Practice is the Decisive Issue
The Baptists of Ulyanovsk understand hospitality
M o s c o w – From 8 to 11 June, German and Russian Baptists – along with other Christians – celebrated the 20th birthday of a partnership between the Baptist congregations of Krefeld and Ulyanovsk. This occurred in connection with the 12th German-Russian City Partnership Conference as well as the 20th anniversary of the city partnership between Krefeld and Ulyanovsk. According to the Baptist Klaus Schilbach, more than a little hot air was produced at the secular events. An airline connection between Moscow and Ulyanovsk lauded at the conference still does not exist; the number and depth of potholes in the streets of the Volga city remain on the increase. The website of Moscow’s German embassy reported on discussions regarding a (still non-existent) programme for invalids. Krefeld Baptists have not forgotten an incident in 2008 when a well-maintained bus with a hydraulic lift delivered to Ulyanovsk needed to be returned home. The bus had already celebrated its 16th birthday and Russian bureaucrats consequently tagged the donation with an import tax of 9.000 euros ($13.315 US).
According to Schilbach, a retired high-school teacher and long-term lay head of Krefeld’s Baptist congregation, this official city partnership consists of little more than connections between the two Baptist congregations. A three-way-relationship between universities in Krefeld, Nizhny Novgorod and Ulyanovsk is also still in place.
In earlier times, Ulyanovsk mayors were hosted by the Schilbachs in their Krefeld garden. Yet even this modest contact appears unwelcome to the current mayor, Marina Bespalova. “This mayor has declared publicly that religious organisations have no place in the partnership. We have our friends at the university and in the region to thank for the fact that we able to participate at all in the recent festivities.” But Schilbach adds that Regional Governor Sergey Morosov (Ulyanovsk) has always supported the Baptist connection as best he could.
The former lay leader is also disappointed that a “Market of Possibilities” consisting of only six stands at the conference needed to be removed after three hours. “We have no idea why – this conference was intended strictly for apparatchiks.” He reports that the Ulyanovsk church’s displays were truly professional: “They were clearly better than ours. Hats off!” These negative incidents could be attributed in part to a tenacious heritage: Ulyanovsk (“Simbirsk” until 1924), the native city of Vladimir Lenin, remains even today in a few cases a popular socialist place of pilgrimage.
Schilbach is disappointed that Baptist headquarters in Germany and Moscow have never clearly recognised this partnership. An additional issue in Russia is the fact that “people out in the countryside tend to be suspicious of everything coming out of Moscow”.
One could claim that Ulyanovsk is no natural partner for the Baptists of Krefeld. The German congregation has more than a few members stemming from the educated and liberal middle class; Baptists in the Central Volga region on the other hand are moving towards an even more conservative and fundamentalist theological stance. The Baptist property at Ulitsa Borodina 19 is located right next to a relaxed, youthful, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual congregation pastored by the Ukrainian Sergey Guts. But its Charismatic style does not fit the taste of all German visitors. This small congregation belongs to the tiny “Association of Missionary Churches of Evangelical Christians”.
It was actually a Catholic, the head of Krefeld’s “Catholic Educational Institute”, who got enthused first about Ulyanovsk’s Baptists. Klaus Schilbach recalls: As this dear friend made the initial contact with Ulyanovsk Baptists in 1993, “he was accepted with open arms. They were on the same wave length; the chemistry worked.” Those from Krefeld claim Ulyanovsk pastor Alexander Levkovsky and his congregation can match all challengers when it comes to cordiality and hospitality. “This can be a gift only from the Lord; you can’t purchase that kind of heartiness.”
Church construction, soup kitchen, jail work, vehicles – dedicated, project-oriented funds totalling six figures have flowed from Krefeld to Ulyanovsk. But Schilbach insists that financial aid never became a major force behind the partnership. “We are bound together by our common belief in the crucified and risen Lord. Theological differences have never played any role!”
The pedagogue from Krefeld places theological convictions in the realm of ideology. “We need to be sceptical about dogmatics and ideology – one’s own as well as those of others. One believer will cross the street when the light is red, another will not. At what point do we start a theological dispute on that? What we do in practice is decisive. That’s why we have never had a serious theological problem among us.” He concedes that many discussions have taken place regarding the role of women. “We have always discussed such issues openly.” The heart is always the decisive factor. “The years of repression shaped Russians very differently than we were shaped. We do not have a clue as to what persecution really entails. It will take the next generation and the generation after that to free them from (the negative aspects of) that tradition.”
But Schilbach hastens to add that Germans are also no top performers in the realm of tolerance. More than a few Krefeld Baptists find it no easy task to accept the customs and mores of recently-converted Iranians in their midst. The congregations of both countries are involved with ex-prisoners. In the 1960s, Schilbach experienced a major uproar in Mülheim/Ruhr when the church got into contact with a prison and the young men from there struck up friendships with the parishioners’ daughters.
Have the pensioners Klaus and Inge Schilbach received a payback for doing without a peaceful and laid-back retirement? They respond with a vehement “Yes! None of us returned home (from Ulyanovsk) unchanged.“ In the last two decades, nearly 40 persons – and not only Baptists – have made the journey to Ulyanovsk. According to Schilbachs, “non-stop miracles” happened when resources needed to be gathered for the projects in Russia. “And congregations are changed when they experience miracles.” The end result is the strengthening of personal faith.
But now the Schilbachs are approaching 80 and there is a desperate need for new leaders. It’s still very unclear who those persons will be. In any case, a delegation from Ulyanovsk will again be visiting Krefeld in 2014.
A commentary: Concentrating on one’s heart and practice – that may well be a promising model for connecting anew with émigrés from Eastern Europe in Germany and North America.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 17 August 2013
Postscript April 2020: Sergey Guts moved back to Ukraine (Kiev) in 2017.
A journalistic release under the auspices of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #13-13, 1.058 words, 6.736 keystrokes and spaces.