In 2001, I felt led to join a mission group and after raising funds, I was on my way to Bulgaria. After joining New Mission Systems International, I was looking forward to teaching English to the community. We hoped it would be a good way to support the local churches and to evangelize.
In the town of Botevgrad, we held English classes in The United Churches of God. We started with just four adults because it was the first thing to have been opened to the public there. I was the second person to come in, after our team member, Sandra, had paved the way. At first, the locals were hesitant to join because they were cautious of strangers or new visitors. Having public events seemed odd to them.
Since I was still learning the language myself, I relied on my translator, Valeriya, to help smooth the way. She and I began to incorporate American culture into some of the lessons to gain more interest. We also added Bible lessons as a way to bring the community together. It really does take a village, so we had several other young people help us translate everything until we got better at speaking it ourselves. It was a great help and without it, we would not have been able to answer their questions as efficiently.
One lesson we held was about the American tradition of Thanksgiving. They wanted to learn about that holiday. It was such fun dressing up and having a Thanksgiving meal with them. As Christmas approached, we decided it might be a good idea to use the birth of Jesus and the Christmas story as part of our English lessons. We knew there would be many who would have Bibles, and they could follow along in their own language. What we did not anticipate is what would happen next.
The participants would argue amongst themselves because they were worried about what we would be teaching. Some were evangelical and some were from the orthodox church. Each thought the other had a completely different religious backing or belief system. They did not understand, at first, that we were reading the same Bible but just in a different language.
As an American, who grew up in church, this took me by surprise. In the States, it is widely accepted that there will be similarities in religions, but they were quite suspicious and even angry at first. This was largely due to what they had been taught previously. It was challenging for the churches to accept new visitors and new ideas.
Eventually, this did bring the community together in a wonderful way. The locals began to recognize there were a lot more similarities than differences between them. This was all new and had not happened before. This led to even more acceptance and community outreach. Visitors began to be welcomed and many events were initiated such as sports, hiking, and even drama. These informal gatherings brought them together and helped create a spirit of friendliness rather than of fear.
I am truly thankful for the time I spent in Bulgaria. I learned so much and made many friends. It was beautiful the way the story of Jesus’ birth helped to truly unite this small village.