Journeying with God

By Virginia Holmstrom. This is the third in a series about the Republic of Georgia.

In January 2013 I had traveled with other American Baptist women to the Republic of Georgia, my first visit to this small former Soviet-block country nestled just east of the Black Sea, with Russia to its north and Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey sharing its southern border. While there, the leader of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, had invited me to consider returning in 2014 with some American Baptist clergy and lay women for an experimental spiritual pilgrimage with Georgian Baptist women . . . Yes, I’m quite sure he said “women.”  We agreed to plan a pilgrimage and see what would happen. I returned to the U.S. and began to arrange for six American Baptist women—three of them clergy, three of them laity—to travel to Georgia for a two-week spiritual pilgrimage with six Georgian Baptist women—three clergywomen, three laywomen.  Or so I thought.

On June 20, 2014, we six American pilgrims—three clergy and three lay—collected our suitcases from the baggage carousel at the Tbilisi, Georgia, international airport at 3:30 in the morning and began looking for our Georgian counterparts who had come to meet our plane. One, two, three, four women and a few men, too.  Hmmm. Obviously we would meet the rest of the Georgian pilgrims later that day, I assumed. We were whisked away in a couple of cars to check in at the Baptist-owned accommodations where we would live while in Tbilisi.

That afternoon, Bishop Rusudan (the first female Baptist bishop in Georgia and, in fact, the only female bishop of any religious body in the entire country) came to fetch us for a short tour of Tbilisi. A young Baptist man accompanied her. Again I wondered, when will we meet our Georgian Baptist counterparts for our pilgrimage? We spent the afternoon with Rusudan and Davit, walking the cobblestone streets of the old part of the city, marveling at the views from the high observation points, and near the end of the warm afternoon of lovely fellowship with our two new Georgian friends, we  stopped for ice-cream and conversation filled with laughter before we hurried off to the Peace Cathedral Baptist Church for Friday night Bible study group.

Early the next morning, three Georgian Baptist men in their 20s arrived at Beteli Centre to travel with us six American women by train to the resort city of Batumi, far on the western edge of Georgia along the Black Sea’s coast, for two days and nights to meet women in the Muslim community there. (The Baptists and the Muslims in Georgia have forged friendships; both are minority groups that face intolerance by the predominant Orthodox society and culture in Georgia.) Going to meet with Muslim women was a perfect venture for us American Baptist women, because we want to encourage and empower Christian women in the U.S. to initiate friendships with Muslim neighbors in their communities. When we arrived in Batumi, we were whisked from the train station to a restaurant to dine at a long table with our Muslim hosts . . . all men.  The Georgians—Baptist and Muslim menfolk—sat at one end of the table and chatted in Georgian, and we six American Baptist women sat at the other end of the table feeling more than a tiny bit excluded and wondering how and why our visions of journeying with six Georgian Baptist women were seemingly evaporating before our eyes. We wouldn’t even meet any Georgian Muslim women until 10:30 that night when we were delivered to our host families’ homes for dinner.

Each of us Americans wrestled with the assumptions we had come with, and very slowly began to open our eyes to what God was doing in spite of our one-track expectations.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

By the end of our 12 days in Georgia, we had met dozens of Georgians and we knew one another by first name. We were dinner guests in the homes of Baptists and enjoyed new friendships around outside picnic tables. We spent quality time with various groups of women talking about issues that matter to women and girls and we also had wonderful conversations with the menfolk, too.  We were guests of the most warm and generous hospitality I have ever experienced anywhere. Our Facebook friends lists grew longer each day. Language differences didn’t matter so much; we could communicate in ways beyond words.

The American pilgrims returned to the States on July 2, 2014. We’re still noticing things that God had done among us in Georgia. Some insights will be a long time coming. As we ponder our experiences and share stories about our Georgian friendships, we are noticing that God was present all the while, even when we could not see past our own needs.

Journeying with God is like that. Tomorrow when you awake, declare your day to be a spiritual pilgrimage with God. Then see what happens! But don’t expect to see it all that same day.

Sunday015Virginia Holmstrom is executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Advertisements

Baptists Demanded Land to Build Mosque, But Will It Happen?

By Virginia Holmstrom. This is the second in a series of posts about the Republic of Georgia.

In January 2013, I traveled with ABCUSA General Secretary A. Roy Medley and 10 American Baptist women to the Republic of Georgia to experience the Georgian Baptists’ witness upholding religious liberty for all peoples. Baptists, comprising about 1 percent of Georgia’s population, are a religious minority that endures discrimination from this Eastern Orthodox nationalistic country. Those who practice Judiasm and Islam in the Republic of Georgia also face discrimination as do other minority faith populations. It is the Baptist church leaders that have spoken out publicly and prophetically about injustice, reminding Georgian leaders that the nation’s constitution ensures religious liberty for all.  In January 2013, our Georgian Baptist hosts drove us to Batumi, a thriving port city of 150,000 persons, just north of the Georgia-Turkey border on the coast of the Black Sea. About 60 percent of the Batumi residents are Georgian Muslims, according to one leader of the Muslim Union there. Yet there is only one mosque in Batumi, far insufficient for the Muslim population there. Batumi is home to a dozen or more Orthodox churches that receive huge amounts of funding from the Georgian government.

Baptists and Muslims meet with Batumi government leaders in January 2013 to request land for a second mosque in Batumi.Rev. Carol McVetty, pastor of Northshore Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, participated in the January 2013 visit of American Baptists to Georgia, and she later recounted our group’s agenda in Batumi:  “We were the guests overnight in Georgian Muslim homes and prayed with the community in their brightly painted little mosque. We 11 American Baptist women were brought along as the Georgian leaders, Muslim and Baptist, met with the provincial president to pressure him to give permission for the construction of much-needed additional mosques. While we felt out-of-place, we were assured [by Georgian Baptist and Muslim leaders] that the presence of western witnesses added considerable weight to the petition of these disenfranchised minority groups. The next day the local newspaper carried the headline, ‘Baptists  Demand Land to Build Mosque’! Several weeks after our return home, we received news from Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, who had helped to initiate the meeting with the government and invited our participation: ‘You will be delighted to know that yesterday the Georgian authorities made a decision to let Muslims build a mosque in Batumi. This is a tangible result of your visit to Georgia.’”

IMG_0900This year as I returned to the Republic of Georgia to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage in June 2014, bringing with me five American Baptist women traveling to Georgia for the first time, I was looking forward to seeing the construction progress on the new mosque in Batumi, and perhaps even entering the finished mosque to admire its beautiful worship setting!  Again, as in January 2013, our Georgian Baptist hosts accompanied us to Batumi, this time by train. Again, we were invited by Muslim families to be guests in their homes for overnight stays. We met face to face at the Islamic Center in Batumi for conversation and friendship with Muslim women and college-age young women studying at the university in Batumi. It was around this table that I asked about the progress on the new mosque…and it was then that I learned that no progress had been made because the regional government had not yet identified acceptable land on which a mosque could be built. Time and again, requests by the Muslim community for potential sites had been countered by manipulation by Orthodox leaders that included “overnight constructions” of an Orthodox cross on a particular requested plot of land, and even the slaughter of a pig on the land to assure that the potential site would be deemed unclean for the construction of a mosque.

The Muslim community in Batumi is reacting as best they can. The worshipers coming to the one and only mosque in Batumi for Friday prayers number 3,000 men (the women are asked to pray at home because there is simply no room at the mosque). Three thousand is far more people than the mosque will hold, and so the side streets around the mosque are prepared for the prayer rituals of the overflow crowds. I was shown photographs of hundreds of Muslims kneeling in the streets to pray in the pouring rain, with tarps strung up across the streets to lessen their discomfort as local Muslims–in faithfulness and obedience to God–prostrated themselves on the wet and muddy ground to pray.

When I asked what we as American Baptist women could do to help right this grievous injustice, I was encouraged by the Muslim community to talk about it when I returned to the U.S. Thus with this blog post, I begin to tell their story, sharing first with my Baptist community what religious intolerance looks like in Batumi, Georgia. I appeal to you to speak out on every occasion about the Baptist beliefs we hold so dear: religious liberty and the separation of church and state. We American Baptists were once-upon-a time an intolerable lot, ourselves. When Baptists began populating colonial America, Baptists were a persecuted people. Our history is filled with stories of Baptists who were flogged and imprisoned because of their faith. Today in America, we are protected by the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Baptists worship freely in America. I assure you it is not so for Baptists and peoples of faith in some places in our world today. If you value Baptist principles as I do, will you strengthen my voice by advocating for religious freedom for all of God’s people everywhere?

Sunday015Virginia Holmstrom is executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

The Story of Anna in Gori

By Virginia Holmstrom. This is the first in a series of posts about the Republic of Georgia.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In January 2013, ABC General Secretary Roy Medley and I led 10 American Baptist women to the Republic of Georgia (and to Lebanon) to interact with and learn from the Baptists there. In Gori, Georgia, a small city ravaged by Russian invasion in 2008, a city that is challenged today by an 80% unemployment rate, Georgian Baptist church leaders took us to meet a family they had recently became aware of. The family lived in a tiny armored vehicle, with a small box of food, no heat but the warmth of a kitten and a puppy to hold close through the night. The teenage daughter had been traumatized when she was raped in her neighborhood, and she rarely ventured from the yard. I’ve looked long and hard at these pictures many times during the last year, and my heart breaks each time.

Gori3

In the absence of social ministries of their Orthodox Church, it was the Baptist congregation that was reaching out as the hands and feet of Christ to this family.

June 2014

I brought five American Baptist women with me to the Republic of Georgia on a two-week spiritual pilgrimage, in partnership with the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. We traveled to Gori and worshiped at the larger of two Baptists churches. As guests, we were seated in front, facing the congregation.

Imagine my surprise when my eyes lit upon a face I knew from my photos of the family that lived in the tiny armored vehicle. The teenage girl was smiling and whispering to the young people seated next to her. Could it be the same girl? I searched the congregation for her mother and brother. Two rows back, I spotted her mother. After the service, I approached the girl. Her name is Anna. She remembered me and so did her mother. I was wearing some Haitian beads, with the intention of leaving them in Georgia. This was the God-appointed time and place. I placed them over her head and she beamed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Later I learned that this Baptist congregation in Gori—this small church that runs a soup kitchen at mid-day six days a week to provide persons in the community with perhaps their only hot meal of the day—this congregation had found a house for this family to move into. Today Anna and her mother and brother worship God at the Baptist church in Gori.

Gori2014c

Virginia Holmstrom is executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.