An Eye Witness in the Republic of Moldova
During the last two years that I have been serving as a missionary in one of the poorest countries in Europe, I have had the opportunity to witness more than just an average tourist would. In America, most people don’t even know about the Republic of Moldova. Her political history is one of tug-of-war between her motherland, Romania, and the communist regime and, later in history, with Russia. In the midst of this history, the Orthodox Church was under much persecution and still is today while striving to exist and be of good witness despite the extremely poor economic situation. Of great importance for the Church is the involvement and collaboration of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) with the Metropolis of Bessarabia which historically has been under the Patriarchal Romanian Jurisdiction.
This little landlocked country, slightly larger than the State of Maryland, is surrounded by her neighbors, Romania and Ukriane, and has a population of 3,600,000. Moldova is known for its beautiful landscape, which attracts many tourists from all over the world. It was named “The Corner of Heaven” for its beautiful forest, wild flowers, and generous hospitality. Living in a country that is very poor, the people welcome visitors into their homes, good hearted, patient, and hold on to a strong faith in God. Village life is special with its traditions and wooden decoratively carved houses that send you back to an earlier time. Many villagers are worried about having food to put on the table but they are very good, big hearted, and generous. It is a country where I learned many things about life and met wonderful people that I will very much miss when I return to the States.
These people went through many struggles in the past that influenced the way things are today. Moldovan origins are from Romania but later in history, the Russian influence gradually drifted them away from their motherland. Many Romanians and Bessarabians are hoping and waiting for the beautiful day when things will return to the way they were, and unity will prevail with their brothers and sisters in Romania.
The life of the Orthodox Church in Moldova has its roots from the Apostolic Church through the evangelical efforts of St. Andrew, the First Called Apostle. He preached the “Good News” on the shores of the Black Sea. Today, many make pilgrimages to the cave where it is said that St. Andrew had lived, and to a spring not too far away, where it is believed that he performed baptisms.
Moldovans commemorate the same saints in the Orthodox Church, and especially those persecuted by the Communist regime in Romania. Churches and monasteries were closed, vandalized, transformed into danced clubs, turned into mental hospitals, and used for grain storage. Those who participated in divine services were apprehended and sent to work in Siberian labor camps, or even martyred. In 1940, there were 1,090 churches and 28 monasteries but, after 25 years, there were approximately 300 churches and only 1 monastery that functioned during Communism. Even after their revolution in 1992, the communist party was still very powerful. In 2001, Moldova was the first soviet state to elect a communist leader. Only recently, after a 3 year vacant presidential seat, they elected an independent president in 2012. The communist mentality, which brings propaganda of atheism, is still fresh in people’s minds here. With churches and monasteries today, the Church in Moldova works to address the many consequences of Her nation’s history , especially with the youth who are immersed in this challenging environment and yet are so vital to the life of the Church.
My assignment to Moldova has been to help the Church initiate formal ministry work with Moldovan youth. There, I met the many faces of youth who have been subject to a struggle that started in the lives of their parents. Most parents of today’s Moldovan youth were raised at the time when the Church’s voice was stifled, and at that time, were surrounded with atheist propaganda. Very few youths have parents who yet hold onto the traditions handed down from their grandparents witnessing the Christian faith to them. However, young people without holy examples easily became skeptical because the lack of religious upbringing and absence of traditions that keep the faith alive. So, the youth’s limited link to the Church has created a major life crisis for them. Without knowing why, the youth who must go to Church for celebrations, such as baptisms, funerals, and weddings, often find the atmosphere intimidating. They are not sure what to do and, though the faithful try to help, they may use methods that seem to hurt rather than to help. These new generations re-entering the Church seem to be like lost sheep that need never-ending love, patience, and attention.
Steps have been taken to reach out to the young people, and recently, in 2012, religion was approved by the State Education Department for instruction. However, religious education is limited since it is optional and only for 1st to 8th Graders. But from this, there is a miraculous thing happening in this country: children are bringing God’s word to their parents! These youngsters will have in their time, the opportunity to be spiritually whole, whose souls and bodies are raised up with the Truth. And with this truth, perhaps they will see the world differently, with eyes of faith, love, and mercy, and grow into mature Christian adults.
The Metropolia of Bessarabia took a further step to get support and new ideas on how to connect better with the youth by inviting the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) to assist in the development of youth ministry. The ministry plan for Moldova was to provide a “tool box” for the Moldovan Church filled with a variety of spiritual and practical tools that could be used to continue to build youth ministry. One primary goal was recruiting leaders. As a helpful tool to Moldova, I have had the honor to join the youth ministry work for the last two years at the local and nation levels.
At the local parish level, I co-labored with parish priest, Fr. Sergiu Aga and his wife Preoteasa Mariana in a town called Orhei. We have shared closely the joys and challenges as we stepped through growing pains with our youth group. Throughout our time together, we had contact with many potential candidates for youth leadership, and we pray that God will raise them up when the time is right. We have a yearly program of activities, including conferences, a spiritual reading club, pilgrimages, fundraisers, acts of philanthropy, and weekly meetings. Through our youth group, our hope is to change the lives of everyone involved, but especially to change the lives of the children who would live apart from the Church.
Our local parish ministry is establishing a pattern for other Moldovan churches, as Fr. Sergiu is also assigned by the Metropolitan to ministry for all youth in Moldova. On the nation level last year, we started the first annual religious summer camp. We met teenagers from all over the country at our camp. The program promotes a powerful spiritual movement in the youth. One such camper, before she came to our camp, was influenced by protestant youth events and started to question in her heart the true faith. This young lady was moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and brought a real-life witness to other campers to learn from so that they may be stronger in their own faith. By initiating such events, the local youth leaders gather enthusiasm to continue the outreach to the youth.
If you are a youth worker and/or involved in church youth events, you probably see common elements in what I have shared in this short article. That is actually the point: there isn’t much difference between youth in Moldova and in the USA, and maybe even anywhere else in the world. What makes the difference in youth is the culture and tradition in the each place they are planted. More important is what makes youth the same. And what unites them – and us with them – is having communion with one another through actively living an Orthodox Christian life; existing through our love for God and love for one’s neighbor.
Orthodox Christian life is a struggle–a struggle that leads to salvation. Christ encourages us at every moment through His words of love in the Gospels. Living in Moldova has truly changed my world vision and my relationship with Christ. In many ways, youth ministry is like farming. God gives seeds to youth leaders to plant in others, and He waters them when the time is right for each and every one. I am grateful to have been a part of the Moldovan Church family here, and I feel that I received more from them than I have given them. The joy is beyond words and exceeds over all the difficulties that challenged me while living so far away from home.