By Bishop Eduard Khegay
Pastor N’s wife from Kazakhstan was forced to take a “vacation” without pay. Suddenly raising three small children got extremely difficult.
In a large Russian city, a pastor and his wife ran an after school program, but as the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, they had to close their tutoring agency and were left with no income. How to feed children and pay the rent became an everyday challenge.
From St. Petersburg on the Baltic to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, and from Voronezh in southwest Russia to Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan, we have heard stories like these all over the Eurasia Episcopal Area where I serve – a vast area that stretches across 11 times zones. Many United Methodist pastors, local churches, and church workers are struggling in an economy devastated by the pandemic.
Self-isolation and restrictions on public gatherings exhausted many people by the end of June. At that time most places in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan had lifted some restrictions. But now, as of July 15, 2020, many places are in crisis again. The number of COVID-19 infected people has risen dramatically in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and some regions of Russia. Many of our churches have gone back to an online worship format after a very brief period of worshiping in their buildings.
Throughout this crisis, some local churches have adapted very well. They have improved the quality of their online worship and small group experiences. Many are praying together daily, engaging in weekly movie discussions, and studying Scripture, theology, and Christian disciplines online that have helped them stay connected as a church. And most importantly, they continue to support one another as they share the gospel beyond with others. Many local churches report that new people have joined their online services in recent months.
For some, however, this year has been very difficult. Many elderly people cannot use technology to its full capacity. Some people do not know how to send offerings to their church, and some have very little or nothing to send. Children and youth cannot gather in summer camps or participate in church programs face to face.
Many people who were excited to meet online in the spring, now experience zoom fatigue and a deep hunger for socializing in their church facilities. One pastor shared that when worship services resumed in the building people stayed in the church for a very long time, fellowshipping and visiting with one another; they had missed being together so much.
COVID-19 and the crises associated with it have forced us to think about all areas of our lives and our future together. What will it be like? What kind of jobs we will have? How we will continue our studies? How will our churches grow in this new reality? What will happen to The United Methodist Church globally? All these questions are connected with our future – short and long term.
People filled with hope look into the future expecting something good to happen and for positive changes. This, in turn, influences their actions in the present. People without hope, however, expect bad things beyond their control will happen, and consequently they come to believe their lives have little or no meaning. And skeptics regard hope as believing in illusions and fantasies. But in my experience, hope is directly connected with faith, patience, courage, perseverance and actions.
The Bible is full of people of hope – men and women, preachers and army commanders, prophets and leaders. I am especially inspired by the apostle Paul. He persevered through unjust imprisonment, an assassination attempt, mockery, hatred, distrust, shipwreck and physical suffering. Nevertheless, his life was filled with hope as he shared the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. His faith, patience, courage, perseverance and actions brought wonderful fruits for the Kingdom of God. In his letter to believers in Rome he writes:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13 CEB).
Paul reminds us that our God is a God of hope. He is the source of hope. And when the source is eternal, it never ends. Therefore, even in this difficult time of the pandemic, we can continue to be filled “with all joy and peace in faith.” To be sure, external threats are real and create great hardships for many people. We cannot ignore them or think of them lightly. But we are a people of faith, who look at reality inspired and instructed by Almighty God, and we trust Him in all aspects of our life. And God fills us “with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Our hope here in Eurasia increased when we received help from our brothers and sisters in the UM Church. Even in the midst of our divisions and strong disagreements, we are blessed to be a global church where we can experience Christian solidarity. “As it is written,” Paul says, “‘The one who gathered more didn’t have too much, and the one who gathered less didn’t have too little’”(2 Corinthians 8:15). I want to thank sisters and brothers around the world who are helping us by giving generously and sacrificially to the UMCOR COVID-19 fund. Through this fund, which all United Methodists support, the General Board of Global Ministries has been able to assist many pastors and church workers all over Eurasia. As we often say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”
I am grateful to the people called Methodists in Eurasia who find their hope in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our people are strong and courageous. Our grandparents and parents survived the horrors of WWII and Stalin’s oppressive regime. And we ourselves saw our country fall apart in 1991. We lived through many cold winters and remember inflation of 100 percent per day. In those times, we found inspiration in classic literature written by Leo Tolstoy, Fedor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, and many others. We have also been challenged and inspired by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s books, like The Gulag Archipelago. In that book, Solzhenitsyn writes how Christians in the Soviet concentration camps were different from others. They were people of hope and Christian character. They suffered, persevered, and stayed true to their Christian ideals. There was something that set them apart from everyone else. They found their hope in Jesus Christ. That is the hope the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome about:
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5 NIV).
As I wrote this article, I received a message from pastor N who received help through the UMCOR COVID-19 fund. He writes:
“We firmly believe that the Lord will not leave us. This help is a great blessing and an answer to our prayers. Thank you for your generous heart. Thanks to my Lord for giving help at the right time!”
The God of hope is with us. Let us be filled with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit! Amen.
Bishop Eduard Khegay leads the Eurasia Episcopal Area, which includes the countries of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Ukraine.