THE Hotel Zakarpatie in Uzhgorod has always epitomised for me the nature of Soviet communism. It was built at a time when holidays were something that trades Unions arranged for workers who had behaved themselves during the previous 12 months. It looks like a pile of concrete pigeon holes into which the workers could be slotted. I stayed there three times and even though the third was long after Ukraine gained its independence, elderly ladies still sat at the end of the corridors, doing their knitting and observing who came in and out. One of the choicest pieces of news I was given during my recent visit to Uzhgorod was that the Methodists now renta room in the Hotel Zakarpatie for worship services. These were started two years ago and take place every week. They are already attracting congregations of 35 or more, many of whom are young people. The minister of this “hotel church”is also responsible for a home for street children, of which, sadly, Ukrainian cities have many.
Uzhgorod is the capital of a region of Western Ukraine known as Transcarpathia. Its history over the last 100 years has been remarkable. At the beginning of the 20th century it was partof the Austro-Hungarian Empire but in the years that followed became successively part of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. On the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 it became an independent country and it remains so to this day.
The story of the Methodist Church during this period of social, political and economic change is quite remarkable. At its centre is Ivan Vuksta, a teacher, who was told by the newly installed government in 1945 that there was no place for Christians in Soviet schools. He lost his job and the only employment he could subsequently find was as a builder’s labourer.
Ivan Vuksta and his wife lived in the village of Kamenitsa, afew miles from Uzhgorod. There was no Methodist church in the village but there was a Methodist congregation, meeting in the homes of its members. There had been a church in Uzhgorod but the building was confiscated in 1938. A large number of its members had Hungarian roots and when the Soviet government required Poles, Czechs and Hungarians to return to their country of origin, most Methodists left. The Kamenitsa congregation applied to be registered, in accordance with Soviet law on religious institutions, but registration was refused on the grounds that the congregation was too small.
There followed a difficult time for the Kamenitsa Methodists. Services continued to be held in members’ homes but these were frequently broken up by the police. Young pioneers were encouraged to throw stones at the windows of the homes were services were held. The venue of the services was frequently changed so that the misery of smashed windows was at least shared among all the members. Eventually, however, the application for registration was successful. The Soviet government had not changed its mind – that was something it rarely if ever did – but it was prepared to treat the Kamenitsa church as part of the Estonian Methodist circuit. At a stroke this became the largest circuit in theworld, about 1,000 miles from Tallinn to Kamenitsa. Permission to build a church in Kamenitsa continued to be refused.
In 1987 I led a group of British Methodists on a visit to the USSR which included a Sunday spent in Tallinn. An eveningmeeting was arranged to give members of the group the chance to learn more about Methodism in the Soviet Union. The meeting was naturally attended by many local Methodists but also, to everyone’s surprise, by Ivan Vuksta who had made the journey in order to invite the visiting Methodists to visit Uzhgorod and Kamenitsa next.
Such a visit did indeed take place the following year and a party of British Methodists became the first people to enter Kamenitsa peacefully since the beginning of World War 2. Something else happened of which the visitors were not aware at the time. In advance of the visit, Ivan Vuksta had been called frequently to the local KGB office to explain what was going on. “Who are these people,” “Why are they coming,” “How did you know them” were questions they asked repeated. After we had left, Ivan Vuksta was summoned again. “Well,” said the KGB officer, “these people have come once and they will come again. We won’t be able to stop them. It is shameful that after coming all this way theyhave to meet in a house. You had better build your church.” So it was that permission was granted for Kamenitsa Methodists to have a church of their own.
It was, of course, one thing to have this permission; it was quite another thing to be able to afford it. Perhaps they could raise the money for the raw materials but they could not possibly afford a builder. Where would they find someone with the skills of bricklayer, plasterer, joiner etc? But they had only to ask the question to know the answer. It was Ivan Vuksta who had spent his working life as a builder’s labourer. “It was the will of God that I should be dismissed from teaching,” he said. His moment had come.
Meanwhile efforts had begun to recover the Uzhgorod church which had been taken from its congregation before the war. Eventually the authorities said the building could be returned if two conditions could be met; they would need to prove that their title to the property was sound and that there were at least 25 people who would want to use the church. Probably the authorities thought they were laying down requirements that could not be fulfilled. In the event the title deeds were found in the church archives in Prague, and house-to-house enquiries revealed not 25 but 50 people who claimed to be Methodists and would be glad to have their church back. Transcarpathia now had two Methodist churches. But this was not to be the end of the story.
Since that first visit in 1989 I have been back to Uzhgorod and Kamenitsa on a number of occasions but rarely has there been such a sense of growth as I found when I was there in August of this year. The regular congregation in Uzhgorod now numbers 100. I attended a midweek service in Kamenitsa at which about 30 people were present. The young people’s meeting is on a Thursday and attracts between 30-35teenagers, virtually all of them from the village. Many of the older people remembered our first visit and one of them introduced herself as the daughter of the woman in whose house the services were held on Good Friday and Easter Sunday while we were there.
I learned about the congregation in the Hotel Zakarpatie and the strategy which is to have a congregation in the north of the city, in the church, and another in the south, meeting in the hotel. I was taken to the small town of Peretzin where a new church is being built with help from a church in Oklahoma, USA. We went to a Roma village where a church that has existed for eight years has asked within the last two of them to become part of the Methodist family. This is a family which consisted of one congregation throughout the Soviet era but now has five in Trancarpathia alone with another 20 in other parts of Ukraine. Small wonder that I feel my visits to be less of a holiday and more of a pilgrimage.