Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges–Debi’s Journey to the Republic of Georgia

By Rev. Elizabeth Congdon

This is the first of two blog posts on Debi’s Journey. The Georigan word debi means “sisters.”

“Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.” Galatians 6:1b, 2, 3 (The Message)

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Participants in Debi’s Journey in the Peace Cathedral

A Ministry of Reconciliation. The Menorah in front of the cross at the Peace Cathedral is distinctive. It was a gift to remember that Jesus was Jewish and to celebrate our Jewish roots, we were told. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili described the years of interfaith work that the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia has pursued. For years the church has worked to find common ground in mutuality and humility and increase tolerance and understanding between those of other faiths, especially among Jews, Muslims and Christians. He described the work as wanting to help Jews be better Jews, Muslims be better Muslims, and Christians be better Christians. During our short stay in the Republic of Georgia, we too lived out the call to a ministry of reconciliation referenced in 2 Corinthians 5:18b. We were building bridges between American and Georgians, between Baptists and Muslims.

A Ministry of Healthcare. Time with the Georgian Baptist Saint Nino Sisters—deaconesses who are health professionals—gave us opportunity to learn of their ministry among the poor, old, disabled, and refugees in the community.  These deaconesses serve people in need, whether they are Georgian Orthodox (dominant in Georgia), Muslims, Baptists, or other faith traditions. The Saint Nino Sisters visit in homes and bring care, medicine, and companionship. They make medical appointments for those in need. They serve in the church. They are such dedicated nurses, doctors, social workers, physical therapists, mental health workers, and aides. It is amazing that these Saint Nino sisters assisted by 80 volunteers currently serve over 440 people in 30 stations throughout Georgia. They bear one another’s burdens.

Standing with Those Who Are Persecuted.  “I kept hearing that the Americans are coming,” Peace Corps volunteer Stanley Bizub told us when we arrived in the mountain village of Chela. He stepped inside the village mosque to listen with us to stories told by the imam and members about the

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At Chela mosque

time when the mosque’s towering minaret had been torn down by the solders, verified as “public officials” in a 2013 Report of the Public Defender of Georgia on the Situation of Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms in Georgia.  On 26 August, 2013, Georgia’s Revenue Service dismantled the minaret without legal basis, alleging that the minaret had been imported from Turkey with incorrect categorization of imported goods at the customs service. With the minaret removed, further persecution ensued. A group of Orthodox Church members blocked the road to the house of prayer, the mosque, making it impossible for the Muslims to gather there for prayer. When the Muslim community protested the damage, employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs had brutally treated those who confronted them. We stayed in the home of a Muslim man who had been beaten during the protest. Prior to that, Public Defender’s Report  cited evidence that the “protests of the Orthodox majority was against the religious building of the minority and were followed by the manipulation with legal procedures by the public officials in order to cause the situation favored by the Orthodox majority.”

As we sat in the mosque absorbing this information, the Imam told us, “We have chosen peace.”  They did not respond with violence. They began a long legal process to once again place a minaret at their mosque; it stands today as a testament that this is indeed a mosque.  I remembered that just days before we had learned that although the number of Muslims is significant among the 20% of the non-Orthodox population in Georgia, no Muslims hold public office locally or in state government. Most are entrepreneurs.  Georgia’s constitution assures religious freedom; however, persecution against the Muslims continues.  The words of 1 John 4:21 spoke to me.  “The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.” I John 4:21 (The Message).  I felt like I was standing on holy ground in solidarity with my Muslim sisters and brothers.

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Participants in Debi’s Journey

Different Together. We were breaking barriers and building bridges with our diverse group of eight women. Lay, clergy, Muslim, Baptist, black, and white, we were the visiting Americans. People of color are an anomaly in the Republic of Georgia. Georgians would ask to take pictures with our African American sisters. Virginia Holmstrom, Executive Director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries, and Rev. Dr. Patricia Hernandez, National Director of American Baptist Women in Ministry (ABWIM), co-led the group of Americans coming from New Jersey, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Colorado, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Kansas, which included Connie Eigenmann, Esmat Mahmoud and Reverends Sarah Hicks, Mary Beth Mankin, Nikita McCalister, and Elizabeth Congdon.

In breaking barriers and building bridges amongst one another as well as with Georgians, we met many people from different lands. For example, at a restaurant in Mtskheta, Georgia, we got acquainted with Akbar Moghaddazi, a Rumi scholar, visiting from Iran with his family. At the mosque in Batumi, we met a father and his five daughters visiting from Saudi Arabia on holiday in Georgia. We crossed paths with them again on the iconic Peace Bridge in downtown Tbilisi; this time, it felt like a chance meeting with old friends.

It is difficult to recap the variety of our experiences. We enjoyed generous hospitality at the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia’s Beteli Centre in Tbilisi and homestays with Muslim families while guests of the Georgian Muslims Union and the Georgian Muslim Women’s Union.  We were curious tourists in Batumi on the Black Sea, and in the capital city of Tbilisi, and especially as we meandered along the narrow, curving, climbing cobblestoned streets of Old Tbilisi. Visiting mosques and visiting the Mtskheta-Mtianeti Orthodox Cathedral during worship were unique experiences. Communicating with Georgians with the assistance of our delightful interpreters was unforgettable. Being in the Caucasus Mountains was breathtaking. The Batumi ferris wheel and numerous cable car rides afforded us amazing vistas. Visits to Gonio Fortress, Batumi botanical gardens, Zarzma Monastery, museums and other interesting sites afforded us opportunities to learn more of the history and people.

American Baptist Women’s Ministries (ABWM) and American Baptist Women in Ministry (ABWIM) have been invited by the Georgian Muslims Union and the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia to bring another group of American women to Georgia in November 2017. Watch www.abwministries.org for more information!

Interested in learning more about Baptist Muslim Dialogue? Save the dates for AB Women’s Ministries virtual mission encounter “See Me As I Am,” May 8-12, 2017. Visit www.abwministries.org/vme for more information as it becomes available.

liz-congdonRev. Elizabeth Congdon is a retired American Baptist pastor and active in interfaith dialogue.

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