15.10.2013

Setbacks are Not the Final Verdict

Szczecin Baptist congregation is working on its future

Commentary

M o s c o w – The Baptist congregation in the Polish border city of Szczecin (Stettin in German) has been through hard times. Even its building in Ulica Stoislawa 4 shows signs of duress. A programme to refurbish the building did not advance beyond the destructive phase: the chairs, flooring and a portion of the wall plaster were removed. Two stairs leading up to the balcony were torn out in hopes of replacing them with elevators. The building’s time-worn facade remains unrestored. 

After 2000, more than a few once-German properties were returned to congregations now belonging to the Polish Baptist union. After finally regaining ownership of the Szczecin church in 2003, business-minded members developed plans for funding a rebuilding of the structure dating from 1855. A “bottomless pit” was to be turned into a source of capital for the work of the congregation. Gustaw Cieslar, who was pastor at that time, and a committee struck upon the idea of creating a cultural foundation to foster „cross-border cooperation“ between Germany and Poland. Prospects for obtaining European Union funding were good; one reckoned with as much as four million zlotys (one million euros). With this option in mind, the congregation attempted to establish contact with Baptist congregations beyond the Western border. An initial visit to Szczecin by up to 50 persons from the German Baptist regional union in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Pomerania) took place in 2011; a smaller return visit to Torgelow (near Pasewalk) ensued.

Roughly 900.000 zlotys were gathered from multiple sources; 150.000 are said to remain on a bank account today.

A church split followed in October 2012; one of the congregation’s two pastors exited along with 12 other members. These were largely younger, dynamic and educated members who had spearheaded the project for a cultural centre. Because of the building measures, the congregation had been forced to meet in a school for four years. In February 2013 it moved back into the fully incomplete church structure. A second pastor, Bartosz Kaczorek, who had been involved in negotiations with Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, transferred to a congregation in eastern Poland four months later. Following 20 years of pastoring in the U.S., Janusz Zwierzchowski (pronounced „Zvershhovski”) returned to his native land and was inaugurated as pastor on 11 August. In Poland, Pastor Zwierzchowski had last served in nearby Gorzów (Landsberg an der Warthe) in a congregation which has been led since then by Regional Pastor Dariusz Chudzik („Hoodjik“).

Dr. Mateusz Wichary, the new, 37-year-old president of Poland’s Baptist union, attributes the rift to two different, conflicting visions: “Somehow, distrust was awakened; it will now be really tough to work things out.” The President rejects suspicions that the driving forces behind the project are guilty of financial malpractice.  Dr. Robert Merecz, an MBA (in business) and Old Testament scholar who is an offspring of this congregation, concludes: „The congregation was lacking good management and spiritual maturity. A lot of this was caused by miscommunication. If they could have had a good mediator trusted by both sides, then the two groups would not have parted ways.”

Yet Merecz does not accept the term “split”, for he regards the group which departed as very small. It is also not a “clean” break: One of the brains behind the project remains a member of his long-term spiritual home. Though the departed group speaks of forming a “Second Baptist Church” within the same Baptist union, the desire for reconciliation remains strong among Polish church leaders.

The Szczecin congregation presently has 62 members; in 2000 one had still spoken of 120 members. Yet the present congregation does not appear aged; the music remains lively and youth are involved in worship. When I attended on 8 September, the sermon lasted a record 72 minutes – Brother Zwierzchowski is concerned about the congregation’s spiritual reinvigoration.

Clear is in any case that the Szczecin congregation has longed for cooperation with neighbouring German congregations for more than two decades. And despite its modest size, this congregation has much to show for its efforts. Gustaw Cieslar, who was pastor of this congregation until 2009, was even then president of the Polish union and is now rector of its seminary in Radosc near Warsaw. Dariusz Chudzik also stems from the Szczecin congregation. Merecz, who remains active in pastoring and business in Edinburgh/Scotland, is also a part-time instructor in Radosc.

In 2000, Poles from Szczecin attended the Hamburg commemoration honouring the Stettin pastor and Baptist seminary instructor Max Slawinsky (1897-1940). He was killed under mysterious circumstances by Nazis at the train station in Finkenwalde (now Szczecin-Zdroje). During the last decades of imperial Germany, Wilhelm Weist of Stettin evangelised thousands in Eastern Prussia. When the congregation was officially founded in 1846, Johann Gerhard Oncken from Hamburg attended and Julius Köbner of Berlin preached. The Szczecin chapel happens to be the German Baptist movement’s fourth-oldest existing chapel. Only two chapels in East Frisia near Oldenburg and one in Klaipeda/Lithuania are older.

Do only Poles care about saving this historic German chapel? Pastor Matthias Neumann of Stralsund, Regional Director of Germany’s Baptist union for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, insists: “I have a lot of heart for such cooperation, but the time issue remains.” Both sides complained of language barriers: Neither Pastor Kaczorek nor the Mecklenburgers know much English. But one member of the Szczecin congregation insists: „If a partnership is truly wanted, then the language is no barrier. We can always find translators.” Merecz suggests that an initial gathering of Polish and Baptist youth be organised.

Undoubtedly, Germans and their cohorts in Britain and North America have sufficient know-how in bookkeeping and management to aid their “weaker” brothers and sisters on the Polish-German border. The Baptist union’s regional offices in Berlin-Brandenburg have even founded a working group entitled “AG Eastern Europe”. The chapel was originally built with funds gathered by Oncken in England and the USA. Its rebuilding will likely require support from the same, westward direction.

The Warsaw-based „Baptist Union of Poland“ consists of 4.950 members in 85 congregations.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 15 October 2013
A journalistic release under the auspices of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #13-16, 989 words, 6.422 keystrokes and spaces.