Walking Together

Twinning between parishes and academics

In the quaint colonial port city of Annapolis, the capital of the U.S. state of Maryland, took place, from 20th to 22nd September 2012, a conference on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the partnership between the ECCB and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Our church was represented by six participants from the Czech Republic: Jiřina Kačenová who is the pastor in Letohrad which has a long term partnership with the church in Annapolis, Petr Peňáz who is the president of the 'American Working Group' of the Ecumenical Department of the Synodal Council, Vendula Kalusová for the chaplaincies, Eva Benešová for the Church headquarters, Tomáš Nejedlo for the ECCB Diaconia and Petr Sláma for the Protestant Theological Faculty. Additionally, Ondřej Stehlík, who now works in New York City also took part in the conference. Also participating was Rev. Karen Moritz who is the coordinator of joint activities between the Churches and was sent by the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to Prague. The conference was organized under the title 'Walking Together' by Presbyterian World Missions on behalf of the Czech Mission Network. The Presbyterian Church (USA) was represented by Amgad Beblawi who is the Coordinator for the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia and is originally from Egypt. The Presbyterian Church (USA) was also represented by Regional Liason Burkhard Paetzold who lives and works in Germany and supports Mission Personnel throughout Europe. The conference was hosted by a parish in Annapolis whose members provided for us and about thirty other American participants in an exemplary fashion. They deserve our heartfelt thanks.

It's not as if the mutual contacts began only twenty years ago. But it was then when the first working party, which was organized on the American side by Mrs. Betty McGinnis who is still a driving force behind joint activities, began working with the ECCB. Then around twenty Americans worked together with a youth group of our Church in the Diaconia Center in Klobouky near Brno, as well as some years later in Běleč, Brno and Hvozdnice. Out of these activities developed an understanding of being 'one Church' thanks to the creativity and persistence of specific individuals. Later a bilateral cooperation (first in construction work, then later in teaching English at joint work parties and retreats) between the parishes in Annapolis and Letohrad developed. This partnership between these two parishes was and is in fact the basis for many further contacts.

Lively and regular are the contacts between the PTF and the Columbian Theological Seminary near Atlanta. In addition to the ten of us who have studied in Atlanta, a group of American students and teachers visits annually for about two weeks in the Czech Republic and Hungary, as a part of the course 'Alternative Contexts'. In addition to the meeting at the faculty, they also visit parishes and places of historical interest. The trip is preceded by preparation (especially through reading) and after the return followed by the writing of reports and discussions of impressions. As Professor George Stroup mentioned in Annapolis more than one hundred students have taken part in the exchange in Prague over the last fifteen years. Today they serve as pastors in congregations and for many of them the theological field trip to the Czech Republic was a highlight of their studies.

In October 2008 a Partnership Conferences was held to initiate partnerships between other Czech and American parishes. Representatives from eight Presbyterian parishes came to Prague. After an introductory seminar in Prague and a visit to the parishes eight other parish partnerships developed. These partnerships flourish in some places, in others they wilt. How the first case can be supported and what the reasons are for the second one, was the theme of this year's meeting in Annapolis.

The difficulties are clear: The Atlantic divides us, it takes at least ten flight hours to reach the east coast of the U.S. But also the partnership with much nearer parishes in Germany and the Netherlands are sometimes wilting, often because the main initiators of the project on one side or the other have moved on. The foreign language always excludes a majority of the parishes. The economic crisis undermines the capacity of the local parishes to support financially the travel of visiting participants. But the more fundamental question is what we have to tell each other after hugs and greeting formulas have been exchanged? Why do we actually meet, if the communication in the individual parishes is often already problematic?

Nevertheless, I think that the friendship with the American Presbyterians can bring our parishes inspiration and stimulation. They are Americans - active and optimistic. They like to define things as a "project" - and after having done that, they will not rest until they have realized it. They are not just coming for a trip, rather our parishes are set in motion by the question of what we can do together. At the discussions proposals for a Czech-American aid project in the third world were made.

And there are Presbyterians, similar to us in their sober thinking. In the ecumenical spectrum of their country they are, similar to us, a negligible minority that occupies a narrow sector between evangelicals and Catholics. They are far more pious than the average Protestant Czech Brethren (measured, for example, at the naturalness with which they pray together before meals or by the type of hymns they sing) as is the American society as a whole more pious. But without evading they think about their role in society. Despite their Republican past, they are now mainly Democrats.

On some issues of societal debate, be it their attitude regarding U.S. foreign policy (through their leadership they criticize the state of Israel in the occupied territories and the American military involvement in the Middle East) or concerning current social issues (eg. the attitude towards homosexuality), they stand in the corner of the liberal left. More than Europe, however, today Latin America or the Middle East is close to their hearts. Though Europe is for them the continent of the classic (theologically, artistically) and of a strange indecisiveness and quaintness, for which one has however – at least with regards from the American Presbyterians – continuously a weak spot in the collective consciousness. Especially with the American Presbyterians, a Bohemian brother is aware that we are traveling through civic and religious crises together.

Petr Sláma/Karen Moritz

18.12.2012, 18:25