Russian-speaking congregation supports Ukrainian refugees

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Key points:

  • 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.  
  • The congregations have helped house refugees arriving to the city and arranged transport of necessary supplies for those who couldn’t leave the country.

Editor’s Note: In late May, a team from United Methodist News, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries visited church refugee ministries in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and western Ukraine to share stories of the United Methodist presence in the wake of such tragedy and ongoing need.

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. 

Two United Methodist congregations, known collectively as Prague 2, share this building, just a few blocks from the Vlatava River, in Prague. The Czech-speaking congregation is called Nové Město (New Life) and the Russian-speaking congregation is Agapé. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.  
Two United Methodist congregations, known collectively as Prague 2, share this building, just a few blocks from the Vlatava River, in Prague. The Czech-speaking congregation is called Nové Město (New Life) and the Russian-speaking congregation is Agapé.  

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. 

Video: Two congregations, two languages, one sanctuary

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. The congregations have helped house refugees arriving to the city and arranged transport of necessary supplies for those who couldn’t leave the country. Video by Francisco Litardo for UM News.

“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. 

Maryna Tagunkova (front) and Eduard Holtman (center) join in prayer at Prague 2 United Methodist Church. They are members of Agapé United Methodist Church, the Russian-speaking congregation that shares space with the Czech-speaking congregation. Holtman is a lay speaker at the church and regularly drives relief supplies to the Ukrainian border. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.  
Maryna Tagunkova (front) and Eduard Holtman (center) join in prayer at Prague 2 United Methodist Church. They are members of Agapé United Methodist Church, the Russian-speaking congregation that shares space with the Czech-speaking congregation. Holtman is a lay speaker at the church and regularly drives relief supplies to the Ukrainian border. 

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. 

Video interviews

Ivan Pavlii, a lay speaker and Agapé’s associate pastor, has traveled to a distribution point on the Ukrainian border several times to deliver humanitarian aid to brethren from The United Methodist Church in Ukraine. Video image by UM News. 
Pastor Ivan Pavlii has traveled to the Ukrainian border several times to deliver humanitarian aid. Watch interview.
Maryna Tagunkova started a website that helps people navigate the system to find housing or jobs. Watch interview.
The Rev. Lev Shults has carefully navigated any tension between Russians and Ukrainians in his congregation, saying they concentrate on praying and helping each other. Watch interview.

“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.

The Rev. Ivana Procházková visits with a parishioner at Prague 2 United Methodist Church. She is superintendent of the United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.  
The Rev. Ivana Procházková visits with a parishioner at Prague 2 United Methodist Church. She is superintendent of the United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic.

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.

Donate

To support Ukrainian refugee relief, please give to UMCOR’s International Disaster Response and Recovery fund, Advance #982450.

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.”

Ivan Pavlii, a lay speaker and Agapé’s associate pastor, has traveled to a distribution point on the Ukrainian border several times to deliver humanitarian aid to brethren from The United Methodist Church in Ukraine. 

Children listen during worship at Prague 2 United Methodist Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.  
Children listen during worship at Prague 2 United Methodist Church.

“The church is the place where people in Ukraine go to get help. They’re left with nothing and they know they can get help from the church,” he said. “Every day there is a worship service as well, so people can get help both materially and spiritually.” 

In a May 29 joint worship service between the Czech and Russian congregations, Procházková cited Ephesians 6: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.

“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.” 

Butler is a multimedia producer/editor and DuBose is staff photographer for United Methodist News. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected] To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

United Methodist Bishop Christian Alsted and the Rev. Yulia Starodubets pray with Oksana, who fled her home in northeastern Ukraine after the Russian military destroyed her apartment building. Oksana told Alsted that there is nothing left there to return to. She is staying in a former Soviet printing plant turned shelter in Uzhhorod, Ukraine. 

United Methodist ministry with Ukraine

UM News, UMCOR and Global Ministries, visited refugee ministries in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and western Ukraine. Read more about the church's ongoing response to this tragedy.
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