It’s been several years since a brother of the community has visited Latvia and Estonia. During that time, young people from these countries have continued to take part in the gatherings in Taizé and the European meetings. More and more are travelling individually. Earlier many came with groups from their parishes. Perhaps this mirrors changes in church life?
A weekend in Riga gave the opportunity to bring together young people from different church traditions for prayer and Bible reflection. Some made the journey from towns and villages in the provinces of Vidzeme, Kurzeme and Zemgale. The Lutheran church is in the process of opening a centre for students and young people in the old city. By using leftover building materials, old curtains, coloured paper, plants from the lobby and a lot of candles, a beautiful worship space was created from almost nothing for Friday evening prayer, which continued late as people prayed around the icon of the cross.
On Saturday, Old St Gertrude’s Church hosted the prayers and meetings. The morning Bible study was based on the theme of thankfulness. In a world where we’re often encouraged to adopt a negative or critical attitude, it is so easy to forget this essential reality of faith. The story of the ten lepers in Luke’s Gospel shows how the outsider manages to enter into the fullness of fellowship with Jesus through his gratitude. In the afternoon, outsiders were not forgotten as one of the workshops involved going out to offer food to people living on the streets. Those who chose this workshop said that it wasn’t the food that was most important for those they met - what counted was the human contact and conversation. A prayer with songs from Taizé will continue at Old St Gertrude’s every Monday at 6.30pm.
In Ventspils, only a few people have been to Taizé. The choir of the local parish had been practising songs for several weeks and on the Sunday evening, young adults gathered for a prayer that brought together people from several different denominations. Saldus has a new Catholic church, completed after many years of planning. The tradition of pilgrimages to Taizé from the town was already well established in the early 1990s, but this was the first time that prayer had been held in the Catholic parish. November 18 was the 90th anniversary of Latvia’s declaration of independence. On that day, St Simon’s in Valmeira hosted a time of worship, gathering people from different communities, young and old. Joy and thankfulness were palpable as we sang and prayed together.
In Estonia, on two occasions it was possible to meet with students in school religion classes. Each time, it was a real challenge to share something of the Gospel, in a language that was accessible to young people who for the most part have little or no tradition of faith in their families. This is the challenge that the churches face today. So it was a joy to discover that the Lutheran church in Tallinn is beginning to establish a parish in one of the suburbs built in Soviet times. There has been never been a place of worship there before. The project is being piloted by young adults and will provide a real possibility to be with people at the point where they are on their faith journey.
In the university city of Tartu, St Paul’s Congregation has just regained possession of two thirds of their church buildings. Enormous work in underway to restore the place of worship to its pre-1950s state. However, the bustling soup kitchen under the church, which each day feeds dozens of people from socially problematic backgrounds, bears witness to a desire not to restore something of the past, but to live the Gospel today. An evening prayer in St Mary’s Church - which also has recently restored as place of worship - brought together young adults from Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist and free church congregations, as well as members of the two Orthodox Churches present in Estonia.
In Kuusalu, after battling through the blizzards that gripped the country, a beautiful prayer led by young people playing all kinds of musical instruments and a congregation, though small, singing in different voices, showed how it is not necessary to be very numerous to foster a sense of worship where fellowship with God becomes tangible.
In so many places, the impression that remains from the visit is one of perseverance in faith. Sometimes it seems as though it is only numbers that count. But in both Estonia and Latvia, in Christian communities that are often quite small, there is a faithfulness which refuses to give in to discouragement. That is a testimony which can strengthen us all.