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Russian-speaking congregation supports Ukrainian refugees (UM News)

August 17, 2022

While Russians and Ukrainians engage in war in various parts of Ukraine, a Russian-speaking United Methodist congregation in Prague is finding ways to support Ukrainian refugees. 

Prague 2 United Methodist Church is a collective of two congregations: Nové Město (New Life), which is Czech-speaking, and Agapé, which is Russian-speaking and has Ukrainian members. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the congregations have helped house refugees arriving to the city and arranged transport of necessary supplies for those who couldn’t leave the country. 

The Rev. Lev Shults, who leads Agapé, said, “We’re all different but have one wish in common: to be happy, successful and healthy.”

Shults said that when the invasion began Feb. 24, members from the church would go twice a day to meet refugees arriving to the city by train. Many took refugees into their own homes. 

“Many people just left everything and arrive in the clothes they have on; they need material help,” said Maryna Tagunkova, a member of Agapé.

Tagunkova realized that there was also a great need for information about where refugees could get resources. She started a website for the church that gives contact information and helps people navigate the system to find housing or jobs. The site also gives information about Agapé and invites people to join them for worship.

“Many times, they don’t know which information is correct and what is the truth,” she said, which is why she thinks the church can be seen as a credible source. 

The invasion is especially troubling for Tagunkova, since she is Ukrainian and her husband is Russian. 

Shults, a Russian citizen himself, has a son whose wife is Ukrainian. He said, “How can you live with this when you have the mix of both countries in your family?”

Shults believes that Agapé is the only Russian-speaking church in Prague where Russians and Ukrainians worship together. He has carefully navigated any tension between the nationalities in the congregation, saying they concentrate on praying and helping each other. 

“Thank God there is no conflict here in our church because if you are Christian and believe in Christ, then you don’t take those political evils,” he said. “We pray for the power, the understanding and for God to take us through it, because the war is a monster with empty eyes.” 

The Rev. Jana Křížova, pastor of theNové Město congregation and coordinator of refugee ministries for the Czech and Slovak Republics Conference, said focusing on God helps in the relationship between all the nationalities represented at Prague 2. 

“The peace among church members of Agape is fragile, but they are still able to pray together. Pastor Lev emphasizes God’s grace and glory and refuses to glorify people, regardless of which nation,” she said. 

The Rev. Ivana Procházková, superintendent of The United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic, calls Agapé “a light in the darkness.”

“They’re on the first line, having families in Russia and Ukraine, so it’s important to be maximum close to them and help them because they know best how to effectively help,” she said.

There are 20 United Methodist churches in 17 districts in the Czech Republic. The church also operates Diakonia, a nonprofit organization that provides social services such as homeless shelters, addiction recovery and children’s educational programs, and now has responsibility for refugee ministry.

All local churches found some way to help, Procházková said. “It’s very different — some have groups for children; others have small apartments to house refugees; some help refugees contact government or medical services. The mission of the church is to help where government or public society doesn’t.”

“It’s a great treasure we are discovering: mutual support with each other,” she told the congregation. “If strength and joy drain out from us, I hope we remember God is in us.”