I just made my eighth trip to Georgia in June to celebrate the wedding of Malkhaz Songulashvili, archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, and his beloved Ala Kavtaradze.
I’ve gone to Georgia for nearly 10 years, and the First Baptist Church of Columbia, Mo., has had a “sister church” relationship with the Mother Church of Baptists in Georgia, now called the Peace Cathedral, for just about 12 years.
Little did any of us know on top of the mountain in June that the 15 years of simmering tensions between Georgia, Russia and the breakaway regions of South Ossettia and Abkhazia would come to a boil and blow the top off of uneasy peace.
There is no landscape to me more beautiful and rugged than the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, and no people more delightful than those of that ancient civilization.
On one of my early trips I went with then Bishop Malkhaz to South Ossettia to try to bring peace to a church divided over worship leadership. We met in the home of Boris and Sonia near the military and diesel fuel transporting highway leading north to Russia, where the smoke from skewers of meat made from whatever deer, antelope, rabbit or other edible critter happened to get killed that morning, rises from porch BBQ grills.
They were older, lovely people with wizened, experienced faces. We ate and prayed together, and then I offered a toast to the worldwide family of Christ that makes us all brothers and sisters. We laughed and then prayed some more, and before we left the church leaders agreed to be unified.
I received an e-mail today telling me that many of the houses in that area of South Ossettia have been destroyed. I wonder about the fate of those good, simple people.
On two other trips I traveled to Gori and had spirited worship experiences at the Khashuri Church outside the city, one time even singing “O How I Love Jesus” while playing an old Russian guitar I found. There were many young people in the congregation led by one of my older theology students from the School of Elijah the Prophet, where I teach theology in Tbilisi.
We stayed the night in a village where a large number of church members live. That night we had a typical Georgian “supra table” supper, where they joyfully serve so much food and beverage that you literally cannot eat anything more.
Other international friends from Denmark were there as well, and we marveled at the way that Christ had brought us together in love and fellowship, two realities that were tangible around the table.
Today I also heard that most of the houses in that Gori village had been leveled, and the fate of the inhabitants is unknown. Thirty-five of the 100 members of the Gori church lived there.
My dear friend and brother Archbishop Malkhaz is stranded in the U.K. He is at Oxford to work on his Ph.D.
He started his program 12 years ago, but had to return to Georgia just four months later because of crises of political instability and poverty at that time. He just returned to Oxford this past November, and now, again, he will probably need to return to Georgia to help with the unfolding refugee crisis. Tens of thousands of Georgians are wandering homeless after the Russian response.
My heart is broken and my stomach does flips when I give it a chance. This is what happens when you love and are loved and then things go awry and you can’t do much about it.
I am angry at so many names and faces behind and in front of this situation. There has been and is so much darkness in what has and is going on between Georgia and the Bear to the north.
Our Western political meddling has helped Georgia in many ways, but it has also hurt and put them at risk. And many are now in pain physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I’m in the process of soliciting and receiving funds for Georgian refugee relief–they are facing a true humanitarian crisis, and their fears continue. We will send funds both to the Baptists in Georgia and through ACTS (A Call to Serve), that specializes in Georgia. ACTS has an office in my home town of Columbia, Mo.
Many in the capital city feel certain that the Kremlin will roll into Tbilisi to secure regime change and turn the country’s western gaze to a more eastern one. I pray that they are wrong. We should know more in a few days.
Please pray for Georgia, the Kremlin, the Bush administration and for others who may be able to help bring both peace and relief to a small, beleaguered nation.
And don’t just pray. Do something for them from where you are. We may not be able to stop the fighting, but we’re not helpless.
John Baker is pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo.