When Pastor Dariusz Zuber and his wife Monika came to Elk in northeastern Poland in July 2012, they had many dreams. But they also had eyes that saw reality.
The start at their new place of ministry could have been easier for Dariusz and Monika Zuber. Definitely. It wasn't just that the church premises in Elk had been neglected for years and were crying out for renewal. The congregation was also yearning for new life. Apart from church services, there had been hardly any activities of late. And while the couple was inspired by the desire to put John Wesley's statement "There is no other gospel than the social gospel!" into practice: The first years were mainly characterized by renovations, repairs and conversations with people who no longer went to church. Dariusz Zuber remembers all too well: "That was a very difficult time for me and my family."
The young pastor had a vision of a church with open doors, open hearts and open minds. He saw a community that was not only committed to the positive spiritual development of people, but that was also socially and culturally engaged. A church that helps shape society and changes a bit of the world. "My dreams were inspired by the activities of Jesus, who reached out to those who were rejected by society and religious norms. Thanks to him, we can learn that there are no areas of human life that God's care and love cannot reach." In the life of Jesus, Dariusz Zuber saw the dawn of a new religious and social reality. From this he drew hope and strength to act.
But what to do when you have a vision and concrete ideas for action, but when many hands are too weak to work due to age – or even completely missing? "Open up to others!" is how Dariusz Zuber sums it up. To implement the ideas, the couple invited not only parishioners, but especially non-profit organizations as well as municipal institutions (library, historical museum, city hall). "In partnership with others, we 'proclaimed the Kingdom of God' by organizing, for example, charity concerts, courses of the University of the Third Age, film discussion clubs or programs for children and youth." This was connected with an important learning experience: "Openness to other groups and associations taught us to see good and traces of God's work also in the activity of social activists and their organizations."
The UMC in Elk gradually became a place for different people of good will who have hopeful ideas and want to realize them in a trustful cooperation. The development of social programs as well as cooperation with other organizations led to the creation, after appropriate reconstruction and renovation work, of very functional spaces for social, cultural and catechetical activities.
As encouraging as these developments may be, Dariusz Zuber is also aware of times of drought that demanded a lot of perseverance from him and his wife. But: "Jesus' example makes it clear that our responsibility is to introduce the values of the ‘Kingdom of God’ into people's social context without waiting for immediate results – whether that means a conscious turning of people toward God, new church members, the formation of new congregations or changes within relationships." During the last few years of his ministry, he said, he learned to be patient and wait for the fruits of the efforts. "Often they didn't show up until years later."
Without help, Dariusz Zuber is convinced, he and his wife would not have made it. "During the years of my ministry in Elk, God taught me the importance of cooperation. Our work, combined with openness to new people, has made our church a good place that teaches dialogue and connects diversity, where tradition grows together with modernity and youth with maturity. Our congregation has earned a reputation as an open and cooperative church that supports not only its members, but all those in need." He is thinking of the counseling center for people involved in violence. Of the therapeutic services for addicts that have been held regularly for several years. Of the kindergarten that has existed for three years and is run by members of the community. And of many other things that have grown.
When they came to Elk, there were only two of their children and one young person in the congregation. Everyone else, he says, was of retirement age, often disappointed or even bitter because of difficult experiences in the past. "Today, our congregation is made up mostly of new people," Dariusz Zuber says. "We have a dozen or so children, youth, a worship team, and most importantly, committed, open-minded parishioners who help shape our community."
A heart full of dreams, by the way, Dariusz Zuber still has.
Source: Pastor Dariusz Zuber, Elk (Poland) / Urs Schweizer, Assistant to the Bishop, Zurich (Switzerland).