Georgian Baptist Bishop Says 'Being a Good Christian Isn't Enough"

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia's recent visit to the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education offices facilitated by SCUPE President and Parliament Trustee Shanta Premawardhana schooled Chicago Christians in lessons on radical solidarity with minority groups in need of compassion. By championing the rights of Chechan Muslims, LGBT citizens, masses of unemployed and female clergy hoping for ordainment, the Baptist Bishop unravels stereotypes associated with religious practices in the Russian Orthodox world.

by Tanya Sadagopan, Director of Continuing Education and Outreach

Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). Republished with permission.

“Being a good Christian or a good Church isn’t good enough anymore. We must learn the ways of compassion. Something that we learned in the course of the struggle is that it is very important to have equal rights and equal opportunity for everybody, Songulashvili said.

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia

Ordaining women as leaders, standing in solidarity with the LGBT community, and fasting with Muslims during Ramadan are marks of discipleship. There is clearly a great deal we can learn about justice and peace from Baptists in the Republic of Georgia.

In the context of a state Orthodox Church the people of Georgia longed for a church of and for the people. The Evangelical Baptists of the Republic of Georgia focus not just on high liturgy and sensual worship, but more importantly they do the work of justice and peace in an environment of increasing tensions with Russian government forces occupying foreign lands.

These radical Baptists are not afraid to speak out and stand up where others would not. They ordained women as clergy early in their history. They celebrate women as deacons, presbyters, and currently have one female bishop with another one on the way. They stand for equal treatment of people regardless of their sexual orientation. They are deeply engaged in the work of interfaith advocacy with persecuted Muslims both within Georgia as well as with Russian refugees.

All this work of justice and peacemaking takes place in the economic context where in some villages the unemployment rate is as high as 70 percent. In a time of great economic disparity, how can a church find so much energy and resources to do the ministry of Jesus on the ground? Perhaps it is their liturgical commitments and their spiritual practices of fasting and prayer that undergird the power of their practice of ministry. We have much to learn from the Evangelical Baptists of Georgia. But don’t take my word for it, read the story of their ministry below.

Pictured Above: Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili at SCUPE -Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of Georgia visited SCUPE offices on Tuesday July 29th. Not only was it unusual for us to encounter a Baptist Bishop but one that was purple-robed and long-bearded, befitting his Eastern Orthodox context. The Bishop shared with us the courageous story of his Evangelical Baptist community and its advocacy work with Chechen Muslim refugees. Being Baptist means standing for the rights of all people, the Bishop said.

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili

Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia

Lecture given at the SCUPE offices on Tuesday July 29th, 2014

For the Baptist Church in Georgia we often have to find some analogies or stories to explain our identity. One such story goes like this:

"Once upon a time, in the forest a lion decided to have a convention. So he invited all the animals and birds for the convention. Once they came he asked them to divide into two groups. Those who are beautiful should stay on the left and those who are strong should stay on the right. There was upheaval in the group and ultimately everybody found their place. In the midst there was an ugly frog. The lion asked, “Why did not you choose your place?” The frog said, “I do not know how to choose a place because I am both strong and beautiful.”That is the story of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Georgia.

On one hand we are orthodox in our liturgy, in our theology, and in our ecclesiology. But on the other hand we are strongly related to the European radical reformation. The church came into being about 140 years ago as a result of a search for meaning in the context where the Orthodox Church was a state church. There was longing to have a church to be closer to the people where the liturgy would be understandable for the congregation. Our identity was forged in the time of persecution. We were first persecuted by the Czars and then persecuted by Communists and then we were persecuted by religious nationalists after the breakup of the Soviet Union.So our identity has been forged inconstant struggle with the culture which happened to be Russian Imperial, Soviet, and then Nationalist.   

Something that we learned in the course of the struggle is that it is very important to have equal rights and equal opportunity for everybody. In the 1930’s all the churches were closed down by comrade Stalin and all the male leaders and male laymen were sent to Siberia. All of them. And I think the Soviets made a dramatic mistake. If they wanted to get rid of the Baptist Church in Georgia, they should not have sent the men; they should have sent the women. Owing to the work of the women, the church not only survived, but it grew. When the Soviets came there were twelve ethnic Georgian Baptist churches. And when the Soviet Union collapsed there were a couple of thousand churches.

It was not because the Soviets favored the Baptists, but it was because of the energy the women brought to the life of the church. Therefore it was not surprising that we have not even discussed the question which is now being discussed by the Church of England and other churches whether women should be allowed into ordained ministry. It would be sacrilegious to speak of whether women had a right to be ordained. The church survived owing to the leadership provided by women. My grandmother was a sort of bible woman in Communist time who would go from a village to another and would stay overnight and would speak to the people. The Communists would not even notice. Because she was a women, she was not taken seriously. But now when I travel as a Bishop I often come across people who will say, “Son, I know who you are. I knew your grandmother. She was first to preach the gospel in our village or in our community or in our clan.” This is the difference that women make. Therefore since we are Episcopal by structure, we have women as bishops, presbyters, and deacons. In all three layers of the church we have considerable feminine representation.

Our ecumenical identity was forged by our encounter with Muslims. It happened in the aftermath of thefirst Russian-Chechen war when there was a huge influx of Chechen refugees into Georgia.  Nobody wanted to deal with Chechen refugees out of fear of Russia. Our country was very poor. The government was very poor to do anything about it. So we decided to go forward and deliver some tokens of support to the refugee camp. We did not want to do anything more. We just wanted to affirm that we are Christians. We are so nice and we would like to present you some gifts.

I should tell you that in the Georgian psyche, the Chechen and Northern Caucasians have always been associated with terror. Georgia is a mountainous land and it also has beautiful valleys, very fertile valleys. We produce a lot of crops, and grapes, ecetera. In the north of Georgia, beyond the Caucasian mountain range, there are northern Caucasian tribes who are predominately Muslim.  They have neither fertile lands nor anything else to support their economy. They were very creative to develop their own economy, which happened to be kidnapping. They would come on horsebacks to Georgia in the autumn, kidnap young lads and ladies and take them down to the Istanbul slave market. They would sell them and thus build up their budget for their plans. That was happening over and over and over again for centuries. Therefore we as Georgians had accumulated a lot of hatred, understandably for the Chechenian and Northern Caucasian people.

When we learned that the Chechenian people were coming to Georgia as refugees we did not know how to handle it. Reports were coming on a daily basis of their suffering. They did not have food or clothes. There were mainly children and women. Christmas was drawing nearer and I asked the congregation, “What should we do for the refugees from Chechenia.” There was silence in the congregation and I knew what the silence meant because I felt the same way that they did.  If you hear that your traditional enemies are coming here and they are suffering, somewhere in the bottom of your heart you are somewhat delighted. But then we realized that Christmas was drawing nearer and we contemplated the Advent Season. We are fasting during Advent season and we thought we should do something for the refugees because we are Christians.

We went to the camp. We had collected whatever we could: tea, chocolates, and blankets. We went to deliver these goods before Christmas and then forget about it.  But much to everybody’s amazement we got trapped in the camp. When we met for the first time, we realized that we are humans as they are.  Immediately some sort of bond was forged. Before leaving the camp, we said out of politeness, “If there is anything we can possibly do, never hesitate to ask.”  Immediately they produced shopping lists. In the lists they needed binding materials for the wounded, medicine, warm clothes for children, blankets, and tea.  

Map of the Republic of Georgia, 2014

Pictured Above:The Bishop resides in Tbilisi. The refuge camps were near the Causasus Mountains.  

We took these lists back to the church. Since we didn’t have money to purchase these items, we needed to do some fundraising. This was my first fundraising effort on the internet. So I go to my computer in my office and I open up my internet account. I write a letter to all my friends asking for $500 U.S. dollars to complete the purchases for everything we needed for the camp. That was Thursday. I go to my office on Friday and there is a pledge for $15,000 U.S. dollars.  The next week we had $200,000 and within one month we had half a million U.S. dollars.

Thus began our relationship with the Muslim leaders. Because of the overwhelming fundraising response, together we built the much needed schools and hospitals. You see some of the children had never had a chance to go to school. If you are at war for 10 years, the children cannot go to school. So we found ourselves physically and emotionally involved in relief work for a number of years.

At that time, we did not realize that what we were doing would prepare us for what was going to happen later within our own country. Then several years later all the skills and knowledge we had accumulated in the course of working with the Chechen refugees was useful for working with the ethnic Georgian Muslims who were being persecuted by Russian Orthodox Christians right here at home.

What we found out is that Muslims were forbidden to pray on Fridays, that orthodox police were stopping people who were not wearing crosses and beating them, and the government organized the removal of a Muslim minaret in a small village. In our part of the world, you can be Muslim as long as nobody sees you. It is fine to have a place of worship, but as soon as you put up a minaret you are the target of abuse and attack. The same is true for various groups in our society that are sidelined by the majority culture. The Orthodox church says it is fine for you to be a part of the LGBT community as long as nobody knows about you. So invisibility is the only way to survive. But unless you are visible we cannot possibly feel as a dignified part of the wider society. This is how we found ourselves deeply engaged in advocacy work for the Muslim community in Georgia.

Featured Image: President of SCUPE Shanta Premawardhana and the Bishop’s wife Ala among guests. 

Read more about Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili:

Christianity Today: “The Baptist Bearing Robes and Incense

Ecclesial Theology Blog: “Baptist ‘Receptive Ecumenism’ in the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia”  

 

RELATED BLOG POSTS

Washington, D.C., February 5-7, 2018 It was my privilege to represent the Parliament of the World’s Religions at The Alliance of Virtues for the Common Good conference, convened recently in Washington, D.C. Hosted by...
[More]
By Leo D. Lefebure, Trustee Emeritus of the Parliament of the World's Religions Georgetown University This essay will be published in Interfaith Spirituality: The Power of Confluence. Ed. Ambrogio Bongiovanni, Leonardo...
[More]

LATEST BLOG POSTS

The Parliament of the World's Religions is deeply saddened to share news of the passing of Board Emeritus, Reverend Canon Dr. Gwynne Guibord . Rev. Gwynne Marlyn Guibord, founder and president emerita of The Guibord...
[More]
2 Tuesday, August 20th marked the first day of the 10th World Assembly of Religions for Peace (RFP), in partnership with the Foundation Peace Dialogue of the World Religions and Civil Society. Religions for Peace is the...
[More]