WARSAW INTERNATIONAL CHURCH
In October 2004, Warsaw International Church celebrated twenty years of ministry. We have taken the challenging step to achieve full financial independence and continue to be a spirit-filled place where Christians live out their faith while living in Warsaw. At this stage of WIC's journey, it seemed right that we should document some of this development, to assist in the growing of understanding and the appreciation for what God has been doing in this place.
In June of 1999 Pastor Bill Anderson documented the following WIC history.
"One of the most memorable worship experiences for me was the Pentecost service about two or maybe three years ago.For the reading of the Gospel, then Pastor Bill Anderson had recruited ten or eleven readers who all read the same passage-but in their native languages. It was an amazing experience because it gave you a real perspective of the "speaking in tongues" of Pentecost, that is, of the diversity and unity of the church of Christ. I loved it." (Excerpt from the testimony of one longtime WIC participant.)
The Warsaw International Church has grown up to be a model and exemplary church for the new millennium: A quintessential celebration of diversity of language and culture, an inter-denominational, spiritual oasis representing every continent and so many countries, a weekly respite for foreigners and Poles who enjoy worshipping in the English language. WIC is not about nationalism, competing theologies or liturgies. Like many of the international churches that have sprung up in recent years, its message is simple and inclusive-that people of very different backgrounds can worship together in harmony.
The overwhelming obstacles facing Warsaw International Church (WIC) at its onset were swiftly embraced and helped form its essential nature over time. Foreigners wanting to pray in English were, and still are, of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. The pioneers who founded the church did not, and most often, could not stay and help it take root. The pace of turnover in expatriate worshippers has always been breathless. As one pastor put it, "It is like watching a colorful parade pass by." Still, these apparent weaknesses soon proved to be strengths.
In its short life the church has grown from several drops in a bucket to a steady stream in every way, from a handful of worshippers to 100-plus active participants, from visiting pastors to permanent pastors, and, perhaps most significantly, from being almost fully supported by U.S. churches to now, today, being fully self sufficient. The church has a reputation in Warsaw for welcoming diverse people and helping them get established-whether they are British, American Mongolian or Nigerian, for instance-a spiritual home away from home. Recalls founder David Swartz: "A multi-cultural congregation from all kinds of political, economic, and geographic backgrounds gathered together week after week in complete harmony to worship the Lord God and to find fellowship with one another. All kinds of satellite groups sprang up: Sunday school, a choir, Bible study, dinner groups, and excursions. It was great! I'm sure it still is."
1984: An English-Language Church In Communist Poland
Warsaw in 1984 was a city on edge. The fact that Martial Law had been lifted the year before made little difference in daily life, which was still quite hard, an extremely controlled, censored life marked by surreally long lines for very small shops frequently bereft of edible food. Many dissident men and women lived then in daily fear of arrest under the strong-arm regime of General Jaruzelski.
Of course there were small joys and a vibrant life inside one's own four walls. As we know now, there was also a growing strength in the underground Solidarity movement. And the tragic murder of activist Father Popieluszko in October 1984, almost certainly by renegade security police, was to be the beginning of the end of communism in Poland.
It was against this tense and remarkable backdrop, and coincidentally the same month as Popieluszko's seminal martyrdom, that the Warsaw International Church had its embryonic beginnings. On October 28, 1984, about 25 expatriates interested in English-language Protestant services attended the first worship in the less than celestial surroundings of the U.S. Embassy cafeteria, and a church was born.
Early documents show that the nascent church was most notably the work of one man, U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission David Swartz. "One reason for founding WIC, clearly, was my own need for religious worship and fellowship," Swartz recalls now. "I spoke Polish fluently but nonetheless found attending services to be less than satisfying." Swartz's position at the American Embassy, and the cooperation of his supervisors, allowed several likeminded people to meet there. In his professional life, Swartz was causing "great heartburn for Gen. Jaruzelski and his team" by continuing to meet with the likes of Solidarity leader and now-former President Lech Walesa. So Swartz was delicate in his management of the new church: "You can imagine how careful we tried to be in organizing WIC and, especially, to limiting our contacts with the local Polish populace. My great friend Adam Kuczma of the Polish Methodist church showed great courage in agreeing to preach at our services approximately once a month." On those occasions, Swartz met Kuczma at his home and drove the minister to the embassy to prevent him from being harassed or detained by Polish security forces. "We made the conscious decision to discourage Poles from attending services, because we knew the regime could make problems for them and also for us," says Swartz, "particularly when we had to seek the Polish government's support for and approval of the posting of the first pastor to WIC in 1986." Fortunately, Swartz was on good terms with the chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry at that time.
Growing Pains, Growing Glory
In the fall of 1985, WIC was at its first crossroads. "Either we were going to take a quantum leap by seeking to institutionalize ourselves, associate with the National Council of Churches, and get a full-time pastor, or we were going to stagnate," remembers Swartz. The church at that time had become overburdened with a constant flow of visiting pastors, who, though often inspiring and quite gracious, needed accommodations in homes week after week. Finding, recruiting, getting visas for, and housing and feeding the weekly visiting pastors from Western Europe had reached its saturation point, and the search for the first full-time pastor was on.
In part, WIC used the Moscow Chaplaincy as a guiding light. This international church was already thriving even under the Iron Curtain and its sustenance from American churches was used as a model for the lifeblood of WIC. Perhaps, as in the Moscow case, American churches would pay for their clergy to come to Warsaw if some of the expenses of maintaining a pastor-apartment rental and car, for instance-would be borne by the informal membership. At a congregational meeting in September 1985, the WIC participants voted to seek to obtain a resident pastor.
WIC's first pastor, The Rev. Greg Seeber of the United Church of Christ, arrived in 1986 straight from Istanbul and to much joy. In fact, the National Council of Churches approached a number of denominations and ultimately, with the Reformed Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church as well as the UCC formed a consortium to jointly sponsor pastors for three-year terms. Pastor Seeber found housing to serve as the parsonage in a renovated attic of a two-story house in Mokotow, a modest dwelling that served the pastors until 1994. During his years, members donated much of the furniture for the parsonage as they left Warsaw. The overarching goal-even then-was for the church to ultimately become self-supporting, although with 20 weekly attendees, it seemed highly unlikely.
Pastor Seeber's tenure was within the context of huge historical shifts in Poland. By the middle of 1988, there were democratic rumblings from the underground. De-legalized but far from dead, Solidarity stirred restlessly as strikes rocked the country. In August 1988, Lech Walesa met with Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, and the now famed shipyard worker became instrumental in quelling the unrest.
On February 6, 1989, representatives of the communist government, the opposition and the Roman Catholic Church joined in the Round Table Talks, and the dismantling of Communism in Poland had begun. After an unprecedented two months of talks, the government agreed to open elections but called for an early vote to throw Solidarity off-balance. Still, opposition dissident forces swept all the races. The faces of WIC would change and diversify as a result.
In September 1989, The Rev. Richard E. Lake took over the pastoral duties at WIC, a church that was rapidly transforming as more expatriates arrived for the purposes of work and study as Poles tasted freedom for the first time since before World War II. His wife, Phyllis Lake, who taught at the American School of Warsaw, joined him. Pastor Lake remembers now that "people were meeting in the Assembly Hall of the American Embassy, a spot reached by entering through one guarded door of one building, out the back, down a flight of stairs, across the parking lot, up more stairs, through a Marine-guarded door, and down more stairs." He adds, "One had to be a dedicated Christian to endure these hurdles every Sunday."
Beginning in May of 1990, according to Pastor Lake, there were visitors in the congregation every Sunday, and the numbers grew from about 15 or 20 in 1989 to over 100 by his departure four years later. Most people remained in Warsaw for a two- or three-year assignment, others for two to six months. "Very few church members had been in Poland more than three years," Lake recalls, "which meant that the turnover of members were very high with people new to the city becoming part of the congregation every week."
By 1991, WIC worship had moved to its current location on Ulica Miodowa, in a building that is the headquarters of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation). That move alleviated the difficult access to the U.S. Embassy facilities and provided more space for the growth in attendance that occurred at the same time.
"We followed the Ecumenical Lectionary for the weekly lessons," he recalls. "We adopted a rather smorgasbord style of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper by providing a common cup with wine, a common cup with grape juice; individual glasses with wine and the same with grape juice. We used a common loaf of bread and wafers. A rather amusing annoyance was the selection of hymns for the services. Seldom did we select hymns that everyone knew. One Brit sort of kept score. If there were two that he knew, he was happy."
As democracy and Western-style capitalism hit Warsaw like a small tidal wave, WIC was also gaining resources, and a vision beyond itself. It was during this time that consistent charitable efforts to its host country became part of its mission, and its longstanding relationship with "The House of the Mother of the Good Shepherd," an orphanage in Piaseczno, began. Presently, there are about 50 girl-boarders between 6- and 18-years-of-age and 40 day-care children from the local village; they come from abusive or simply dysfunctional families unable to care for the children. WIC makes regular visits to the orphanages, and plans events, especially at holiday time. The WIC connection with the orphanage came about through a personal friendship that developed in 1980 between Ruthie Wiewiora (a resident of Poland from 1980 to 1996 and a founding member of WIC) and Sister Ziuta. When Sister Ziuta (and others) were able to re-open the orphanage in Piaseczno in 1989, Ruthie was a major coordinator of WIC efforts to assist them. Dean Ruehle (WIC member 1994-1999, and Council President in 1997 and 1998) says: "To see the joy on the faces of the children from Piaseczno whenever we are together brings great joy into my life. It is important for WIC to be able to share our resources with these children and to contribute to a brighter future for them. We can never do enough to share God's love with them."
Pastor Jack Hustad and his wife Helen served from summer 1993 to the summer of 1994 at WIC. Jack's strong and humorous preaching, and Helen's gifts of music to the congregation strengthened the lives of many people. They were instrumental in significant improvements in housing and furnishing. Pastor Hustad was also the organizer for the first Inter-faith Thanksgiving Worship in Warsaw (a uniquely American holiday and worship focus).
WIC Reaches Adulthood-Fully Self Sufficient
Pastor Bill Anderson and Terry Anderson, who also taught at the American School here, arrived in the prospering self-invention called Warsaw, 1994. The posting was a natural for them: They had stayed in touch with Terry's Polish relatives, and visited in 1981 and 1983. They had an intimate interest in the quicksilver changes that were taking place, because of family, heritage and curiosity. During Pastor Anderson's tenure, the average size of Sunday worship fluctuated within a range of 90 to 120-with less in the summer of course. But beyond statistics, the congregation touched and affected many lives during these four years.
In "Pastor Bill's" words: "My ministry here has been very satisfying. The warmth and energy of the congregation have been very enriching to me personally." According to Pastor Anderson, ministering to any congregation of this size often challenges a pastor to be a jack-of-all trades-messenger, secretary, driver, and, of course, spiritual guide.
Substantial administrative and social outreach programs developed under Pastor Anderson as well, from the first church office on Willowa and an active online involvement with alumni of the church worldwide-Marcey Grigsby established "Alumni Connections" in May 1999-to social work with Habitat for Humanity, a soup kitchen and a Warsaw Women's Shelter.
The most significant "official" milestone during this time was the growing nature of WIC's status, both in the United States and Poland. WIC is today a not-for-profit corporation in the U.S., which gives the organization tax-exempt status as a recipient of charitable contributions. WIC can also issue charitable contribution statements which are accepted by the Internal Revenue Service. In addition, WIC is registered as a church in Poland.
During those early days, it seemed untenable that the transient, colorful body called WIC could support its own pastor. But one of the hallmarks of Pastor Bill Anderson's tenure was the feat of self-sufficiency. In 1996, The Church Council formally voted to move toward independence. In 1997, half of the cost of the pastor was reimbursed to the founding churches. In 1998, 75% of the pastor's cost was reimbursed. Now, WIC pays for its own pastor, and is no longer dependent on any other church for its economic survival.
One challenge that has not changed through the church's development is the hurdles participants and pastors must jump over to develop relationships with the ever-changing congregation. And then when so many leave so suddenly, to stay in contact with the families as they traverse new terrain.
Said Pastor Anderson: "Because people are here for a short time, I know that we are often slower than we should be to establish contact, encourage participation, and effectively incorporate them into our community of faith. On the reverse, that constant change is one of the greatest advantages, as it brings in an ever new flow of ideas, talents, and experiences to our congregation."
On May 23, l999, Pastor Mark Atkinson was called to serve as the fifth resident Pastor of Warsaw International Church. Prior to his arrival in September, pastor Ralph Carlson and his wife, Helen Carlson, helped the church through its summer transition. The Carlsons blessed us with their calm style and formed a bridge to the September l9 arrival of Pastor Mark, his wife Lois Ann, and their three children. Pastor Mark was our first minister to have ordination standing with the Presbyterian Church USA.
Pastor Mark and Lois Ann, who is also ordained, brought vigorous pulpit teaching and uplifting adult Bible study to our congregation. After about one year, however, the Church Council discerned that we had overreached financially when calling our first minister to be fully funded by us. The larger family required a doubling of our housing allowance and significant increases in support costs for three children doing home schooling. In the late spring of 2000 it was mutually agreed that Pastor Mark would not serve the third year of his contract as the church could not guarantee the original financial terms and the Atkinson family could not accept the incertitude of the financial outlook. Pastor Mark resigned and went on to serve the Union Church in Lima, Peru.
On August l, 200l we received Pastor Gene Preston as our interim pastor for one year. Pastor Gene came to us after eight years of serving as a pastor in Hong Kong. During their year with us, Pastor Gene and his wife, Nancy, were active in initiating groups and studies outside of Sunday worship. Our women's group, WOW, evolved from our first women's retreat, a project nurtured by Nancy
Pastor Kerry Purselle arrived in Warsaw on August 1, 2002. She and her husband, Dick, arrived from Brevard, North Carolina. Pastor Kerry is ordained in the United Methodist Church. She is our first female pastor, and she is also the first ordained female pastor in Poland to undertake full pastoral duties. Pastor Kerry brings joy and enthusiasm to the worship services. She loves music with the children and occasionally brings a puppet for the children's message. Dick is a great cook, and together they enjoy feeding both body and soul at gatherings in their home.
Since the spring of 2003, four teams of short-term mission groups from the U.S. have come to work with Pastor Kerry and Dick in cooperation with our WIC Outreach Committee, led by Young Osawaru. In February 2004, WIC consecrated a new hymnal, "The Chalice Hymnal," for use in our worship services. The hymnals were purchased with gifts and named in honor and memory of loved ones.
During the Advent and Lenten seasons of 2003-2004, the congregation held special worship services at the Methodist Church in Konstancin on ulica Sloneczna.
This quote from one of our pastors summarizes the ongoing spirit of our community of faith: "My memory is that we (the participants from all over the world and almost every theological persuasion) made it work. We prayed and sang and served mission together. There was a most profound respect and appreciation for the very diverse backgrounds and traditions, and a willingness to put one's personal demands for a specific liturgy or hymn or style aside for the sake of an ecumenical and international expression of Christian fellowship and mission." - Pastor Lake