Alabaster: Bulgaria church overcomes challenges to reach community

Gina Grate Pottenger
Monday, September 15, 2014
ImageIn Montana, the birthplace of Communism in Bulgaria, in the home of the city’s first Communist mayor, meets a church of the Nazarene. The home, which was purchased with Alabaster funds in 1998, is now the gathering place for more than 100 people for worship.
 
But it is not only used for Sunday services. The top floor, which was added later, is the new location for a compassionate ministry center that will help unemployed and poor people in the most economically depressed part of Bulgaria to access government grants and education so they can start small businesses.
 
The building is also a place where continuing theological education takes place for emerging leaders in the Bulgarian Nazarene church. The church is the base for a weekly free meal to poor people in the area. And its members go out from here to minister in a home for poor elderly people.
 
Sometime after the fall of the Communist government, when democracy came to Bulgaria and Christians could meet freely, the church began as a group of about 10 people who were meeting in a private home for worship and Bible study. A relatively new believer in the group, Valeri Munelski, became their leader. They had emerged from the split of a church belonging to another denomination, and now found themselves alone. Munelski did his best to shepherd them.
 
They soon met American missionaries, who came often to give them advice and disciple them.
 
One day, police entered their meeting, handcuffed Munelski and drove him to the police station, where they forced him to stand while cuffed to a water pipe overnight, between two other prisoners.
 
The next morning, the chief of police confronted him.
 
“We know everything about you,” Munelski recalled the man saying. “We know you are the leader of a sect and you invite imperialist Americans into your home as guests. They are spies from the West.”
 
To secure his release, Munelski was told he would have to sign a document that he says was filled with lies, and that he would agree to become an informant for the police. His family was threatened if he did not agree to the arrangement.
 
ImageBut Munelski turned the tables on man. Knowing that Bulgaria had just signed an international human rights agreement, he demanded to call a lawyer, as well as the Americans he knew, and he insisted on being given a copy of the document he was being pressured to sign.
 
The officer became very afraid and begged Munelski not to do these things and said he could go freely. Munelski insisted on a lawyer and the officer began pleading with Munelski to leave and forget any of this had ever happened.
 
Finally, Munelski said he would leave if the officer would tell him who had told him when and where their church was meeting. He learned that the pastor of the former church that they had attended was an informant for the police.
 
As a result of the incident, the small group registered with the government through the Bulgarian Church of God to avoid further open persecution.
 
The group continued meeting, sometimes in fields and pastures. But winter was coming. As they prayed, God made them a promise: “You will have a beautiful building in the center of this town.”
 
The group connected in 1995 with Donald Moore, who was leading Nazarene Compassionate Ministries across Bulgaria, initiating agriculture programs. He helped the group set up some NCM projects and also with some Bible study material.

In 1998, Jay Sunberg, who at the time was a missionary in Bulgaria, and a group of Nazarene leaders met with Munelski and his group to ask what they needed, how they could assist them.

“I said, ‘Well, I’m ashamed to tell you this, but we want a building. Here the buildings are expensive. We have no money.’ So they said, ‘Well, that’s not really a problem… we have an Alabaster fund. So let’s go and really look for a church.’”
 
ImageAfter searching high and low, the group stopped at a nice house on the main road through Montana, which had a for sale sign. They all fell in love with the building, which had previously housed a cake shop on the ground floor. They quickly signed the paperwork and bought the two-story building.
 
“The Lord blessed our work so much that within half a year this place was full,” Munelski said. “We reached 50 people -- we pushed in exactly that many chairs. After two more months, it got even tighter. People were standing at the door and outside.”
 
They began remodeling to make room for more people in the services, and 13 different Work & Witness teams came to help.

“[Alabaster] helped this group transition from a small group of people being moved around from one rented hall to another to an established and growing church,” wrote Sunberg. “They grew quickly from 40 to 80 and then on to over 200.  Alabaster was a significant percentage of the funds for purchase and remodel of this building.  Work & Witness also was critical.”

Despite an increase in opposition from their neighbors, who harassed them and even circulated a petition to run the church out of town, the congregation continued growing. By 2005, membership had reached 250. The church was ministering in prisons and elderly homes.

In 2009, Bulgaria entered the European Union, which opened the doors wide for Bulgarians to emigrate to other more economically healthy places in Western Europe. Montana’s population fell sharply from 70,000 people to the 40,000s, leaving behind mostly the elderly and children. The economic situation in the region became worse. All this affected the church.

Today, due to emigration, the congregation has an average of around 119 people. But the congregation continues its ministries to the disadvantaged all around them, in short and long-term ways. A short-term solution is its weekly feeding program. A long-term solution is its new compassionate ministry, that aims to infuse new life into the local economy and slow down emigration by helping people learn vocational skills and develop small businesses.

“The church serves as a hub in northeastern Bulgaria, the poorest region in the European Union,” Sunberg wrote. “It is a hub for theological education, compassionate ministries, and church planting.  The current project to help economic development is very exciting and will help many people.  Alabaster precipitated all of this.”

“The love of God is poured out in our lives in incredible ways,” Munelski said. “Exactly when Bulgaria feels the most isolated, here there are drops of hope.”