an offering to support the ministry of The United Methodist Church in the Ukraine.”
Tankler said that while Global Ministries still partners with and sends missionaries to work with the Eurasian United Methodist Church, “they are not dependents. The Eurasian United Methodist Church is a fully developed, mature United Methodist structure. We continue to be in partnership with a church (that) is growing and developing itself.”