The Coronavirus still heavily impacts public and social life in Europe. The UMC in the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe is facing numerous challenges – but at the same time, the church is faithfully trying to do more than just waiting for better days to come.
In the last week of April 2020, there are signs of hope that the peak of the Corona crisis might be passed in Europe – or at least in parts of it. As the number of new infections is decreasing, several countries have announced some cautious steps towards normality – whatever «normal» might mean in the future. It seems, however, that the situation for the Churches and their ministries will not change as quickly.
In Switzerland, for example, there are three Methodist-related hotels. Since a considerable number of guests is usually coming from abroad (and in the case of the «Backpackers Villa» in Interlaken, 75% of the guests even come from overseas), it cannot be expected that the number of reservations will dramatically increase over the course of the next weeks, which causes a considerable financial challenge. And for the «Hotel Artos» in Interlaken, which is connected to a home for elderly people, the current situation is kind of a tightrope walk: while hotel guests are needed from an economic point of view, it has to be strictly avoided that these guests bring in the virus and cause harm among the elderly people.
In Zurich (Switzerland), a United Methodist congregation has been working with people on the margins of society for decades already. Together with other Churches and institutions, they have organized a «Take-Away», where more than 150 meals per day are provided to the marginalized of this part of the city who very much suffer from the current situation.
In Austria, churches may consider resuming their worship services in mid May. However, there are heavy restrictions. Each visitor must have at least a space of 20 m2, and people from different households must be seated with a distance of at least 2 meters. Security staff will have to carry out access controls, and visitors will be required to wear face masks. Given these restrictions, the church leadership decided not to re-open the churches in May already but to continue providing liturgies and materials for worship services at home on a weekly base. Additionally, a weekly online worship service for all United Methodist congregations in Austria is offered.
In Slovakia, the government had banned public worship services 6 weeks ago. This did not cease the activity of the UMC. Worship services are taking place online, printed sermons and other materials are distributed to those without access to the internet. Since it is mandatory to wear face masks in the public, several people have started to make such masks and to deliver them to people of risk groups (e.g. elderly or homeless people). Michal Tagaj, a man of 82 years, already sewed more than 80 masks with his sewing machine so that they could be given away to those who need them.
In Bulgaria, the UMC is using electronic means to reach out to the people having to deal with these extraordinary circumstances. There is a YouTube channel with 40 playlists and more than 640 videos (sermons, Bible studies, morning prayers, worship services, lectures, etc.). In the past 28 days, there were 240% more views and 230% more viewing hours than before. In the Holy Week (which was celebrated one week later than in the West), the UMC had a «Together during the Holy Week» program. Every day, people all over the country had the opportunity to participate in a joint worship service hosted by a particular local church. In both Slovakia and Bulgaria, but also in other countries of Central and Southern Europe, worship services in the Holy Week included online Holy Communion.
Although the UMC in Bulgaria is facing financial challenges because of the current situation, it was decided to provide a month free of rent to the long-time tenants who have difficulties in conducting their business right now.
And while prison ministry, one of the important diaconal ministries of the UMC at several places in Bulgaria, is currently limited, Superintendent Daniel Topalski expects that this work will soon be fully resumed.
While there are many encouraging reports about the response of the UMC in the various countries of Central and Southern Europe to the current crisis, it does not change the fact that there are also huge problems for particular groups of the population. Many elderly people, for instance, are in dire need because their children and grandchildren have migrated to other countries and they have to struggle for survival, hardly receiving any support from the public authorities. But also Roma people, often living on the margins of society, are facing considerable problems. Because of their poor living conditions (one or a few rooms only for large families), they are particularly endangered. But instead of receiving assistance, they often experience discrimination or even blunt racism and hatred. Additionally, many Roma have no income since they are neither allowed to collect plastic bottles or scrap metals nor are they allowed to do street trading (groceries, household items, flowers). The children, on the other hand, are particularly affected by the closed schools as they cannot follow online education because of lacking technical equipment. The UMC in several countries tries to help the Roma, e.g. by bringing food to Roma who are not allowed to leave their villages – but who have no shops in these villages where they could purchase what they need to survive…
Many United Methodists in Central and Southern Europe are longing for better days to come. But till there will be the dawning of these new days, they do not simply wait but actively and faithfully reach out to the people in their neighborhood, thus sharing the Easter message that it is life having the last word.
Assistant to Bishop Patrick Streiff