History of our Church
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On June 15th 2019, Warsaw International Church celebrated thirty-five 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 increase in understanding and appreciation for what the Lord has been doing in this church.
In June 1999, Pastor Bill Anderson documented the following history of WIC.
The Church was originally established on June 15th 1984.
"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, the 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.)
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, and 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 colourful 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 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 Warsaw International Church had its embryonic beginnings. On October 28th 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 like-minded people to meet there. In his professional life, Swartz was causing "great heartburn for General Jaruzelski and his team" by continuing to meet with the likes of Solidarity first leader and 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 pastor 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 accommodation 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, 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-storey house in Mokotów, 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. Delegalized but far from dead, Solidarity stirred restlessly as strikes rocked the country. In August 1988, Lech Walesa met with General Czesław Kiszczak, and the now famed shipyard worker became instrumental in quelling the unrest.
On February 6th 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, 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 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 was 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 Miodowa Street, in a building that is the headquarters of the Polish Lutheran Church (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 Wiewióra (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 – Full Self-Sufficiency
Pastor Bill Anderson and Terry Anderson, who also taught at the American School here, arrived in the prospering self-invention called Warsaw in 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 Street 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, colourful 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.
Pastor Anderson said: "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 23rd 1999, 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 19 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 1st 2001 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 1st 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 honour and memory of loved ones.
During the Advent and Lent seasons of 2003-2004, the congregation held special worship services at the Methodist Church in Konstancin on Sloneczna Street.
In October 2004, Warsaw International Church celebrated twenty years of ministry.
In 2004, Kerry Purselle headed back to her lovely home and church in Brevard, North Carolina. We were sorry to see her and Dick go, but gladly remain in touch.
On August 1st 2005 Pastor Beth Huwiler became the pastor of WIC, her first international posting. When she flew in from the U.S. she was greeted at the airport and manse by a large and enthusiastic welcoming committee of WIC members. Pastor Beth ended her mission with WIC in July 2007 and returned home.
We were blessed to have Gene and Nancy Preston back at WIC for a one-year interim position from July 2007 until June 2008. Pastor Gene graced us again with his warmth, leadership, and preaching skills. In the transition until our full-time pastor would arrive, Pastor Liz Wyatt led us in service in the summer of 2008.
In the autumn of 2008 we opened a new chapter at WIC with our first non-American pastor. Murray Gow came to Warsaw all the way from New Zealand; his wife Margherita, by way of Ukraine. It was exciting to have a young family at WIC again with their two children Jonathan and Maria Alexandra. It was also important that we could give the Gow family an opportunity to be closer to cherished and missed relatives in Ukraine. Their adorable children quickly adjusted to life in Poland easily and learned the Polish language quickly. This was a joyful time for the congregation. Pastor Gow was most notable for his academic acumen and the Bible studies he held at the Manse complete with a wonderful dinner Margherita always prepared. It became a weekly family gathering.
When the Gows headed back to New Zealand in 2010, Young Osawaru took over the leadership of WIC. On June 15th 2014 we celebrated WIC’s 30th anniversary during a wonderful family picnic in Konstancin. Young, who is also a lecturer at Warsaw Technical University, resigned his pastoral duties in October 2017. The Church Council therefore approached Harry Irrgang, an Englishman who has been living in Poland since 1986 with his Polish wife Ania, with a request to consider being a candidate for the vacant post of pastor of WIC. Harry was working as a translator, while Ania was a Sunday School teacher at Warsaw’s Methodist Church. Harry was eventually appointed and began his part-time tenure as of November 2017 (he still continues his translation work).
Since Harry’s appointment, there has been a steady increase in the number of people worshipping at WIC. Bible study is held twice a month at the Holy Trinity Polish Lutheran Church parish house at 4 Kredytowa Street. This is also attended by English-speaking parishioners from the Polish Lutheran Church and Harry – himself a Lutheran – has cordial relations with the Polish Lutheran pastor, Piotr Gaś. Our usual functions such as Sunday School (supervised by Marilyn Dypczynski), coffee hour and potluck dinners also continue, and we are developing new activities such as street evangelism and ladies’ fellowship meetings. Perhaps the highpoint of Harry’s pastorate so far was WIC’s 35th anniversary picnic, held on June 16th 2019 in brilliant sunshine and beautiful surroundings in the Noce i Dnie Hotel in Klarysew on the outskirts of Warsaw. Organized by the Church Council and above all with dedicated arranging by Piotr Dypczynski, our picnic was attended by about 65 worshippers and acclaimed a great success.
A new challenge presented itself in March 2020 in the sudden spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease all over our planet. Sunday services and Thursday Bible study had to be suspended, as people were advised to keep away from each other to avoid being infected. Pastor Harry had to start improving his rather shaky IT skills, but with enthusiastic help from worshippers with the appropriate know-how it has become possible to hold live services online. The benefit of this is that we are opening our worship to a global audience, as people living abroad are already joining us. Our philosophy is to urge our members to worship with us at exactly the same time as the usual Sunday service (11 am), so that we can stay together as a congregation as much as possible. And of course, to pray constantly that our Lord will keep His children safe and provide new openings to proclaim Him to those who do not yet know Him. At the time of writing this, it is not known how this crisis will be resolved. But one thing seems clear: the world will no longer be the same.
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 Richard Lake