Speaking boldly with a minority voice
Lutherans in Minnesota and Wisconsin know what it is to be part of a majority faith community. How might it feel to live on the other side of that reality? Three members of the Evan-gelical Augsburg Church, the Lutheran presence in Poland, provided some insights during a visit to the Twin Cities. They spoke with Metro Lutheran in a conversation shared on November 11.
According to the Rev. Roman Dorda, who serves a circuit of five Lutheran congregations in Silesia (southern Poland), there are 80,000 Lutherans in this heavily Roman Catholic country with a population of 40 million. “Being a minority church can be a problem,” he said. “The Roman Catholics find it easy to ignore minorities when it serves their purposes.”
But, added Lidia Palac, the headmistress in a Lutheran school and one of Dorda’s traveling companions, “Being a minority can also be beneficial. Even after the end of Communist domination, there are times when church leaders get into conflicts with government policy. When that happens, Roman Catholics take the brunt of the battle, but Lutherans benefit from the majority group’s advocacy.”
Palac, Dorda, and Dorda’s wife, Jolanta, a retired teacher, were in the United States for 12 days, visiting Lutherans in Minnesota and other states. Their journey was made as a reciprocal visit. The Polish Lutherans had previously been on the receiving end of a series of visits from U.S. Lutherans, pilgrimages in-spired, organized, and led by the Rev. Herbert Brokering of Bloomington, Minnesota.
Brokering, who was on hand for the November 11 conversation, told Metro Lutheran that he got the idea for the visits to Lutherans in Poland after he initiated a series of pilgrimages to Germany, where Lutheranism first took root. “It occurred to me,” he explained, “that a whole new experience might be awaiting U.S. Lutherans in Poland, where our church is small yet resilient.”
Brokering’s pilgrimages have been enabled by Bloomington, Minnesota-based Group Travel Direc-tors (GTD). Janet Tollund, who works with GTD, pointed out that Silesia, the part of modern Poland where the largest concentration of Lutherans live, gave the church one of its most beloved hymns, “Beautiful Savior.”
There are six Lutheran dioceses in Poland. Congregations are scattered unevenly across the country. Because of their minority status, church members tend to be well aware of why they are Lutheran — and what the difference is between them and their Roman Catholic counterparts.
According to Palac, being Lutheran during the 1600s was sometimes a risky affair. The Roman Catholic Church launched a counter-reformation with the intent of wiping out “competition” faith communities, especially in predominantly Roman Catholic countries. Lutherans took to worshipping in the forests, where their services could not be easily discovered. These days the animosity has faded, but Lutherans continue to hold “forest services” to remember the times they were persecuted.
Lutherans in Poland face challenges similar to those in North America. Said Palac, “Society is more and more diverse. Many of our church members migrate to other countries. And among those who stay, the old traditions are proving insufficient in many cases to keep them in the worshipping community.”
Dorda added, “It’s more and more difficult to maintain a bridge delivering confessional Lutheran belief to modern people. Many of them may not care about religion at all.”
The older members are more likely to be faithful at worship, Dorda said. Revealing a statistic that would make contemporary Lutheran church leaders in the U.S. and Western Europe salivate, he said, “We get about 60% of our members at a typical worship service.”
In the post-Communist era, the Lutheran Church in Poland has discovered an unexpected new tool for evangelism. Schools are no longer controlled by the state. Lutherans in Poland have earned a reputation for high-value education. That leads families, including many not connected to the church, to enroll their children in them. Palac said, “In our country, the expression is, ‘Lutheran schools are quality schools.’ They can be expensive, but subsidies are available for those who can’t afford the full tuition.”
Brokering reflected on the significant change in the church scene in Poland since the days of Communist domination. “In the former period,” he said, “the Christians stuck together. The Roman Catholic Church was like a mother hen who treated the Lutherans like vulnerable chicks. But now that Communism is gone, the hen has forgotten the chicks.”
With its membership in the 66-million-member Lutheran World Federation, Polish Lutherans have a family, including siblings in the United States, who have not forgotten them. And although Brokering is no longer able to travel abroad, he continues to encourage his fellow U.S. Lutherans to visit — and maintain the bridge to — the members of Poland’s Evangelical Augsburg Church.