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European Methodist Festival unites cultures

The Portuguese Methodist folk band Trevo Alegre serenades participants at the 2007 European Methodist Festival in Bratislava, Slovak Republic.
UMNS photos by Kathleen LaCamera.

By Kathleen LaCamera*
Aug. 17, 2007 | BRATISLAVA, Slovak Republic (UMNS)

United Methodist Bishop Hans Vaxby of Moscow leads a
Bible study.

More than a thousand Methodists from across Europe gathered in August in the capital city of Slovakia to celebrate Europe’s diverse and vibrant Methodist tradition.

Speaking a wide range of languages and dialects, representatives from 25 countries converged on Bratislava in the heart of Europe for the European Methodist Festival, held once every four years. The Aug. 1-5 event included workshops, worship, Bible study and fellowship.

United Methodist Bishop Patrick Streiff, episcopal leader for Central and Southern Europe, opened worship by telling festival-goers to "make the most" of opportunities to share in fellowship, despite the language difficulties.

Teenagers from the London-based Ghanaian Methodist Fellowship choir, who performed at the festival, expressed surprise at how easily they met people from other countries. "You see that we have the same things in common: worshipping God and celebrating Wesley," said Samuel Kwaku, 17, referring to Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley.

Members of the Portuguese Methodist folk band Trevo Alegre serenaded people each day as they waited in line for lunch. The band is led by the Rev. Sifredo Teixeira, who also is bishop of the Portuguese Methodist Church. "We just want to bring a little joy to people," said Teixeira.

"I didn’t know what to expect here, but I like it," said Nicole Handschin, a nursing student from Switzerland. During a small group session, Handschin talked with Methodists from Germany, Poland, Northern Ireland, Austria and England about how she rejected the church as a teenager.

Young people sing praises
to God during a morning
worship service.

"You have to trust you have sewn seeds (in children) and that they will come back," she told a man whose 12-year-old daughter no longer wants to go to church.

Participants explored a wide variety of issues including climate change, immigration, family, mission, other faiths and spiritual growth. Creative arts Bible study and workshops such as one called "Charles Wesley Goes Country" encouraged people to express their Christian faith in new ways. During one afternoon recreation session, 11-year-old Michael Loughlin from England went head-to-head with Albania’s first home-grown pastor, 23-year-old Rigels Kasmollari, in heated rounds of soccer and ultimate Frisbee.

'Worldwide Methodist family'

"It’s good to meet the whole Methodist family in Europe," said the Rev. Bill Lovelace, an American pastor.

Originally from the Holston Conference, Lovelace is now district superintendent for the Ukraine and Moldova Conference. He and his Swedish United Methodist wife, Helen, are both under appointment as missionaries through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. She is developing a specialist children’s ministry and found a British Methodist workshop on human trafficking particularly thought-provoking.

"It leaves you wondering what we can do about trafficking in the Ukraine," Lovelace told United Methodist News Service.

"It’s important that we see that being Methodist means being part of a worldwide Methodist family," said Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany, who was delighted to see large delegations from places like Poland, Lithuania, Macedonia and other Eastern European countries.

A father and son listen to a worship translation.

"It’s so helpful to listen and learn from each other," she said. "Our sisters and brothers from former communist countries have many stories and experiences to share."

She also was pleased to see some Americans at the festival and hopes more U.S. United Methodists will make the effort to meet their European counterparts.

"Personal relationships are really necessary," said Wenner. "We receive e-mails from Americans saying 'I’m coming over for vacation, where can I find and meet local Methodists?' We welcome this. Come and visit."

The Rev. George Freeman, executive director of the World Methodist Council, described the festival atmosphere as "joyful" and said he was impressed to see people embracing what they have in common as well as their differences.

"For people here, the church is prominent," Freeman said. "Americans need to be aware there are brothers and sisters in Europe who need our prayers, support and encouragement and from whom we can learn a lot about sharing the Gospel."

Host for the event

The Slovak United Methodist Church has been preparing for the 2007 festival for more than a year. While the European Methodist Council is officially responsible for these events, the festival is a huge undertaking for the host country’s church. With only eight churches, five mission projects and 400 members in the entire country, Slovak United Methodists regularly serve 2,000 people a week through worship, outreach and social services activities.

Workshops included crafts such as making potato
cross prints.

It was an act of faith to undertake the additional responsibilities associated with a major festival, according to organizers.

"Hosting the festival itself is a privilege for us. We were afraid of how we would manage it and almost said 'no,'" confessed the Rev. Robert Zachar, district superintendent of the Slovakia District. "People looked for ways to help despite being already stretched."

One local pastor, Kornelia Francisty, juggled regular pastoral duties in her village with distributing room keys to festival participants, organizing local transportation, serving as interpreter and setting up tents.

"I’m tired," she said with a laugh, "but everyone is helping."

The German United Methodist Church’s tent ministry and volunteers provided crucial equipment and set-up for the huge festival tents. Their EMK events bus also provided a mobile café sanctuary serving coffee and tea.

Bishop Hans Vaxby of Moscow led one of the daily Bible studies at the festival. Wearing a T-shirt that read "I believe God talks to us every day if we listen," Vaxby said he hoped that people, especially in smaller churches, left the festival feeling a very real connection with the European and global church.

"I hope people have a sense that there is a Methodist ethos. Methodists are so cultural different, but there are still areas of common ground," said Vaxby. "There is that basic trust in God. We don’t need to be in control of everything because God’s grace is working in people whoever they are, wherever they are on the journey. God works overtime. The challenge for us is to respond."

*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.

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

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