True religion is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27
Following the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1990, the Protestant church in Bulgaria grew rapidly, at the rate of about 17 percent per year. In Sofia alone, the capital of Bulgaria, the church increased fivefold between 1990 and 1993. The long grip of Marxism had created a spiritual void, and with its demise, a new interest in religion spread across the country. The new spiritual hunger spread even to some of Bulgaria's ethnic minorities, including Turks and Gypsies, making up 11 percent and 4.6 percent of the population respectively. Pentecostal churches and the Church of God grew especially, with 45,000 members numbered between them within a few years.1
Bulgaria's economy, never robust, suffered significantly as a result of nearly forty years of Communist controls. And following communism's collapse, it has continued to decline. Setting the poverty line in 1989, the government found that by 1994, approximately 80 percent of the population had fallen below it.2 Thus, it quickly became apparent that the emphasis on evangelism needed to be followed with social and humanitarian relief. Christians initiated work especially among impoverished Gypsy communities who lived at the bottom of the social stratum and were largely illiterate and uneducated. Western aid from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany also helped to meet this growing need, but relief efforts by Bulgarian believers played a significant part in this response.
According to recent demographic data, Bulgaria has about 1.6 million children under age 16.3 With 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line, this effectively puts approximately 1.3 million children in some degree of risk. It is significant then that Christians in Bulgaria have begun responding to the needs of children through a range of programs bringing physical aid with the message of the gospel. These projects include feeding programs, housing, orphanage visitation, and many others.
In February 1999 Viva Network, an international association of Christian "children at risk" ministries, sent two staff members, Ursy Botting and Steve Gertz, to interview evangelical Christian ministries working with such children in Sofia. The team carried out research over eight days in order to identify which ministries were networking with each other. The research was conducted through interviews, and a search of literature on the condition of children in the country was done to verify information.
New Funding Strategies
Victor Virchev is head of the Pentecostal Union in Bulgaria, a denomination originally made up of 35 churches before the democratic changes, and now flourishing with 520 churches. The union has several projects seeking to alleviate the growing problem of both state institutionalization of children and children living on the streets. Pentecostals are helping to direct humanitarian aid shipments coming from abroad to state orphanages. Children and adults from local church families go with the shipments to see that they arrive safely, giving them an opportunity to share the gospel. The Union also has plans to erect a center in Sofia where street children can obtain food, clothing, and day care. It is working with city officials to obtain an abandoned building for this purpose. Lack of funding for the project continues to be a problem, as the Union is unable to support such a center wholly from its own finances.
The Pentecostal Union has developed creative strategies to address the financial obstacle. Aid from abroad continues to trickle in, but the Union is also considering establishing small businesses, such as importing farming equipment with a percentage of revenues going to projects. The Union already has started a magazine which provides some funds for projects. In addition to this, some Pentecostal believers are able to contribute financially as they are gainfully employed. Rev. Virchev is hopeful about the denomination's financial outlook, as several of its members are professionals, and have been able to hold on to their jobs, despite a Bulgarian economic downturn.
Blaga Popova works for Scripture Union, an international Christian ministry with a Sofia branch that publishes children's literature. It is producing a manual of Bible games, a novel exploring relationships between children in the church and children at risk, and a literacy book for Gypsy children. Popova, however, is having difficulty finding outlets for her work, as many of the denominations have their own curriculum, and churches are becoming more selective about what they buy as Christian literature for children becomes more available. Furthermore, teachers are often sharing information in order to cut costs, and Western literature translated into Bulgarian undercuts the market altogether, as much of it is free. Popova also oversees several projects working directly with children at risk. She currently runs five teenagers' camps and one children's camp each year, with plans for a camp for families in the future.
Troubles with the State
Rev. Theodor Oprenov is pastor of Sofia Baptist Church and the founding director of the Good Samaritan Foundation, which appeals to Western sister churches to bring humanitarian aid and building materials to renovate orphanages. Ten volunteers manage the foundation's work in five orphanages.
Not all is well with the foundation's work, however. From the very beginning, Rev. Oprenov met stiff resistance from the Orthodox Church, and in at least one case, has not been allowed to return to an orphanage his church renovated. Orthodox priests have allegedly told people to stay away from his "sect" and a pernicious rumor in the country continues to circulate that "evangelicals eat children for breakfast." Oprenov is also discouraged by new laws making it difficult to import humanitarian aid into the country. He greets any suggestion of cooperation with governmental or international secular agencies with a great deal of skepticism, and is pessimistic of changing the public perception of evangelicals, at least in the near future. For five years, the Good Samaritan Foundation and the Bulgarian Baptist Union have been unable to receive permission to build a Christian orphanage in Sofia, which Oprenov believes is because they are Protestant, not Orthodox.
On the other hand, Oprenov is open, even enthusiastic, about networking with other evangelical Christian groups working with children at risk. He has already worked with one group in delivering boxes of food to orphanages and understands the need for partnerships on projects that may be too costly for his organization alone. He is looking for funds to expand the foundation's work with orphanages, and agrees that some of these needs may best be met by linking with other Christians wanting to minister in similar ways.
Serving the Least of These
Zhana Georgieva, a former Muslim and now committed Christian, runs an organization called Women of Virtue, which has two dynamic ministries to Gypsy street children in the heart of Sofia: one in the city's central station and one in the city park. She provides lunch for the children, and has 70 children on file now who frequent her program. Zhana has an intense spiritual burden for these children and has attracted 25 women to join her in the work, ten in Sofia and 15 outside the city. She has also garnered support from the West for her ministry, and recently received coverage in the Christian press for her feeding program in Sofia.
Georgieva realizes, however, that soup kitchens are not enough. She wants to set up a drop-in center for these children and has already obtained a building for the work, though she lacks the funds for furnishings. She wants to provide a place where children will be provided with balanced meals, shower facilities, recreation, and educational and vocational courses which will jump-start the children's education, and hopefully break the cycle of poverty in which they are trapped.
Visiting the Orphan
Liudmil Yatanski is the pastor of a moderately large evangelical church in the center of Sofia appealing especially to new and young Christians. His church has a lively worship group, and several of the young people in the church are involved in the church's ministry. One of these ministries is to an orphanage located about 50 miles outside Sofia. Twenty volunteers from the church have been visiting this orphanage on a monthly basis since 1994, bringing food, clothing, games, and more recently, gifts for children having birthdays. One volunteer has even been able to convince the orphanage's director to release a few of the children to be put up for adoption, though he is reluctant to do so, as it involves a good amount of paperwork.
But Yatanski also wants to start a residential home of his own, as several of the state orphanages are closing down due to a lack of funds and consequently are leaving their children without homes. Churches in the United States and Austria have offered to help, and Yatanski is looking for a building for this purpose. Unfortunately, Bulgarian law has not been very favorable to such enterprises in the past, imposing strict controls that have discouraged people from setting up such homes. The Orthodox Church has opposed the project. Caritas, a Catholic charity, has been able to establish residential homes for orphans, however, which sets a positive precedent.
Aneta Naydenova, wife of local Methodist minister Evgeniy Naydenov, works for an international Christian relief organization called Mission Without Borders that just recently established itself in Sofia. With a staff of only four people, she has already been able to bring a tremendous amount of humanitarian relief to Bulgaria through networking with churches and secular, nongovernmental organizations. Her ministry provides humanitarian relief to 25 orphanages throughout the country, including four homes for the handicapped. She oversees a mother care program, which advises Gypsy mothers on raising children, provides education, counsels those considering abortion, lobbies against drug use, and provides medical assistance. Mission Without Borders also runs a feeding program at a local church, serving up to 130 people per day.
As valuable as these programs are, Naydenova readily admits they are possible only through the cooperation of Christians and non-Christians alike who are working together. She has been able to build positive relationships with local government authorities and has established working relationships with Orthodox and Catholic churches as well. Volunteers from a local Orthodox seminary, for example, helped her mission hand out humanitarian relief and, on occasion, she has sent some parcels to the Catholics as well for them to distribute. Recently, her distribution project attracted television coverage which generated much goodwill.
The experience of Mission Without Borders contrasts sharply with that of the Baptist Union and raises several questions concerning how evangelical Christians can best approach broader society in their work of sharing the gospel in its totality. Through networking with other groups, it has been able to accomplish much more than it could possibly have dreamed of on its own, and has built good relationships across confessional lines and with the government.
Assisting Through Education
Church of God minister Roumen Ivanov works for Mission Possible, an international Pentecostal parachurch ministry, which in the past few years has built a presence in Bulgaria as a leading Christian publishing house and educational organization, based in Sofia. Its primary goal is to assist local churches in their ministries through the literature and training they provide. To achieve this aim, it is working on several projects, including a Christian magazine for teenagers, a magazine for Christian women, and more recently, a new edition of the Bulgarian Bible. It is also in the final stages of producing a literacy primer for Gypsy children, which it hopes to make available to Christians offering education to Gypsy communities. Also, parts of these primers have biblical text, which can be used for evangelistic outreach to Gypsy communities, as many of them tend to be atheistic, mystical, and in some cases, Muslim.
Ivanov is very concerned that evangelical Christians be willing to network with one another, especially as his organization is seeking to help the entire evangelical community through its services. The mission has participated in cross-denominational events (for example, a Christmas service for children in Sofia) and its staff attends several different churches in Sofia. But Ivanov is also realistic about the degree to which evangelical groups can cooperate, as many of them have particular goals and methods that do not necessarily dovetail. Disagreements on financial and logistical issues can get in the way of cooperation, as can theological differences.
Christians in Bulgaria engage in humanitarian work across the spectrum to bring the gospel to people who are physically and spiritually suffering. They carry on a remarkable ministry with limited resources, and, in several cases, work together to accomplish much more than they could separately. But several obstacles still remain, and they are in need of knowledgeable and informed people who can help them meet their objectives. Projects need new funding ideas, marketing strategies, political support, legal counsel, administrative expertise, and access to those with experience in networking. Even more, they need people to lift up their ministries in prayer and come alongside them to aid them in their work. Please pray for the church in Bulgaria, and for the people who are sacrificing themselves to see it grow through ministry to "children at risk."
Editor's Note: Viva Network, Oxford, England, exists to "help children at risk around the world by linking and enhancing the Christian response." Viva Network has drawn together a variety of specialists to produce handbooks, training curriculum, and the journal Reaching Children at Risk. Its Web site, below, contains a directory of resources. Viva Network desires communication from individuals or organizations currently working with children at risk. Contact: Viva Network, Box 633, Oxford, England OX2 0XZ; tel: 44-1865-450-800; fax: 44-1865-203-567; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site: http://www.viva.org.
Steven Gertz is a network researcher with Viva Network, Oxford, England.
Children at Risk Ministries in Bulgaria
9 Oborishte Str.
1504 Sofia, Bulgaria
Good News Church
Kv. Zapaden Park, Block 52, Apt 4
Roumen Ivanov, Director
Nasko D. Lazarov, Administrative & Educational Director
Mission Possible Bulgaria
1463 Sofia, Bulgaria
Women of Virtue
83 Pirotska Str., Floor 3
Rev. Victor Virchev
Pentecostal Union of Bulgaria
Bacho Kiro Str. 21
1000 Sofia, Bulgaria
Rev. Theodor B. Oprenov
Bulgarian Baptist Union
Ossogovo Str. 63
1303 Sofia, Bulgaria
Scripture Union - Bulgaria
56 W. Gladstone Str.
BG-1000 Sofia, Bulgaria
Mission Without Borders
Dr. Long Memorial United Methodist Church
ul. Rakovski 86
Child Evangelism Fellowship
Ivan Stoitsev, Coordinator
ul. Tsar Ivan Assen 46
4230 Assenovgrad, Bulgaria
Dr. Grace Nedelcheva
Association "Milost" (Bulgarian Christian Medical Association)
1330 Sofia, Bulgaria
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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report