Jesus gathers us across oceans around a common table
by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) supports Christian witness in the Czech Republic through a long and active partnership with the Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren (ECCB), which strengthened after the fall of communism in 1989. Old friendships were renewed and new friendships were built.
Today, ECCB has more than 70,000 members and 250 congregations in the country and is the largest Protestant denomination in a very secular society. The church’s Diakonia operates 150 Diaconal Centers that offer extensive and much-needed social services for the underserved.
The PC(USA) works alongside ECCB partners to support outreach to the Roma population, which are believed to be more than 250,000 in the Czech Republic. Church members share the lessons of faith they learned from persevering through four decades of communism.
“For the ECCB this partnership is a concrete dimension of being part of the global fellowship of Christians,” said Gerhard Frey-Reininghaus on behalf of the Synodal Council. “We are with the PC(USA) together, a part of the Body of Christ in this world through God’s spirit of love and peace. In this fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ, we can experience in a special way God´s love in sharing our lives, our concerns, our hopes and troubles. We share our faith through in praying for each other, in worshiping together and listening together to God´s Word and Christ´s call to be his followers in this world.”
The PC(USA) and the ECCB have strong links through a partnership network of congregations, which has developed over the last 30 years. A partnership working group coordinates the network’s activities.
Partnership conferences have occurred four times since 2008 in both the U.S. and the Czech Republic. The next conference is planned for July 2023 in Olomouc, Czech Republic. Since June 2020 both partnership groups have been meeting regularly online, sharing questions about worship and education, Christian life and witness and the mission of the church in society and worldwide.
The next gathering between the ECCB and PC(USA) is scheduled for July 9-13, 2023. The tentative theme is “Being together on the way.”
“For the PC(USA), the partnership with the ECCB means learning from and with one another, sharing, worshiping, enjoying and caring for one another,” said Betty McGinnis, one of the founding members of the mission network. “Listening and dialoguing are the essence of the partnership.”
In 1989, McGinnis and Bob Lodwick, PC(USA) liaison, discussed possible groups going to the former Czechoslovakia to build relationships. A group followed from the Presbytery of Baltimore which built relationships working in the Diakonie of ECCB. Another group followed from the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic, strengthening the relationship under the leadership of McGinnis and ECCB coordinator Jan Slama.
The links between the American Presbyterians and Czech Protestant churches go back to 1800s, with pastors of Czech origin serving in Czech congregations in the U.S. Some returned home bringing new inspiration, while others kept the Czech heritage in the U.S. alive.
Through the years, ECCB representatives have attended General Assembly, Presbyterian Women gatherings and Presbyterian Youth Triennium. After Triennium, some were also invited to experience life in the U.S. as guests of various presbyteries.
Ondrej Stehlik was selected from the Czech Republic for the “Mission to the USA” project, a year-long staff residency at the Office of the General Assembly in the Louisville office. The Synod of the Mid-Atlantic and the Presbytery of Baltimore, Sewickley Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, First Presbyterian Church in Annapolis, Maryland, and numerous others have sent groups to learn from and study with the ECCB.
Since the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, strong ties have grown between theological institutions in the two countries. Professors and students of the Protestant Theological Faculty (PTF) at Charles University have studied at the theological seminaries in the U.S., including the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A close relationship has developed with Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS) in Decatur, Georgia.
CTS has a long-established relationship with the theological faculty of Charles University in Prague. Each institution regularly exchanges international students. Columbia sends groups of students to the Czech Republic as part of a required MDiv course, and faculty from the two institutions have often worked together on a variety of projects over the past several decades.
In additional to educational exchanges, PC(USA) mid councils and ECCB have made numerous outreach and service exchanges over the years which have included the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic and Presbytery of Baltimore as well as the aforementioned churches in Pittsburgh and Annapolis.
In 2000, the first official partnership, congregation to congregation, was formed between FPC in Annapolis and the Letohrad congregation in the Czech Republic. The Letohrad church was the first built in the Czech Republic since the time of communism. The two churches worked together financially, physically and spiritually in its development.
The partnership began with many exchanges between members and pastors of both congregations. Over the years, these conversations developed into a formal partnership with strong ties, including an annual vacation Bible school that emphasizes English not only to the congregation but to the entire community. Partnership teams were established in both congregations and remain active.
Southminster Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh has been partnering with churches in Ratiboř and Kateřinice for more than 10 years. It began as a musical partnership when Southminster introduced handbell ringing to the Czech communities, which grew into an annual camp where there is sharing our faith, music and English skills.
First Presbyterian Church of Cumberland, Maryland and Horni Sbor ECCB of Vsetín, Czech Republic, found they have more in common than their ministry in small towns with rivers, bridges and hills. A partnership of more than 13 years has grown strong. They share prayer requests and hold twin worship services with sermons and hymns in both languages.
“Encountering another country, another church, another congregation is always a chance to learn, to grow in faith, in hope and love, to make new friendships and be inspired to live a more intensive and a more active life,” said Frey-Reininghaus. “A partnership is a wonderful gift from God for his worldwide family, which we cannot estimate highly enough.”
The Rev. Mark Harper, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia, and Ivana Markova with an ECCB congregation in Olomouc, agree that the body of Christ is a worldwide community of faith.
In a joint email, they wrote, “Sisters and brothers in the ECCB remind us that the baptism which connects us is always more powerful than the cultural forces that divide us. When we come together and laugh and struggle with language differences, when we care deeply for one another, live together, cry together, we realize that Jesus gathers us around a common table.”
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Ministries: World Mission