And yet it moves

The partnership between the PC(USA) and Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren in the time of pandemic

by Petr Sláma | Mission Crossroads

A group from the PC(USA) and Czech partnership in Prague at the headquarters of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren. (Contributed photo)

PRAGUE — When Covid struck in the spring of 2020 in the Czech Republic, it meant, above all, a radical reduction in contacts. This reduction was a reasonable response from the authorities to the pandemic, which was spreading through physical encounters between people. The schooling of children and young people as well as the work of many adults have moved to their households. When people outside the home had to meet others, such as on public transport or in shops, the obligation to wear a mask began to apply.

These measures surprised people. Quarantine has revealed the social differences that exist between people — and especially between children. Home-schooling has had great difficulties in some families. For many people, quarantine was a great economic shock. Some people have retreated to the shell of their household. But here they often suffered from cabin fever.

I was surprised at how quiet those days were — and it wasn’t just out of the curfew. In the mall, where the people still had to go from time to time, they walked in silence and without greeting, as if a sudden fear had deprived them of words. I go jogging twice a week. I took my 11-year-old daughter with me. Still in the city I started whistling in a mask to break the silence. “What are you crazy about, Dad,” she warned me, startled. She felt the unspoken pressure to be dumb.

The church, as the community of Christ’s people, is built on communication. In many churches, pastors spent hours phoning people who were left alone. Many churches have launched online services. Sometimes ministers hung prerecorded sermons, sometimes they streamed services from an empty church, and sometimes church members joined from their homes using conference platforms like Zoom. Those who were not connected received printed sermons.

Since the early ’90s

When the pandemic broke out in the spring of 2020, it seemed that the contacts between American Presbyterians and members of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren (ECCB) would have to fall asleep for a while. The canceled air connections and the closure of the borders meant the cancellation of planned visits and English summer camps. However, the opposite turned out to be true.

These contacts were established already in the early 1990s. In the following three decades, hundreds of people have visited the other continent, become a part of the partner church for a short time, and shared the experience of their home-churches. In the summer of 1992, a group led by Betty McGinnis helped with the reconstruction of a home for the disabled in Klobouky near Brno. In the following years, several other American missions took place helping in various ECCB or Diaconia facilities. Later, a partnership was established between the individual churches of the PC(USA) and the ECCB. American friends from First Presbyterian Church of Annapolis, Maryland helped build a new CCE church in Letohrad. In the following years, the pastor of Letohrad, Pavel Ruml, and many other members of his church visited the United States and temporarily joined the church in Annapolis. Later, Letohrad and another large church in Olomouc, in collaboration with a church in Atlanta, moved on to preparing summer camps with English lessons. The camps open Czech churches to local children. Members of the partner church from the U.S., being native speakers, usually work as instructors there. These camps enjoy great interest and help to break down negative prejudices against the church, which many Czechs have.

A typical worship service at an Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren church. (Contributed photo)

 

A distinctive chapter of American-Czech friendship is the scholarly partnerships between Columbia Theological Seminary in the suburbs of Atlanta and the Protestant Theological Faculty of Charles University (PTF) in Prague. Many teachers from Prague and about 10 students stayed at Columbia Seminary as visiting scholars. Several American students from CTS spent a semester in Prague. In addition, CTS organizes regular students’ visits to the Czech Republic and Hungary as part of a course called “Global Contexts.” They get to know the culture of these countries, but also the service to the church, the Diaconia of the ECCB (charity agency of the ECCB) and the PTF. A visit of this kind also includes a joint seminar on an afore agreed theological text, read and discussed by both American and Czech students (we have read so far texts by Miroslav Volf, Marcus Borg, Walter Brueggemann and — finally — Pope Francis). An encounter took place in January 2022. Despite skeptical voices, Professor Mark Douglas and seven students finally managed to visit Prague. They arrived shortly after the launch of the Omicron variant. Until the last moment, it was uncertain whether the group would arrive. Yet finally all planned visits took place in the unusually deserted Prague. A joint seminar on the papal “ecological” encyclical Laudato si’ was also held. It is difficult to say whether it is more surprising that Czech Protestants and American Presbyterians discussed the Catholic document together during the seminar, or that the seminar was held at all, given all the restrictions. As he later admitted, Douglas had a B scenario in reserve in case anyone in his group fell ill with Covid. Fortunately, he didn’t have to apply it.

Advent and Lent meditations represent another unique level of partnership. The early Christian custom of concentrating on the mystery of Christ’s birth and his crucifixion and resurrection before Christmas and Easter materialized in a series of short reflections on a biblical verse, written by either American or Czech authors, both theologians and people of other professions, and published synoptically in Czech and English. So, at Advent 2021, we diligently read all the Advent devotions at home. Listening to a biblical meditation, one imagines the particular faces of its American or Czech authors whom we have come to know over the years. We mostly read it in Czech. Our daughter Hana then re-syllabized it in English: a little stuttering and interrupted by parental pronunciation corrections. These humorous scenes are also a side effect of the partnership between the PC(USA) and ECCB.

The synthesis of all levels of partnership takes place at conferences that are held every two or three years either in the U.S. or in the Czech Republic. They would be attended by some 50 people. The last one took place in April 2019 at Columbia Seminary. It had an eye-opening effect on Czech participants as it showed some aspects and the history of the coexistence of different races, as well as the readiness of American Presbyterians to face the dark sides of their own past and the problems of their present. A pandemic broke out less than a year later.

Online communication

The isolation forced by the pandemic paradoxically led to the discovery of new forms of communication. Good experience with local online services gave rise to the idea of ​​organizing joint thematic conferences, which would be attended by people from the U.S. and the Czech Republic in real time. In March 2021, a year after the outbreak of the pandemic, a Zoom conference was held, called “Prayer and Praise in Pandemic.” Fifty people from both continents discussed what worship means to them and how their perceptions changed during the pandemic. Participants had the opportunity to break up into smaller groups and discuss sub-issues. This conference was a real oasis in which mutual relations weakened by prolonged isolation were refreshed.

This article first appeared in Mission Crossroads. Find it and other articles here.


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