In the process of evangelism and making disciples, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) is using United Methodist teachings on social issues and social justice to reach people around the world.
One goal of the agency is to create more of an on-the-ground presence for community organizing, advocacy and reinforcing the teachings of the Social Principles. While the agency has organizers in the United States, there is a need to have local organizers working actively in other parts of the world. Today, Church and Society has local staff organizers in Nigeria, Mozambique and Eurasia.
The Rev. Neal Christie, assistant general secretary for education and leadership formation at the board, said the program in Eurasia took root more than 12 years ago. Church and Society was then collaborating with the General Board of Global Ministries for training sessions in the Ukraine and Moldova on substance abuse, addiction and violence related to addiction.
"We wanted to raise awareness with young people [on] how all these issues connect – addiction, violence, spousal abuse, mental health, sexual abuse," he said.
A few years later, Christie talked with Bishop Eduard Khegay and other church leaders in Eurasia about what it might look like if Church and Society emphasized these issues conferencewide. That conversation led to classes on the Social Principles at Russia United Methodist Theological Seminary in Moscow.
"When new people come to the church, there's a discipleship model that doesn't necessarily include social issues," Christie said. "We feel when we engage in these conversations, we are doing discipleship as well."
Khegay offered and strongly supported the idea of having someone on staff to serve as a community organizer who would itinerate teams of people, excite their imaginations and get them to take ownership of programs.
Soon after, Khegay appointed the Rev. Irina Margulis as the district superintendent for the Moscow District — and as Church and Society's organizer for the Eurasia Area. The bishop supervises her work as a district superintendent; Christie supervises her work on social issues.
"We're helping to find the best methods to coach the Social Principles in geographic areas where people, frankly, are still learning to read the Bible in a way that's contextual and relevant," Christie said.
"In most cases, people do not think about the connection between the Social Principles to their daily lives," Margulis said. "But the Social Principles are an expression of our faith. They invite us to step out of our comfort zones and take care of the world we live in, just as Jesus cared for it."
Ministry with the marginalized
Margulis' first pastoral appointment put her face-to-face with the social cost of addiction. Her church was in Samara, on the route of drug trafficking between Central Asia and Russia, and many residents battled dependency. Margulis visited several area rehabilitation centers to preach, counsel and offer Holy Communion to residents. She also learned that after their release from the nine-month rehab program, patients found themselves with no support system.
"One of my tasks was to help them find a church that would help them to endure in sobriety. I invited them to my church and organized a club for those who finished rehab, where we studied the Bible, played, talked and went to national parks," she said.
Margulis also ministered to orphans and other children. A United Methodist who directed a local orphanage welcomed her to conduct Bible studies there. She has also worked with attendees at a camp for people with disabilities.
"At first it was hard to serve people with disabilities," she said. "There was pity and rejection. But seeing how brave children and their parents cope with the problem, we were forever changed. We have to communicate with them as ordinary people."
In much of Eurasia, no social safety net exists, and the disadvantaged truly are pushed to the margins. The church has an opportunity and a responsibility to help those who have nowhere else to turn.
"In these areas, much of the ministry that you and I take for granted is a significant challenge," Christie said. "When you do create a ministry devoted to people with disabilities or migrants or addicts, people pay attention. People don't consider that an area their church normally enters."
Addressing domestic violence
Domestic violence is one issue both Christie and Margulis would like the church to address. A widespread cultural norm in Eurasia means it is rarely discussed.
"In Russia, there is a saying: ‘You can't wash dirty linen in public,'" Margulis said.
Women who have experienced violence are ashamed to talk about it. Margulis suggested that many might subconsciously think they deserve such treatment.
"Their self-esteem is very low, and they need the love that a supportive community can give."
"In a cultural system where certain issues are repressed and not spoken about – domestic violence is just the way it is. Alcohol abuse is just the way it is," Christie said. "What is the role of the church when despair and a sense of inevitability are the norm?"
Although Margulis has only been in her appointment a few months, Christie sees her position as a model for not only central conferences, but also the jurisdictions in the United States. He would like to see Church and Society work with senior-level church leaders involved in education or social justice and help identify ministry that they can do themselves without depending on an outside agency for financial support.
As for the church in Eurasia, he is optimistic.
"God is doing something there or the church wouldn't have survived as long as it has," he said. "I have to believe there is something there being unmet, spiritually and physically, maybe politically and socially, and that's why The United Methodist Church has a role to play and is still there."
Joey Butler is multimedia editor at United Methodist Communications.