Monday, May 05, 2008

Life in a free country

Just when you think it's all smooth sailing ahead, a strong wind is sure to blow. This picture you see shows our recently finished church building from the 1930's. The country was flourishing and no one quite foresaw the inevitable occupation by the Germans and then the Russians. Not that our situation can in anyway compare to the totality and devastation those strong winds brought, but our recent strong wind came quite unexpected and feels life threatening for those involved, my sweet middle school girls.

Even before I came, Pastor Jan began having overnights in the church for the religion classes. Each group would have two Saturday nights a year where they played lots of games, ate junk food, prepared something for worship, slept(only a little), and then went to worship together the next morning. He began the nights as a way to reward the kids by giving them a fun time in the church and also by giving them time to get to know one another. The kids were always encouraged to invite their friends, but everyone accepted that they go to worship the next morning together, because it seemed natural since the service would be taking place while they were there in the church. So people who had problems with the church tended not to send their kids at all, just because they didn't want their children socializing in the church.

When I came last year, I automatically began helping Jan with these sleepovers(they total to 6-7 overnights a year, more endurable with two adults). As more and more kids showed up for these fun nights, we decided to open them to kids from the English classes. We lined them up with the Game Nights, so that if the kids wanted to just stay for the overnight, they could. Four of the younger kids from the English Classes got really excited and wanted to come, but only one of them ended up staying. This little boy had an older brother who had come with his friends once before, so he had already heard about the fun times we have. The other kids seemed like they wanted to stay, but still felt too young to sleep away from their parents in a weird place. We all remember those times when we were 7(well, at least I remember calling my parents once at midnight from a sleepover, because I wanted to go home to my mommy and daddy).

The middle school kids experienced it in a little bit different way. Some of them really liked the game nights, but didn't want the pressure to stay overnight and go to the church, so they stopped coming to the game nights all together. One of these kids finally confronted us about it last week. She wrote to me saying that she really wanted to come to sleep in the church, but her parents didn't want her going to the worship service. Her letter was phrased as an apology, but I felt like she was fishing to see if I would allow her to come anyway and skip out on the service. I told her that even if she could not go to the worship service, she was welcome to come to the game night and then go home. I made sure, however, to reply about how shocked I was that her parents didn't want her to come to the worship service. You'd be amazed at how strongly these parents don't want her to go to the service. They feel like we are taking their liberty away by saying that the children must go to the worship. The young girl complained to one of the girls which go to our church,"We live in a free country and the church can't force us to go to the worship just because they need more members." I was so proud of the other girl who replied,"We don't need more members. We have plenty of people who come to worship. The overnight is for those of us who go to religion, so we go to the worship together. It is a free country. You don't have to come." Ah, and there-in lies the rub! Now that this country is free from communism and a government which seeks to control every aspect of their lives, for some people freedom means doing things the way they choose, without restriction.

A year ago, I would have expected these reactions and complaints, but I honestly felt like we have come such a long way in building trust with the community so that they don't feel threatened by the church. I think this was a good reminder that many people still have reservations about becoming "too close" with the church. They believe we "need more members" and will do anything to get people to sign up and join. Once they get to know us, however, I think they will find that we define freedom in a different way. Freedom for people in this church comes in the ability to openly live, work, and worship in a way that pleases God. During communism many Christians were forced to keep their beliefs secret or live under constant pressure from the government. No one in this church would want to "force" anyone towards any belief, simply because they, too, value the freedom of choice, the freedom to believe as you please.

Freedom of religion is still a new concept in this country, and even stranger is the freedom of choice. Throughout history their governments have forced religion and/or other ideologies and at other times suppressed those who worked against them. As an American I have a hard time comprehending the ingrained reflex to reject anything that comes with force.

I feel like I could go on about this all day, but to wrap things up, I'll end with this hope for the future of this country. I pray that these people will learn to open up to each other and accept one another's beliefs in a way that they don't feel forced to live exactly like their neighbor. I pray that as these people learn to live as individuals they remember that they can still work together and help each other around them. Finally, I pray they will find that freedom can be found within restrictions and laws, and that it can only truly be shared within a set of laws that a community supports and upholds.

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