The roots of the Methodist mission in Albania go back to the 19th century. In those days, American missionaries (later increasingly replaced by Albanians) not only preached and taught the Gospel, but also provided help in daily life. Their efforts to provide the populace with basic schooling were of especial importance. For many years the “Protestants” ran the only school for girls in Albania, and they also played an important role in the development of a common alphabet to integrate Albania’s various regions and dialects. Unfortunately, this hopeful work was not graced with longevity.
Albanian Communism took a strict and destructive form like no other in Europe, and when the country opened up politically in the early 1990s, it was in ruins. A process of cautious reconstruction followed, and even though it is sometimes overshadowed by unrest and tension, this process is irreversible.
In 1992, dedicated members of the UMC congregation in Wismar, Germany began to support this process by contributing material goods to Albania and rebuilding the school infrastructure in the mountain villages of southeastern Albania. Their dedication has been productive. The people in Bishnica, a poor mountain village of 800, began to take interest in the driving force behind this work, and with the formation of a full-time team of Albanian and German Christians in Bishnica, the next step was taken. The team continued and expanded its charity work and evangelization. Through these efforts, about two dozen people discovered their faith in Jesus Christ and were baptized in July of 1998. This represented the founding of the UMC in Bishnica. Since then, the Church has continued to develop: it now boasts about 100 members in Bishnica and other villages in the vicinity or — because of the migration — in the further neighbourhood.
Most of the people in Albania are still very poor. Shipments of badly needed goods and assistance from abroad are still very welcome, especially in the mountains. By replacing dilapidated furniture, patching leaky roofs, and repairing broken heaters, the aid workers contribute significantly to improving the working conditions in community buildings and schools. A medical/nursing service, a reforestation project, and the founding of a boarding school for children from distant villages where the schools have been closed, all contribute to securing a brighter future for the people in the mountains.
In spite of these improvements, more and more people are leaving Bishnica and the surrounding villages in order to look for work, to study, or simply to seek their fortunes in the larger cities. It is a great challenge to follow them and use the existing Emails to approach more people, but it has, for example, led to the founding of small Methodist groups in Pogradec, Tirana and Korca.
Two young Albanians who began their theological studies in the Graz-Waiern program in Austria in 2004 will return to Albania in Summer 2008 and will take over responsibility. This is an important step towards a new
future, in which the UMC in Albania will be led and shaped by Albanians.
Although there are loose Emails between the Methodists in Albania and in Macedonia (e.g. in the International Youth Camp in Macedonia), structural cooperation is not possible. For this reason, the Methodist work in Albania, which so far has not been officially registered as a Church, is under the direct supervision of the Bishop of the UMC in Central and Southern Europe.
Methodist work in Austria was begun in Vienna in 1870 by preachers of the Wesleyan Methodist Church from southern Germany. About thirty years later, it was joined with the mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Europe. Until 1920 there were severe restrictions by the State bodies; the Methodists only had the right to a “familial practice of religion”. When a mission conference was formed in 1911, it included congregations in Austria (Vienna and Graz), Hungary, and what is today Serbia (Vojvodina). After the First World War, this conference was divided due to the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A time of serious unemployment and poverty followed, during which the Methodist Church was able to provide significant aid, mainly through support from abroad. In response to the religious freedom in the new Austrian state, congregations were formed in Vienna, St. Poelten, Krems, and Linz, and a home for children in Türnitz was founded as well. The worship services and Sunday School were full. Czech language services were also held in Vienna. In 1933, the parliament was dissolved by force, and the new religious freedom was rescinded. Oppression under a Catholic-minded Fascist regime followed (“Ständestaat”). This regime was succeeded by the National Socialists in 1938 and by the Anschluss to the Third Reich. Until the end of the Second World War, the Austrian congregations were part of the Southern German Conference of the Methodist Church.
In 1945, the Methodist Church in Austria was reorganized. It was a difficult time. Challenged by their own distress, the Methodists helped countless refugees which had come into the country. As a result of this service, new congregations were formed in the refugee camps in Linz, Ried/Inn, Salzburg, and Bregenz. In 1951, the Methodist Church was recognized by the Austrian state. Pastors from the US, Switzerland, and Germany came to help rebuild the Church. In 1956 Hungarian refugees were accommodated by the congregations in Vienna, Linz and Graz and provided with food and medicines. In Linz a social ministry and a kindergarten were established.
Even today, internationalism and openness toward seekers of all generations are still typical characteristics of the UMC in Austria. Because of this, in practically all congregations, people from many different nations come together, and worship services are sometimes translated into several languages. In Vienna, there is also a lively English-speaking congregation that was founded in 1978. This basic openness is the reason that, slowly but steadily, the Austrian Church is growing.
Although the UMC in Austria is a small Church, it plays an important role in the ecumenical movement and in the organization and support of many international conferences. It is a founding member of the Ecumenical Council of Austria. It maintains close Emails with the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Church (pulpit and table fellowship) and cooperates, among others, in the areas of charities, public relations, and religion lessons in schools.
The “Zentrum Spattstrasse” in Linz provides important social and pedagogical services for children and young people from all over Austria, and is widely known and respected. This institute for social-pedagogical initiatives includes welfare education groups for socially disadvantaged girls, a hospital for children with behavioural problems, a kindergarten, pedagogical training facilities, a day-care clinic, an out-patient clinic, and a shelter in the center of Linz, among other projects.
The Church is also an enormously important bridgehead to the Methodist congregations in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Albania. One fruit of these decades-old relationships is the study program in Graz-Waiern, which was developed to provide for the theological education of future leaders in the UMC in southeastern Europe. After learning the German language in Graz (6-12 months), the students take part in a theological study program with internships in charity work at the Diakoniewerk in Waiern. During this entire period, they are members of the UMC congregation in Graz, where the open atmosphere ensures that they will be firmly anchored in the UMC, even though they are far from their homes.
The UMC rounds out its missionary work by running a Protestant bookshop and publishing house in Vienna.