Pastor German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine: people found their spiritual homeland in Lutheranism
I would divide my parishioners into three groups. The first one is Ukrainians of German ancestry who live in Kyiv and its surrounding cities such as Irpin, Bucha, Klavdiyeve. Some of them speak German, especially the older generation. The second group includes people from Germany and German-speaking countries who live for a number of years in Kyiv. In general, these are people from the embassy or business sector, and those who married local residents. All of them are also parishioners at our church.
— Pastor Haska, Ukrainian legislation created equal conditions for the development of various religions. What is your church known for in Kyiv and Ukraine?
— First of all, I must mention that as the Evangelical Lutheran Church owes its confession to the Reformation and in particular Martin Luther, it follows the Augsburg Confession. This means that the Word of God, the sermon, and worship are above all the most important for our church. But, on the other hand, Luther said that all which assists the development of Christianity should have a place on Earth. Because of this, the prophecy of God’s Word occurs in many forms, not only in sermons. That is first. If to continue talking about how the GELCU [German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine] differs from other churches, then we must first look at history. The Lutheran Church emerged in the Russian Empire as the church of the German inhabitants and stayed as such for a long time. Its language was German. We know that Lutherans are mentioned in Kyiv in the 17th–18th centuries, and the first Lutheran service dates from 1767. This means that the tradition of our church has a long history here. We pay special attention to our parishioners who are of a German background, who speak German, and also to our German-speaking parishioners, citizens of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland who are temporarily living in Kyiv. And even this interview shows that a characteristic of our church is the German language (the pastor is answering questions in German with a consecutive translation into Russian. — О.H.). Our divine services are held in German and Russian. Furthermore, our community contributes to the cultural life of Kyiv. We organize a lot of concerts of classical music performed by first-class musicians. To illustrate an example, and maybe to make a small announcement, our next concert is the Christmas Oratorio by J. S. Bach performed by the church choir of our St. Catherine’s Church.
— Who are the parishioners of your church?
— I would divide my parishioners into three groups. The first one is Ukrainians of German ancestry who live in Kyiv and its surrounding cities such as Irpin, Bucha, Klavdiyeve. Some of them speak German, especially the older generation. The second group includes people from Germany and German-speaking countries who live for a number of years in Kyiv. In general, these are people from the embassy or business sector, and those who married local residents. All of them are also parishioners at our church.
— What do you think about the assertion that the German Evangelical Lutheran Church is a church only for Germans?
— (surprised) In principle, I haven’t heard such an assertion. As I already stated, not nationality but the fact that these people found their spiritual homeland in Lutheranism unites our parishioners. Should I also state that we are open to all who come to us? Every church must be like this. Of course, the pastor in the capital assumes care of the Germans living in this city, but not only them. Jesus at the end of the Gospel of Matthew said: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He said this about all nations, without much differentiation, and so the church should follow this. A person should appreciate the individual circumstances in which he grew, the direction, the denomination, the Liturgy he is used to. That is why some people like the Orthodox Liturgy and others like a service where the Word is at the center. In human-terms this is understandable, but there is more. The church’s most main task is to follow Jesus.
— You speak Russian very well. Is knowing Russian a condition for serving Russians and Ukrainians?
— Thank you for the compliment, but its not quite like that. I, understandably, am learning Russian and am trying to perfect it. Knowing the Russian language is needed to work as a pastor in this community. The candidate must be able to understand and to a certain degree communicate with privately with parishioners. There are many parishioners in our community who don’t speak German at all or who are gradually forgetting. In order to be able to speak genuinely with these people, it is necessary to know their native language. In my position there should be a pastor from Germany who already knows this language and is willing to perfect it.
— And the Ukrainian language?
— (laughs) It is rather difficult. I myself am from eastern Germany, the former GDR. I studied the Russian language in school. For many years I never had the opportunity to speak it, but now it is starting to come back to me. It is difficult for me to study two languages; it will not produce any results. And my decision from the beginning was to learn Russian (as much as was possible), and then later master the Ukrainian language and try to at least understand it.
— How similar are the Ukrainian Lutheran communities to the Lutheran communities in Germany, which have a positive attitude toward homosexuality and the ordination of women?
— The GELCU is Ukrainian church, which has its own thought on this. It is an independent church. This means that it is not accountable before anyone in Germany for its thoughts and decisions. Our church has support from Germany, and I, as a German pastor who serves Ukrainians, am such an example. But I want to underline: we are an independent church and have the right to make our own decisions. The GELCU has had no women ordained, that is, it has no women priests. Whether this is right or not is not something to be discussed in this interview. This is a topic for theologians to discuss and make some decisions on. As for homosexuality, both the church overall and the communities separately have the right to their own opinions. In our church, for example, same-sex couples cannot be blessed, as opposed to the practice of some western European churches. I don’t like it when people “demonize” representatives of nontraditional sexual orientation, and I would have them recall the words of Christ: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” And if we incessantly talk about the sinner then we must see his human dignity; after all, we are all sinners.
— What social initiatives is St. Catherine’s Church involved with?
— I will begin with our parishioners. Our parishioners come from different stratums of the society. Some of them are old, sick, and poor. We feel responsible for them. We have a deacon commission that helps the poor and the sick. One of its tasks is to help patients pay for operations when they can’t cover the fee themselves. We have free hearty lunches every Sunday after service. For more than 10 years, our community together with German church charities supports an asylum for mentally ill women in the Sviatoshyn region of Kyiv. The main focus of the activity is occupational therapy for the physical and spiritual recovery of the patients. A few of our women parishioners worked there for several years. Every year we hold a charitable Christmas fair where we sell crafts made by the women in the asylum and then return the proceeds to the asylum.
— What does it mean to be a Lutheran in Ukraine?
— For me, a Lutheran pastor, it means to be responsible for the local Lutheran community. More than confession, however, the most important thing for a person is to follow Jesus. In his time, Luther spoke of the Sola Scriptura, and we strive to be like him. I think that being a Lutheran in Ukraine is obeying God’s Word.
Interviewed by Oleksii Hordieiev