Posts Tagged ‘Lublin’

"Christianization of Poland on April 14, 966" by Jan Matejko

“Christianization of Poland on April 14, 966” by Jan Matejko

My wife and I moved to Poland in the spring of 1999 to help the evangelical church with church planting and leadership development. Of course, at first we focused on learning Polish, and trying to understand Polish culture and worldview. My second year in Poland, I audited theology classes at the Catholic University of Lublin, in an attempt to better understand the Polish worldview.

For the past fourteen years, therefore, we have been involved in participant observation, and yet sometimes our observations did not seem to match what we expected to see from Roman Catholics. Of course, some of our dissonance was as a result of our mistaken preconceptions about Catholicism, and yet much of it was because of a real difference between what the Church officially teaches, and the functional worldview of most Poles. Hence, I looked forward to this ethnographic project, as an attempt to better understand that functional worldview, and hopefully to gain some insight into better ways to communicate the good news of the Gospel, and especially to understand the epistemology of the average Pole.

I currently pastor a Baptist church in Lublin, Poland, and lead the WorldVenture Poland team, but I did not want to build an ethnography of evangelical Poles. I discussed the project with other evangelical pastors in our area, and with our team, and one of my team members, Bruce, in Lubin, was also interested in doing the ethnographic questionnaire among his English students. So, he met with 4 men, ages 18-38, and sent me the results of his conversations. I met with 6 people, 4 women and 2 men, ages 23-51. After preparing an English questionnaire for Bruce, I met with my friend, Radek, to correct my Polish questionnaire. As a result of our meeting, we redacted the questionnaire from 33 questions to 25, but Bruce continued to use the original. All of the participants in the research are Roman Catholic, although a few would not consider themselves faithful to or in agreement with the Church’s teaching.

I have already shared this project with my teammates and with workers from other organizations here in Poland. Hopefully, our ongoing conversation and research into the Polish worldview and our Christian witness can help us better proclaim the Good News.

  1. History and Demographics

Poland was founded in 966 A.D. when King Mieszko I was baptized into the Western Latin rite. This decision meant that Poland remained Roman Catholic when some of its southern and eastern neighbors went with the Eastern (Orthodox) Church. Being Roman Catholic also meant a focus toward Rome and the West, rather than toward Constantinople and the East. As a result, religious, cultural and political ties integrated Poland with its Western neighbors, Austria and the German states, as well as with Lithuania when it also chose Catholicism. The Union of Lublin, in 1569, created the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, a nation-state which for nearly two hundred years was among Europe’s largest countries.

Poland considered itself a bulwark against the Baltic pagans, the Orthodox Russians, and later, the Moslems from the east and south. The role of King Jan III Sobieski in the Battle of Vienna (1683) to turn back the Ottomans was crucial to stopping the Moslem advance into Europe. Poland was a relatively tolerant society, with large numbers of Jews, Orthodox, pagans and even Moslem Tatars holding positions of prominence. The Reformation also saw many converts to Protestantism, especially Calvinism. However, wars with Protestant Sweden, most notably “the Deluge” (1655-60), led to a marked change in Polish tolerance, including the banishment of the Arian Brothers (a sect similar to the Bohemian Brethren), and the death penalty for conversion from Catholicism.

The valiant defense of the monastery of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa during the Swedish Deluge, and the legends surrounding the icon of the Black Madonna, housed in the monastery, greatly assisted in the process of counter-Reformation in Poland. Still today, nearly every high school student in Poland makes a walking pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Częstochowa. Although Poland continued to be relatively tolerant – in comparison with most other European countries – the religious beliefs of its citizens were tied to their ethnicity. Russians – Orthodox, Germans – Protestant, Jews, Moslem Tatars – and Poles were Catholic, with very few exceptions.

The Divisions of Poland among the Great Powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria in the late 1700’s, its rebirth in 1918, and World War II, led to a Poland that is today much less diverse, both ethnically and religiously. Poland is 97% ethnically Polish,[1] and is 89% Roman Catholic, 9 % non-religious, 1% Orthodox, and 0.5% Jehovah’s Witness. Lutherans are 0.22%, and Evangelicals are about 0.14% of the population.[2] The Lutheran and Orthodox adherents usually have a German or Russian ethnic background, respectively, so the common expression “to be Polish is to be Catholic” usually rings true.

  1. Social Structures

Family remains very important in Polish society. As I conducted my survey, nearly every respondent mentioned their father or, more often, their mother, as an authority figure. Those who had lost a parent believed that their dead parent still took interest in their lives, and in a couple of cases, believed that the dead loved one had intervened to rescue them from some calamity. A mass migration began in 2005, when 5% of the population moved to Western European countries in search of work, and this has begun to lead to a more mobile society, but families still remain in close proximity. Every year, the holiday that sees the most travel is not Christmas, or Easter, but rather All Saints’ Day, when families return to their home areas, and visit the graves of their loved ones. As one of my friends described it, “in this way we can include our whole family, alive and dead, in All Saints’ Day.”

The cultural diagnosis report of 2009 states that respondents listed “successful marriage” as the top (56%) condition for happiness. This also indicates the high value that Poles place on family. Once interesting trend, however, is that “friends” has doubled in importance for happiness since 1992[3]. This helps explain why one of my interviewees, when asked about ancestors influencing us, said that other loved ones who have died, not just those related to him, still influence his life today, and that he asks them for advice. Family is very important, but there is a growing trend toward looking for the most important relationships outside of family.

Super Soaker – buy your own at Amazon 🙂

The defining element of the modern celebration of Śmigus-Dyngus is . . . the Super Soaker. Although the holiday is probably pre-Christian – so over 1000 years old – it has remained strong in Poland. In the 1400s, Catholic authorities tried to ban the practice, but with no luck. Evidently, it’s celebrated in Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary as well.

In Poland, Easter Sunday and Monday are holidays, with no school from Maundy Thursday through the Tuesday after Easter. Lent and the Holy Week are still important cultural icons in Catholic Poland, so from Carnival – just before Lent – through Easter Sunday, devout Poles don’t have much fun. They make up for it on Easter Monday, in a nation-wide water-soaking free-for-all. Of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration, as a lot of smart people simply stay inside! Young people though, especially kids, really enjoy this holiday!

Śmigus-Dyngus actually combines two very old customs. Śmigus involved hitting one another with willow switches, and soaking one another with water. This evolved into using the “palms” left over from Palm Sunday, but the water soaking remained. Dyngus referred to yielding painted Easter eggs, in order to avoid getting switched or soaked more, in a kind of ancient “trick or treat” ritual.

I’ve never seen willow switches being used, although that custom might remain in rural Poland. Thankfully, because I think that would hurt! Nor have I experienced the “dyngus” portion, with the chance to buy relief from a soaking. Over time, the soaking practice has changed, as well. At one time, the men would soak the girls on Easter Monday, and the girls couldn’t carry out their revenge until Tuesday. My friends tell me that men would use this custom to show their interest in a particular young woman – a kind of “mating ritual.” Later, the women began soaking the men first – with the same intentions :). Of course, the practice always had fertility overtones – and you can probably imagine the possible outcomes of soaking one another with water – one of the reasons the Church tried to outlaw the practice. Of course, if you didn’t get drenched – that was worse than getting soaked, because it meant no one was interested in you!

Nowadays, it’s whoever can soak first. Our Canadian friends got drenched one year when their kids soaked them in bed first thing Easter Monday morning. The young men in our church conspired to invite the young ladies to meet them Easter Monday – then soaked them. Our kids, without our knowledge, sat on the windowsill of our bedroom one Easter Monday and soaked all the neighbors as they went in and out of our apartment building. (Not the best way to endear yourself to your neighbors). This led to one of our better language flubs, when Kaye was telling our friends what our kids did, and instead of saying they “soaked” the neighbors, she said they “licked them all over.” (oblać-oblizać, 2 little letters)

This year, we have nearly a foot of snow on the ground, and the temps are below freezing. Pretty sure no one will be soaking anyone outside, although I could see some snowball fights happening. Personally, I don’t intend to find out. Like most years – I’m staying inside.

Easter in Poland

Easter Palm from dried flowers

Easter Palm from dried flowers

The Easter celebrations in Poland really begin with Palm Sunday, when most Poles will take a “palm,” like the one on the right, to church to be blessed. These palms are usually made from cut, dried flowers, and are very pretty. You can buy some mass-produced ones now in the larger stores, but the best are made by little old ladies, who then claim a corner of a sidewalk downtown, or in front of a store, and sell them in the week before Palm Sunday. For the amount of work they put into them, they are amazingly inexpensive.

The palms are a Catholic custom, and I don’t know any evangelical churches that incorporate the custom into Palm Sunday worship. I would love to, but our Baptist Church has an allergic reaction to anything that looks Catholic!

Monday through Wednesday, there are regular masses in Catholic Churches – which of course is true of every day of the year – but more people do attend these daily masses than at other times of the year.

Maundy Thursday is especially important for Catholic priests – and we have a LOT in Lublin. There is a special Mass (Mass of the Chrism) just for priests in the Cathedral, where priests renew their vows and celebrate the Eucharist. Holy oils are also blessed during this Mass. Later, in all Catholic churches, there is a Mass that includes the symbol of foot-washing. Some very committed Catholics will fast from Thursday evening until Easter breakfast.

On Good Friday, people will begin preparing for Easter breakfast, especially painting Easter eggs.

A basket of painted Easter eggs

A basket of painted Easter eggs

Old Polish pagan beliefs said that eggs chased away bad luck. I would be curious to know if this is the root of the custom of painting Easter eggs in other countries as well. Many people, especially those with kids still home, will paint their own. Although just like the palms you can buy some mass-produced ones, the best ones are sold by the same little old ladies, who seem to have not moved from their sidewalk.

The faithful will prepare a grave for Christ at church, and many will take part in the Stations of the Cross processions. Each area of the city will have its own procession, with the most important one beginning at the Cathedral, and making its way through the Old Town. This procession is an “ecumenical” procession, involving representatives of other churches, including Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, and sometimes Pentecostal. It is based on the “Scriptural” Way of the Cross. After the Way of the Cross, a figure of Jesus will be laid in the grave, to await Easter Resurrection.

Some men will be chosen to guard the grave through Saturday, and during the day Saturday, many people will come visit the grave. When they visit, they will also bring Easter baskets to church to be blessed. These baskets are highly symbolic, with each element having some meaning connected to the death and Resurrection of Christ. However, basically, they are a wicker basket lined with a white cloth, containing some bread, kielbasa and ham, an egg, vinegar, salt and horseradish. In addition, there will be a little lamb, sometimes made of wood or plastic, but best if it’s made of bread or sugar. These baskets are blessed by a priest, and everything is ready for the Easter breakfast.

Easter Sunday begins with the Resurrection Mass at 6:00 am – another one of those great ideas that hasn’t caught on at our Baptist Church :). Easter then is a family day, and after Mass, begins with everyone sharing with one other some of the blessed eggs. Easter breakfast includes a malt soup – sometimes in a bread bowl, hard-boiled eggs, white kielbasa, cold cuts, horseradish, and a special cake called a Babka. (which is slang for little old lady – go figure).

Easter Monday has its own special tradition – old, pagan, and one of the greatest traditions in the world – but that’s for the next post.

Easter Monday in Poland

In my town, Lublin, Poland, nearly all the places of worship are in the Christian tradition. Although there are 350,000 people in Lublin, non-Poles and non-Christians are a tiny minority. There is one Islamic Center, and four “dharmic” religion centers, but no mosque or Eastern temple. The only choice left is a Jewish synagogue. In 1939, Lublin had 42,000 Jews, more than 100 Jewish synagogues, a Jewish hospital and orphanage, and one of the most important Yeshivas. Lublin was a cultural and political capital for Eastern European Jews. However, the Nazi occupation saw most Lublin Jews exterminated, and all but one synagogue destroyed. That one synagogue ceased to function in the 1980’s, because less than 10 Jewish males could be found in the area. It remained possible to visit it as a tourist, but services were very rare.


Lublin Yeshiva

However, in 2005, the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva was re-opened, and a synagogue was built inside, finished in 2007. (More about the synagogue here: Virtual Shtetl)I visited this synagogue, but I think it is impossible to simply visit this prayer room without being mindful of the Jewish history of Lublin, and the incredible suffering involved. The Yeshiva and synagogue are in a building built in the early 20th century that was “appropriated” by the Medical College of Lublin after World War II, and was not returned to the Jews until the beginning of this century.

Next to the synagogue are 3 rooms that show the history of the yeshiva and Jews in Lublin, with plans for a Museum of Hasidism. Although there are no pictures or other mementos of Jewish suffering in the main room of the synagogue itself, those rooms are only a few steps away.

Majdanek Concentration Camp

Majdanek Concentration Camp

In addition, just two blocks away is the “New” Jewish cemetery, where thousands of tombstones and graves were bulldozed, crushed into gravel, and used to pave the entry road to the Nazi death camp of Majdanek. So, a Jew could march across the tombstones, and perhaps bones, of his ancestors as he made his way to the gas chamber.

A short video tour of the synagogue can be found here: Virtual Shtetl video. This was my second visit to the synagogue, and this time I realized how similar the room was to a small Christian chapel. My first visit, I was struck by the differences, but this time the similarities seemed more striking. Of course, this is a new synagogue, so everything is freshly painted, the oak floors look brand new, and the bookshelves on the side of the room are still nearly empty.

There are 7 wooden benches on each side, facing the front. Each bench has a small book shelf and reading shelf in front of it. There are also fabric-covered wood strips near the floor, in front of each bench, where a kneeler would be in some Christian churches. These strips are evidently foot rests, however. There are four Corinthian style pillars on each side, painted green, supporting a balcony. The synagogue has a side entrance, and there were no special requirements to enter, at least for a tourist like myself.

Near the front, there were 2 center-facing benches on each side. I wondered who would sit here, but I noticed one picture from a special service in the synagogue that showed these benches turned to face the congregation, with what looked like VIPs in these front benches. There were also reading benches, with no seats against the front wall. These had indentations on the top front, the right size to hold writing utensils. There was another reading bench in the exact center of the room, facing the front, again with no seat.



There was a raised platform (called a Bema)  in the front center of the room , with another reading bench, no pen well. There was also a seating bench on this platform, far enough back from the reading bench that one would have to stand and approach it in order to read. The raised platform was surrounded by a cast iron railing to set it off from the rest of the room.

The front of the room is dominated by a tall raised platform with steps going up to a large locked wooden cabinet (the Ark). The cabinet is oak, decorated with the same Corinthian pillars, topped by 2 round pieces – that looked like overturned goblets. The top center of the cabinet has a wood and gold emblem of the 10 commandments, with a red and gold crown on top. There are lions or lambs facing the crowns on the tablets.

The walls have simple, normal Polish wall sconces with halogen bulbs, but one small menorah is on a shelf high on the front wall. A sign below the menorah said that it is a gift to the Jewish community in Lublin, in memory of 40,000 Lublin Jews killed in WW2. There is also a red electric bulb, made to look like an eternally burning flame on the front wall. There were also 2 Hebrew pages framed on each side of the large cabinet on the front wall. One thing seemed a little out of place – a small advertisement for a Polish flooring company attached to the base of the platform in the front of the room.

There was also a cast-iron container for donations – about one-fourth full, with almost all American dollar bills. (Only one Polish banknote) There was a reading or teaching room in the back, on the side. I found a number of books there, all in Hebrew and English (no Polish books). These books included some synagogue service manuals, and I looked through one of them. There were lots of responsive readings, similar to psalms, but with no Scripture references and I didn’t recognize any particular psalm. There was another room on the side, near the front, with pictures of rebuilding and reopening the yeshiva. There was also a sink in this room. I was not able to go up to the balcony

Women's Balcony

Women’s Balcony

(the section for women), but I could see some pages of text hanging on racks. There is also a large chandelier in the center of the room, with halogen bulbs, and floodlights around the top of the walls, pointed toward the high ceiling.

I was interested by the similarities with Christian churches – especially Catholic – and by the fact that there was almost no sign of being in Poland.

(All images from Wikipedia – I didn’t take any pictures)

At the beginning of March, I started a fellowship with international students in Lublin. There are several hundred students, from the U.S., Taiwan, China, Africa and other European countries. The American students, usually of Indian descent, are mostly Muslim and Hindu. Our fellowship has a core group of 8, mostly men, and they are excited about moving forward in Christ.

Just as the group was beginning, one of the HIndu students (V.) had an accident that resulted in a severe head injury. He was operated on, and placed in a drug-induced coma. His parents flew in from Texas, and everyone was concerned that he might not make it. The Christian students organized a prayer vigil, and asked the parents if I could come pray for him that Friday. They agreed, and then on Saturday, the doctors woke V. Over the next two days he improved rapidly, so that by Monday he was walking and talking, recognizing people and after two weeks, the doctors released him, saying he was completely healed. The Hindu parents attributed it to the Christians praying! Praise the Lord, and what a great way to kick off our international fellowship.
The students originally planned a prayer meeting on Wednesday, but the doctors said he would be awakened on Wednesday. So, V’s parents said they didn’t want a prayer meeting. About an hour after their decision, the doctors returned to say that V wasn’t improved enough to awaken him, and it would have to be put off until the following week. So, when the students returned to ask if I could pray for him, they were much more receptive.
This kind of experience is rare for me – and, by human standards, I messed it up. I didn’t touch him while I prayed – and the parents expected me to, I think. I totally drew a blank on his name – not a good thing to do when you are praying for someone, either. But. God is the Healer, He knew V’s name before anyone else did, and God touched V. I’m so glad that God’s power and healing have nothing in common with formulas, rituals or even our ability to remember someone’s name.
The whole experience, though, gave a great base for our international fellowship, but also preparation for me to be more cognizant of the ways God works.


Posted: January 21, 2011 in Travel, Turkey

Our family visited Turkey over Christmas break, 2010. It was my second trip to this amazing country, but first for the rest of our family, and first time for all of us to visit Istanbul. I’m not going to tell you the best places to visit, or even give you a travelogue of our trip. Other people have done a great job with both of those, and using trusty google, you can easily find better travel advice, pictures, history, etc. than I could ever give you.

I’d rather share some personal reflections/impressions – in no particular order:

1. It changes everything when you visit someplace with kids in tow. They notice things you don’t – things you wouldn’t notice. I always prided myself on being observant, but several times this trip, one of the kids saw something that I never noticed. Of course, it’s partly due to the fact that a couple of them still see the world from a height about 24 inches lower than mine – i.e. closer to the ground. It’s partly due to the fact that we all notice what is important to us. For instance – they see McDonald’s, I see local seafood bar.

2. Turkey is noisy. They said that in all the tourism sites, but wow – they were right. Even after years of living in a good-sized city, of visiting big American and European cities – nothing quite compares. I’m going to guess that this is true of most Asian cities – interesting to find out. It’s not just the cars, and the constant honking – the loudest thing is the babble of human voices. It’s constant, ubiquitous, almost overwhelming for a Wisconsin country boy (cows don’t do that, usually).

3. Mosques are intriguing. We went inside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul – I would guess that comparing it to a local neighborhood mosque is like comparing St. Paul’s cathedral with our Baptist church in Lublin – but still. Although you can see a bit of the influence the early Christian church had on the formation of Islam, especially in the shape and style of the minbar or ambon/pulpit, a mosque is significantly different. (I know – duh!) Beautiful, quiet, contemplative – those were the words that occurred to me. Of course, it may seem much less quiet and contemplative during a Friday prayer service. Btw – side note – I would never, ever want to live within shouting distance of a mosque. Those calls to prayer are hauntingly beautiful the first time or two you hear them. Every day, though, 5 times a day, starting at dawn? No, thanks!

4. Istanbul truly is a world-class city. So many things make this statement true: Istanbul’s location straddling Europe and Asia; it’s history, reaching back nearly 3000 years; it’s status as a capital of empires – Roman, Byzantine, Latin, Ottoman; it’s current size (5th largest city in the world) and importance. It was one of the European capitals of culture in 2010. Here’s the thing, though. Lublin, Poland, is candidating to be a European capital of culture in 2016. Now, I love Lublin. It’s a beautiful city, a great place to live, and a city definitely worth visiting. I would much rather live in Lublin than in Istanbul. And Lublin has had its significant historical moments – I should do a blog article about this great city. But. Lublin isn’t Istanbul. In fact, it’s hard to think about Lublin in a context that includes Istanbul. Now, I hope Lublin wins the candidacy. Just saying, though. Wow. Big difference between the two cities.

So – go visit Turkey. Some of my friends have listed it as their favorite country. Another buddy said he could check Istanbul off his bucket list. I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, Istanbul would have been on it. On the way, you’re welcome to stop off in humble Lublin, of course.