God is Bringing Us Together
AS the Fresh Expressions Pioneer Leader for The Salvation Army in the seaside town of Margate, in the United Kingdom Territory with the Republic of Ireland, Patrik Herak and his wife, Ilona Herakova, oversee a vital ministry to members of the Roma community. He shared with Jo Clark (Programme Resources, International Headquarters) how his congregation – known as Armáda Spásy, Czech for The Salvation Army – has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how God has made his presence felt more strongly than ever.
The first question I had when the COVID-19 lockdown started and the church ministry and worship meetings were closed, and we could no longer be together physically was: ‘How on earth can we go on in this pandemic?’
As a leader, from the very beginning people came to ask me all sorts of questions; they had so many doubts and fears. I knew immediately that I had to go to God to get answers for these people.
The leaders of each ministry group within the church (men, women, children and youth, worship, prayer, etc) came together with the Roma ministry coordinating pastors (Majors Kathryn and David Blowers) for conversation and prayer. We knew from God – and decided together as a team – that we had to go on.
For me, knowledge of the pandemic didn’t bring any fear; it was more like an opportunity to find other possibilities and ways of being and ministering. I saw this as a calling which God had given to me.
He also reminded me of how the apostles experienced similar situations. They faced times when they had to be closed-down, times of persecution, times when their leaders were physically absent (as when Paul was in prison) and when believers were separate from each other.
God reminded me that the only contact they had with each other was by letter. Today we are blessed with new technologies and new ways of being and connecting. We have had to learn these in recent weeks. Understanding and using the new technologies has been a real challenge for me, but I believe they are what God has given to us.
As Peter said in his first Letter to those in exile: ‘In all this [salvation and eternal inheritance] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (1 Peter 1:6-7 New International Version). This has helped me personally in these times and has enabled me to encourage others.
In the beginning, the reactions to the virus amongst our congregation were mixed. People had a lot of worry and fear for themselves and their families. Some even said they would go back to their homeland (Slovakia or the Czech Republic). The spread of this virus happened in such an unexpected way. No one could have imagined this.
In the end, although other friends returned to mainland Europe, all our congregation members decided to stay.
After a few weeks people began to take notice and see what was happening in their families during lockdown. While some struggled in their relationship with Christ and had doubts and trials of faith, it was revealed to others that things weren’t right within their family or marriage.
I had to accept some correction from God myself. This has strengthened me. I know that God has given us more to carry in these times, but I also recognise that the burden I carry is his and that he is with me. I first had to receive from God in these times before I was able to teach and share with others so they could be strengthened too.
Ilona, my wife, and I have done this speaking, strengthening and encouraging ministry together. We have been meeting separately with the husbands and wives of married couples, and also together with the two. I can see things changing for the better and fruit coming out, with God bringing healing in marriages which they wouldn’t have known they needed before these COVID days. And even though some of the family struggles still carry on a little, it isn’t like it was before.
I once read something from Revd Billy Graham in which he said that, despite the harshest burden, blessing can come through times of suffering, pain and hopelessness; something can still grow. Yesterday we met with the leaders of each of the ministry teams within the church and asked them what these times have been like for them. Each leader has grown spiritually!
Everyone has had to seek God for themselves. There has been a deepening of their relationship with Christ, of hope and of the recognition that he is the path. As they have sought his wisdom in this time, I can see that spiritual fruits and gifts have emerged. In this way, this time has been an excellent experience.
Of course, our patterns of ministry and communication have had to change, and this has been a challenge. Getting to grips with organising prayer meetings and Bible studies via Zoom, worship and preaching services via Facebook Live and daily connection, encouragement and prayer request conversations via WhatsApp has been vital. Every ministry group within the church has its own WhatsApp group and people (old and young) are now in contact daily.
Now that lockdown restrictions are easing, Ilona has been able to go out for exercise with some of the women and I have been able to meet with some of the men in their gardens to encourage them. Neither Ilona nor I have really had this same kind of opportunity to connect with and spend time like this with members until now. God really has created a situation which we couldn’t have imagined before.
During the pandemic there have been hard times. People we know have died. We have stood beside those who have lost loved ones, but at the same time I have seen how God has looked after us and has used us. Even in the hardest times and greatest difficulties of this pandemic we have been privileged to be able to support people.
Twice recently, as a congregation, we have sent monetary collections to people in Slovakia – to those suffering with great hunger and others severely affected by floods. In a beautiful way, God has used us for his glory. Through our actions people have come into his joy and we, in turn, have been blessed.
One thing I know – and maybe as a church we are really discovering this in these times – is that only with hope in Jesus will we find the way through this. My understanding, and one which has come to us as a church fellowship, is that God has waited for so long but during these times has given churches who didn’t want to change anything a kind of earthquake. Things they wouldn’t have done on their own, or dared to do on their own, God has stepped in and helped people to realise what they have to do.
There were many leaders who were very comfortable with what was, and wouldn’t have changed anything. People had come to rely too much on what they were comfortable with or which particular place they were comfortable in. Now we rely on God and on his Word. Life will never again be like it was before. God has this in his hands. He showed me this through Psalm 32:8: ‘I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.’
God is teaching me exactly what he wants me/us to do, how he wants us to go on and live. The future is not going to be like it was, but God is saying that he is God and we just need to trust him.
These are difficult times, but I hold on to the positives (my wife always tells me how good I am at doing this!). Couples, families and our whole church congregation really have learned to love, encourage, support and be together in ways we couldn’t do before.
Report by IHQ Communications
(With grateful thanks to Major Kathryn Blowers for translation to and from Czech)