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Commentary: Take time to make the connection

A UMNS Commentary
By Kathleen LaCamera*

Aug. 20, 2007 | BRATISLAVA, Slovak Republic

Kathleen LaCamera

On day three of the European Methodist Festival, I am sitting in the main festival tent during the morning "praise session" — wondering if I really want to be there before I’ve had a cup of coffee.

A lively woman on stage leads worship — a bit too lively, I fear, as she asks us to turn to someone we don’t know and introduce ourselves. The worship theme is about being "the foreigner."

I turn and say "hello" to a woman wearing a translation headset. I’m not sure she can understand anything I’m saying. She is both nodding and shaking her head and we eventually establish that I am Kathleen and she is Ilzite. She comes from Latvia.

Beyond 'hello'

"Deutsch?" I ask (as if my barely conversational level of German would really be any use).

She shakes her head.

Alas, the Latvian and Russian that she speaks fluently are as beyond me as interplanetary travel.

I try again. "English?"

She offers a timid nod and we give it try.

I discover that Ilzite Ozola is a local pastor from Leipa, about 100 kilometers from the Latvian capital of Riga. Twenty people come to her services each week and nearly that many also attend Sunday school. She and her grown daughter, Kristina, are part of a 49-member delegation attending the festival.

They’ve made the 18-hour bus trip from Latvia to the Slovak Republic over two and half days. It takes some time and quite a bit of arm waving to establish all of this information. There are lots of smiles as well.

Emboldened by our success, I ask Ilzite what she did before she became a pastor.

"I was a cook," she says and then stops. "It was very hard. But now I am so happy." Her eyes tear up. She smiles again and tells me "God has changed my life."

The voice from the stage tells us to wrap it up. I tell Ilzite that it is a true pleasure to meet her.

Making a connection

After worship, Ilzite and I continue our combination of hand-waving and conversation. It’s still hard to understand exactly what the other is saying but she eventually points out her daughter, who is sitting with friends a couple of rows away. I wave at her. She smiles and waves back.

"What lovely women! And I almost missed them. I almost didn't make the effort this morning."

What lovely women! And I almost missed them. I almost didn’t make the effort this morning.

Finally, Ilzite allows me — a mono-linguistic, pushy though cheerful American — to take her photograph. How truly patient she has been with me.

We say goodbye and head to different activities.

During the remaining days of the festival, I see Ilzite occasionally and we wave across a room or outside on the campus of Bratislava’s Economic University, where the festival is being held. We don’t talk again, but it feels good just to see her.

The Body of Christ

Making this small connection with Ilzite — hearing in a most basic but powerful way how her faith and her work as a pastor in a church she loves changed her life — is the antidote to all the church politics, large and small, that too often leaves me wanting to run screaming from the sanctuary or church council meeting room or General Conference plenary session.

Ilzite Ozola, a pastor in the United Methodist Church in Latvia, attends the 2007 European Methodist Festival. A UMNS photo by Kathleen LaCamera.

Making the connection with people from halfway across the world, or perhaps across town, or across the street in places you haven’t been or might never dream of going, is absolutely worth the effort.

Going to those places where faith is making a difference and where faith isn’t always easy to keep is food for the soul. It helps weed out the nonsense and pettiness from what really matters when it comes to that wonderful, flawed and unpredictable universal church that we call "the Body of Christ."

I thank God that a big part of my job is about making connections with people. It is a great privilege for journalists. It’s the part of the job that restores my faith and energizes my soul. Who couldn’t do with a little more of that?

Within our global Methodist family and beyond are so many who are ready to receive and welcome us: people to whom we are the "foreigner"; people who are eager to make a personal connection with us. "Come visit us," they say. "Come talk to us about your experiences. We’re connected. We’re family."

Whenever, wherever that opportunity comes your way to meet the family, don’t miss it. Whether it means going around the corner, across an ocean or simply turning around in your seat and offering a shy "hello," it’s a connection that just might save your soul.   

*LaCamera, a UMNS correspondent based in England, covered the European Methodist Festival Aug. 1-5 for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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