More than 130 years ago, missionaries from the USA laid the cornerstone for Protestant work in the territory of what is now Macedonia. Macedonian freedom fighters, trying to pry their country loose from the Ottoman Empire, also contributed to this early work. Captured and sent to prison in Thessaloniki, their hearts were changed, and after being released, they returned home with a new mission: to spread the Gospel.
However, the Methodist mission in Macedonia would never have developed so well without the faith and courage of “Bible women” who travelled to remote areas in spite of poor roads and the scorn, stone-throwing, and brutality of scoffers. These “Bible women” not only passed on the Good Word of the Gospel; they taught other women to read and write (which meant that these women could now also read the Bible), organized sewing groups and nursing courses, and provided people with help and advice in all sorts of areas. In nearly every place where the Bible Women were active, there appeared not just local schools, but also congregations.
Yet these newly founded congregations faced a high level of initial resistance, even though their members always worked for the good of the entire community. Their meeting houses were burned, and in the beginning, those who converted to Christianity were often thrown into prison. But the congregations survived this treatment. They still exist today, and they are growing!
For more than ten years, the UMC has been officially recognized by the Republic of Macedonia. So today, the Church is fighting a different kind of battle. The past years, with political unrest, war, and waves of refugees, have led to economic misery. Unemployment is around forty percent, and many people live far below the poverty level. So far, there is no viable social safety net (welfare payments of 30 Euros/month for a family of four don’t go very far). The mere expenses for groceries, firewood, and medicines are beyond the means of many people.
The congregations do what they can to counter this need in the name of Jesus Christ, with words of hope and deeds of love. In doing so, they overcome the nationalist tendencies by providing support to minorities. For example, in several places they have developed evangelization programs and social efforts for Rom, and organize regular international youth camps with participants from Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Germany, and the USA.
Institutional services and social support for individuals are equally important. Thus, with generous support from abroad, the UMC has built a social service center in Strumica, a city in the eastern part of the country. This center provides elderly, needy people with a warm meal each day under the auspices of “Meals on Wheels” and with additional assistance.
The very active and diverse dialogue with other Churches (Orthodox, Catholic) and religious communities (Jews, Muslims) is an important contribution towards a common, peaceful future of the country.
Today, Macedonia and Serbia are two politically independent countries, but the UMC congregations still form one organizational unit (Annual Conference) with two districts. However, due to the unfavorable economic situation, they are able to cover only about 10% of their own budget, and the lack of pastors is also a heavy burden, although this latter aspect is improving.
With great dedication and faith in God, the members of the UMC accept these challenges. The call to Paul in the Book of Apostles “Come here to Macedonia and help us!” is just as current now as it was 2,000 years ago
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