by: Urs Schweizer

MAY 17, 2019
Student Ministry in Pleven, Bulgaria

Pleven is the seventh most populous city of Bulgaria with approximately 100.000 inhabitants. It is not only the biggest economic center in Northwestern Bulgaria, but also home of a major Medical University with more than 1.000 students and academic employees. How can United Methodists reach out to these students if Bulgarian law does not make this easy at all?

In 1916, despite very difficult circumstances, a United Methodist church building was consecrated in Pleven. It was a step of faith and hope of brave men and women, and since then, this church building was home to many people following Jesus Christ under very diverse circumstances in society and political governments. This church building also saw times of huge challenges and turbulences and was even used as a puppet theatre during the years of communism in the second half of the 20th century.

When Tsvetan Iliev was appointed to this church and moved there with his wife Ivaneta, they started to think about how this church could not only worship in a historical church building but also serve the wider community. Over the course of time, one question stuck in their mind: How could they reach out to the students of the Medical University in the city? What they felt in their hearts and started to discuss with others was more than a strategic exploration. They had the impression that this thought was from God. However, there was a major problem: according to Bulgarian law, no religious person can go into an educational institution and openly speak of his or her faith.

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For two years, this dream lived in their hearts, but they were not able to identify concrete steps that could be taken. But suddenly, there came a day when an answer was sent. Tsvetan Iliev, at that time pastor on probation of Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church (UMC), received a message through their newly created Pleven UMC Facebook page. A message out of the nowhere that, at first glance, seemed to be just another fishing technique on Facebook. A lady that was about to start her studies at the Medical University of Pleven, Phoebe Jacobs, was on the other end of the conversation. After a few very specific questions about the place, Tsvetan Iliev was convinced that this was not what he originally had thought. And at the very next Sunday in spring 2016, this woman and her father were present at the worship service of Pleven UMC. Since then, Phoebe Jacobs is a very active part of the ministry with the students of the Medical University of Pleven. Half a year later, another young woman joined her and became very active – Jemima Soladoye. In the meantime, both of them were admitted as professing members of the UMC.

Since then, many things happened – a considerable number of students started to come to the church building of Pleven UMC, which had opened some rooms for their activities. One of the main events of the academic year – the International Day – led the students to use the premises of Pleven UMC for rehearsals. This International Day is a celebration of the diversity within the University – 1.000 people from many countries are studying and working there: from Italy, Great Britain, India, Sweden, Canada, Japan, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and even Cape Verde. The Arabic and Middle East countries are represented well, too: the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iran, Nepal, and many more countries.

The economy of Pleven is heavily impacted by the student community of the city. Every student is partaking by renting an apartment, paying tuition, joining social life, etc. The majority of the students are Christians, mainly raised in Christian families. They are from the whole denominational spectrum. The biggest community is the one of the Roman-Catholics, followed by the Pentecostals, other charismatic evangelicals and more traditional Christians – Anglicans and Methodists, for instance.

The «Christian Union», an organization consisting of people studying and working at the Medical University, started to conduct its meetings in the main hall of Pleven UMC. This organization, following the example of other Universities around the world, is a place where anyone can feel welcome and free regardless of his or her denominational background. This group of people, being aware of a colorful diversity, aims to be one in the Spirit of the Lord.

Three years ago, two young women joined the UMC in Pleven. One year later, the number of visitors from the Medical University increased to seven, and another year later, there were already 17 people. The leaders and members of the local church had invited them to feel home. Trying to overcome the language barrier, the church, currently consisting of about 85 people, bought a translation kit, which allows ten persons to listen to a simultaneous translation from Bulgarian into English. This led to another increase in the local church – a teenager joined the congregation and started to help with translation for the English-speaking Brothers and Sisters.

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Tsvetan Iliev is confident: “We do not know what will happen in the future. But we know that if God opens a door, He does it for a specific reason.”

Urs Schweizer, Fund for Mission in Europe
(based on a report from Rev. Tsvetan Iliev, Pleven/Bulgaria)

Read the article: «Journey to another world: prison ministry in Bulgaria UMC»