By Gail Jernberg
Have you ever thought about how we take our faith for granted? Put yourself back in time about 40 years ago in Eastern Europe while under Communist rule. The government was there to take care of you, so why would you need God? Although the Communist government allowed churches to still function, they were severely restricted on what they could do. Marriages were not legal if only performed in a Church; the “State” had to officiate. Baptisms were not allowed, nor were church youth programs. The Communists had their own youth programs to teach a unified mindset. Pastors and Priests could keep their jobs, but were paid by the state so the regime had control over them. People who believed in God were called “stupid” and were not taken seriously. If you did attend church, your name was taken by a state worker who attended and made notes of who was there and what was discussed. If your name was found on one of these lists there was a possibility you would not be able to get a good job or be allowed into college. If you were a state worker, you were forbidden from practicing your religion.
The Communists succeeded in erasing religious freedom for an entire generation. Today, the region of Eastern Germany where theologian Martin Luther was born and lived most of his life has less than 20% of the population identifying as Catholic or Protestant. Can you imagine not feeling or understanding God’s grace? What would you do if you were being pressured to give up your faith?
After Communism fell, many stories of faith started emerging. In 1998, two communities in Slovakia began to rebuild their faith. I have been able to witness these stories first hand by travelling to Slovakia for the past 10 years as a Ministry Partner, and it is amazing to see how God’s presence is transforming lives. In Nitra, the town where Christianity started in Slovakia, there is a small Lutheran congregation that once had its property taken away by the Communists. This community was determined to rebuild their church and were doing so one stone at a time. They expected it would take over 20 years to build. One elderly woman brought in a small box and gave it to the pastor saying it was her life savings and she wanted the church to have it for the new building. No one was told what amount the box contained; it probably was not much, but she gave all she had just like the woman in Mark 12:41-44. God soon reached out to the hearts of our congregation in the U.S. who helped by donating funds, allowing the church to be completed in 2000. The elderly woman died the day after the church was consecrated, but she was able to see it built. This congregation in Nitra is mostly made up of elderly people, but the population of younger members is growing. Every time we visit we hear the testimonials of new members and how the church has changed their lives. The government of Slovakia has also paid reparations to this church for their lost property in the past, so the church now has plans to build a home for the elderly. God wants them to minister to this group for holding onto their faith!
In Martin, a town known for manufacturing tanks for the USSR, two young Slovak men who had recently graduated with Masters Degrees from Wheaton College dreamed of opening a school to bring Christ back to their community. It began with a Bible College to teach adults about Christ, which grew into a day program for equipping people on how to be lay people in a church. They then realized they needed to reach the youth in the town and started an elementary school, opening one grade at a time until it became what it is now: a complete Lutheran Academy from preschool through high school. Their first high school graduation was celebrated this summer, a huge accomplishment. God’s amazing presence is seen there by making buildings and funding available. There are even waiting lists for classes. The teachers are learning about Christ along with the students, but more importantly, children go home and tell their parents what they learned about Christ. They ask to pray before meals, they sing the songs they learn, and they want to bring their family with them to church!
Today, the largest denomination of Christians in Slovakia is Catholic, with Lutherans as the second largest. As the country’s leadership finds its way out of the old Communist party line, more churches are emerging. New church leaders are being elected to lead them onward.
Our faith journey is not guaranteed to be easy. We know God is with us, but for the generation growing up under Communism, he was hidden. Imagine the praise and joy that rose when the enormous gift of faith was given back to these people after all those years of oppression.
Posted on Wed, August 1, 2018
by Brittany Booth