by Shelley Cunningham, '98, M.Div.
Students at the Bible School in Martin, Slovakia, know: It takes patience, passion, perseverance--and a miracle worker. The first three have come with help from American supporters like Paul Berge, professor emeritus of New Testament, who became involved eight years ago. Under his advisement, and in partnership with Luther Seminary, the Bible School joined with the neighboring university to start a master's program in religious education. University students who were preparing to be teachers could take a second major from Bible School faculty certifying them to teach religion.
The initial class in 2001 numbered 13 students. The Bible School has since blossomed. Adult-level programs have expanded to include training in youth ministry, mission and outreach, and Bible teaching. This year's class has more than 120 students.
Perseverance has been necessary to push past Slovakia's communist history. For decades, the government allowed the church to exist as a cultural institution--essentially, for marrying and burying--but pastors and believers participating in worship were often arrested or harassed, Berge said. Several generations now view the church with cynicism, apathy or fear.
Yet Berge said many in their 20s and 30s are emerging as church leaders.
"I can't say enough about the young people who are involved with the school," Berge said. "These were the people who were out on the streets when the (Berlin Wall) went down in '89. They have such hope for the future of Slovakia. They want democracy to prevail. And yet, they don't have that mentoring generation to show them the faith. That's why it's so important to connect them with (Christians from around the world)," he said.
That connection has come through the work of churches like St. Andrew's Lutheran in Mahtomedi, Minn., Berge's home congregation and an active partner with the Lutheran Church in Slovakia since 1991. As coordinator of Vision Slovakia, a St. Andrew's ministry, Berge has facilitated numerous mission trips to help build the Bible School campus and teach conversational English study groups. They've also targeted young people who don't associate the church with the oppression of the past.
"In order to get the midlife generation back into the church, you have to get at the children," Berge said. This summer, 32 St. Andrew's volunteers will travel to Slovakia to lead an annual, weeklong vacation Bible School open to all community children. This year's VBS may include more than 350 children.
"It's become a real outreach event," he said. "Last year the final program was held on the sidewalk of the city center. Kids were singing and acting and laughing. It was a wonderful way to show the people a different, more open side of the church."
The school has also broadened its reach. Four years ago, a kindergarten class began, and new grades have since been added. Forty are registered for next fall's kindergarten, and next year's elementary school enrollment is projected at 185.
The excitement over growth is matched by worldwide support. More than 50 percent of elementary and 75 percent of adult students receive scholarship assistance.
"What's really exciting for me is when people sponsor students," said Berge, who coordinates fundraising efforts. "I know how appreciative (the students) are."
Patience, passion, perseverance...and what about that miracle worker?
"Vision Slovakia's slogan is Making Miracles Happen. It is fun to see the pieces fall into place. (Students at the Bible School) come because they realize and believe that the subject of that slogan is God," Berge said. "God is the one who is making these miracles happen."
To find out more about ministry with the Bible School in Slovakia, e-mail Paul Berge at email@example.com.
Children at the Bible School in Slovakia
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