The Importance of Being a Sister (Church)

The Importance of Being a Sister (church)

By David Boan [1]

As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, the Cathedral of the Rockies Amity (Boise FUMC) Mission team proposed a unique model of helping displaced Ukrainian people. Our general mission approach emphasizes building relationships, so we asked, “Can we aid people in Ukraine and also build relationships with them?”

With assistance from Global Ministries and the NGO One Collective, we met with Revs. Visaly and Ala Vukstah of the United Methodist Church of Uzhgorod Ukraine and invited them to join us in forming a sister-church partnership. We approached this relationship with an emphasis on learning about their situation, their church, and their needs. We started this relationship as a sixmonth pilot project where we would learn about Uzhgorod and also the Methodist denomination in Ukraine. The more we learned, the morewe would work together on a longterm mission plan. Thus, we began having Zoom calls with the Uzhgorod church and also with various people connected to Global Ministries and Ukraine.

One of those conversations was in March when our team met with Dr. Ullas Tankler, the Global Ministries Director for Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. We asked what he thought the churches in Ukraine needed the most. He replied that they were exhausted and in need of rest, but that would be very difficult for us to provide from a distance. However, he added that it was important that they know we care and are with them, and most importantly, that our support is not just a moment of excitement that is soon forgotten, but that it is enduring. There is also peace to be found in knowing they are not forgotten.

The conversation with Dr. Tankler resonated with our approach to mission. Our idea of being merciful and compassionate comes from the Greek hesed which translates as mercy or kindness between people. Hesed actually has two dimensions, compassion and fidelity, as in God’s love being both merciful and faithful. Hesed is the word translated as mercy in the 23rd Psalm: “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life”. A sister church relationship is the practice of hesed. It is different than a relationship of only providing temporary relief in that it both provides relief (mercy) and is faithful over time.

Those two dimensions, merciful and faithful, overcome a common flaw in traditional relief efforts. The widely recognized problem with humanitarian relief is that the focus is short term with little development for the long term. By being both merciful and faithful, the church demonstrates how church-based relief is different from traditional relief and can overcome this flaw in humanitarian relief.

In April we spoke with Oleg and Yulia Starodubets. Rev Starodubets is a district superintendent of the Ukraine Methodist church and was pastor of the Kyiv Methodist Church before evacuating to Uzhgorod. When asked about what support was needed for the Methodist churches across Ukraine, the immediate reply was to share information. The implication was to help people to remember we are here and we are in need.

The idea of a sister church comes out of the rethinking of missions that took place during the later 20th century. The Global South pushed back against traditional missions as tools of colonization and cultural intrusion. Denominations in the West began rethinking missions and looking for a solution that was humane and compassionate. Out of this searching came the idea of church-to-church relationships. Rather than sending missionaries into the field, churches formed partnerships and built relationships that spanned continents. According to Janel Bakker[2], these sister church relationships are marked by a spirit of collaboration and partnership, which is clearly what we seek in building a relationship with the Uzhgorod church.

Our mission team is early in this relationshipbuilding venture, but the team already has a sense of becoming connected to Uzhgorod. We are working to support their work to care for people displaced by the war. We are seeing the possibilities for aid as we learn more, and we also see the potential created by inviting other US churches to join with us.

As we approach the end of our six-month pilot test there is a strong sense of moving forward together with Uzhgorod. It is unclear where it will lead or what the church in Uzhgorod will face as the war continues, but there is a growing sense that we want to be with them.

If you or your church would like to know more about our work and the possibilities for helping in Ukraine, please write us at [email protected]

[1] Thank you to Peter Billings and Greg Hoetker for their valuable feedback

[2] Bakker, J. K. (2013). Sister churches: American congregations and their partners abroad. Oxford University Press.


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