MINISTRY IN THE CAUCUSUS

Posted on 28 January 2012
From the 9th – 17th January, Stephen visited Georgia. He reports:

Many years ago, I learnt that Georgia, in the Caucasus, was one of the first nations to welcome the Christian faith; one of the first places where the Bible was translated into the local language. So when invited by Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church to visit, preach and teach, I was excited to think I would be walking in the footsteps of some of my most venerable ‘brothers and sisters’.

I was not disappointed. I was able to visit the workplace and grave of the servant-girl, Nino, who first brought Christianity to the country, I clambered along precipitous cliffs to visit medieval monasteries carved out of the rock-face and I wondered at ancient churches, perched on precipitous heights. I noted, too, the new churches (especially the new Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi); testimony to both the importance of the Georgian Orthodox Church and the nation’s desire to depict itself as a Christian country. All this was set in a remarkably varied landscape from snow-capped mountains to desert: and all within about 100 miles.

I also encountered a divided country. I found myself staying and teaching at the Beteli centre: a church-based project to house the old and those in internal exile from South Ossetia. I saw large refugee camps where others from Russian-dominated Abkhazia were housed. I preached in Gori, having visited Stalin’s birthplace, but where less than four years ago the city had been occupied by Russian troops and where a husband and wife in the church had lost their lives, leaving four children. I spoke, too, in the Cathedral in Tbilisi, and was humbled by the large number of clearly poor and elderly people who came forward at the end to be anointed with healing oil: for many treatment and medication freely accessible to us, is unavailable. They have only one recourse.

Yet cheek-by-jowl with typically eastern European, gerry-built blocs of soulless flats, were palatial showrooms, promoting western or far-eastern car franchises. Bookshops where purchases require the old Soviet-style triple-invoice were seen together with hypermarkets and ATMs. Georgia is, at one and the same, seeking to develop a western-style democracy (to some good effect) while living with the ongoing consequences of centuries of oppression.
Meanwhile, the cuisine is tasty (if sometimes salty), the wine flavoursome and ubiquitous, hospitality lavish; and there are toasts by the score! Teetotal believers beware! I was welcomed by the believers wherever I went; whether in a humble home where asked to pray for the sick or in more well-off contexts. Bishops Rusudan, Merob and, especially, Ilia, went to considerable lengths to make me feel at home.
Teaching the interpretation of Old Testament narrative and law and surveying Genesis and Exodus, I found the students at the School of the Prophet Elijah, lively, intelligent and generally ready to learn… though chronically weak in resources. Few good books are available in Georgian to assist them and even for those (many) with access to English, the available texts, few.
I returned with the call ‘You will come again, won’t you’ ringing in my ears: and have agreed to attempt to do so twice a year to focus on the interpretation of the Bible, offering training in preaching and providing pastoral support and advice to those seeking to extend their theological training. I am also resolved to ensure that in Tbilisi, the Church has a good theological library… can you help? The Church is lively, outward-looking and forward-thinking. They deserve our prayers and support.

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