Georgian Baptists: Crossing Ancient Boundaries

Georgian Baptists: Crossing Ancient Boundaries

Could it be possible that a single church’s response of forgiveness in crisis turned an entire nation toward peace? The answer is yes, and a work not new to Malkhaz Songulashvili, who has led the Baptists of Georgia (former Soviet Republic) to model reconciliation in their war-ravaged nation for years. Generations of the Republic of Georgia’s citizens have lived through the World Wars, with their accompanying devastation and hopelessness, particularly for those churches that, having sided with Russia during World War II, had lost their vision for helping the poor.
With the dawn of the new century, Georgians faced double crucibles: the first was the ongoing military conflicts between Russia and some of its former republics, now independent nations. The second was the rising tension over the Chetneyan rebels living in the hills, who were ancient sworn enemies to the people of that region. These rebels often crossed the border into Georgia looking for food and shelter and, in the process, often (still) committing atrocious acts of violence, including murder, kidnapping, and the rape and abuse of Georgian women.
One evening in prayer service, in his brief sermon, Songulashvili asked his church members how they could be agents of God’s peace and reconciliation; how they could address the brooding fear that engulfed them. After a long pause, an elderly woman in her babushka stood slowly to her feet and suggested that the church minister to the Chetneyan refugees; perhaps even cancel their own Christmas celebrations, open their homes, and give the money to the refugees instead. Silence descended as the church pondered the suggestion.

Following a time of brokenness in prayer, the church responded with mercy, extending forgiveness. Answering their pastor’s question seemed to open the door to a new and Spirit-driven understanding for the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia to confront its fear and to display the presence of Christ in forgiving peace and reconciliation. What followed was a series of exciting ministry initiatives to the refugees that, in turn, influenced the Georgian government to join in and support the good work.

The church members began visiting the refugee camps and met the families and shared stories. They became friends. They observed that the children were in dire need of medical attention and a school with supplies. The church opened a clinic, and then a school. They began eating and praying together and having fellowship with the refugees. Modeling Rushbrooke’s maxim that “The Christian obligation is to work for peace and reconciliation; [and] we must work with former enemies for justice and peace,” Songulashvili said, “It is possible to build bridges to people, any people, for in doing so we are bringing the presence and peace of Christ.”  This church had been building bridges for some time, and that peace-making work prepared them for what was to come next – an invasion and war and all of the ancillary grief, despair, and need to forgive when, once again, Russia invaded Georgia in August of 2008.

A month later, in Lisbon, Portugal, after the invasion of Russia into Georgia, the Baptist World Alliance and the European Baptist Federation leaders facilitated a discussion between Malkhaz Songulashvili, President of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (EBCG), and Vitaly Vlasenko, Director of External Relations for the Russian Baptist Union (RUECB). The next month, a subsequent meeting was held in Kiev, Ukraine, also a former Soviet Republic, between Songulashvili and Bishop Merab Gaprindashvili, General Secretary of the Georgian Baptists; Yuri Sipko, President of the Russian Baptists; and Vlasenko. Baptist leaders from several other countries that were former Soviet Republics, such as Belarus, Latvia, and Estonia, also attended the meeting.

In a formal declaration, before all of the gathered witnesses, the Russian and Georgian Baptists condemned the war between Russia and Georgia as “pointless and brutal,” called on Russian and Georgian authorities to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and stated that the issues between their countries should not be solved through military means. As all leaders mourned the deaths of civilians and soldiers from both sides, they urged “all the peoples of faith communities to facilitate the process of forgiveness and reconciliation between our peoples.” They pledged further to heal broken relationships, visit each other in an attempt to promote friendship and understanding, and to engage in theological dialogue.

Global Baptists today are looking soberly in the mirror and stating that to remain entrenched in division is to live against the intent of the Gospel itself. As a result, and after applying the injunction, “physician, heal thyself,” just in the past decade, Baptists have turned their attention toward peace weaving in record numbers. Around the world Baptist groups have reconciled their differences in Angola, Brazil, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Italy, South Africa, Thailand, Zambia, and the United States.

-Karen O’Dell Bullock
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