It was being announced by the weather forecast that the second half of January was going to be very cold. And in the midst of the very cold winter, on January 21, the gas was cut as a result of the explosion on the gas pipeline, on the Russian Territory.
The entire country was left without heating and electricity when the temperature was in the mountains below 25 and in Tbilisi 10 centigrade.
At the Betheli Center the 22 elderly people were left without heating. Because of the cold 16 grandmothers had caught cold and stayed in bed. Two of them are permanently in bed. So only 4 of them could leave their rooms. It was rather ok when they had electricity. The kitchen can be easily run without gas if there is electricity. But, by the end of the crisis for two days the electricity was also gone. The building was absolutely cold. No warm water for washing up. The only warm place was the fireplace in the meeting room. The meals were served right there in the meeting room. They would make jokes about their meals that they were served like the queens and kings. The roads were terrible to drive so it was not easy to bring the food. We all were afraid that the circumstances could bring the elderly people down
Angelina Tsiskadze (87 years old poetess):
She was asked whether she was afraid when it was cold.
“There was nothing to be afraid of. On the contrary, it was an experience. We were all together. We felt that people care about us. There are some constructions in the yard and the workers would come to see us every five minutes to bring the wood for the fire and to check if we were all right. The girls would come and bring their guitars to sing for us. It was for the first time in my life that I felt myself as a normal human being that somebody cares about and tries to make my life better. In spite of the terrible cold, in spite of the thing that the House for Elderly is newly established, we have not felt that they were confused facing the difficulties. They all were here with us. Everybody knew his or her duty and responsibility. They made us feel needy and encouraged us to be stronger. Now I do want to live a bit more.”
Lika Gudishvili (Nurse)
“That was a shock, no gas, no electricity, no heating. We were giving them extra blankets in order to keep those warm who had to stay in bed. As a rule they were very courageous and would not complain, but sometimes, when it was very cold they would even fight for their places near the fire. Some would worry about their families and relatives.”
The 10th course of the “School of Eljah”
The 1oth course of the “School of Elijah” took place from January 9 to 14 in the Betheli Centre. Despite of difficult weather circumstances, it was snowing almost the whole week and temperatures were around zero (Celsius), 45 students took part. Fortunately the weather really got very bad after this course had finished. Bishop Malkhaz taught “History of Baptists in Georgia” and Dr. Karl Heinz Walter was teaching “History of Baptists in Europe including the time of the early Anabaptists.”
During the week there were also two plenary meetings. At the first the next and last two courses in March and in June were discussed and all are looking forward to that with great expectations. These courses will be in March Theology of OT, and in June Evangelistic/ Missiology and Church History.
Bishop Malkhaz and Dr. Walter then explained the final acts of the three year program.
After the completion of the program there will be two different certificates.
1. A general certificate about the participation at the “School of Elijah.”
2. A diploma which says that they have successfully participated and so qualify by this for a full time ministry within the EBC Georgia.
Following the last course, but at a special day at the end of June 2006, all of them will be invited to answer a questionnaire. This questionnaire will reflect all the courses during the three years. The participation will be obligatory for all.
Those who want to go for the diploma were asked this time to choose a subject, hopefully from the subjects taught at the School of Elijah”, which they want to study more and write a paper. These diploma papers should be finished by the first half of September 2006.
It his planned to have a final celebration around the second Sunday in October 2006 and it is hoped that ll the teachers of the three years could make their way to come for that. It shall not only be an internal event, but hopefully of interest for a larger Georgian participation.
It is a great advantage that ZURA, one of the students, has all the lectures on tape and together with somebody else has typed all of it in Georgian. Only the last course in October is 100 pages. But the material can be made available especially for those who were not able to participate in all courses.
We also had a general evaluation and I will try to summarize some of that. There was great appreciation of the whole “School of Elijah”.
Here some of the comments:
“It widened our knowledge dramatically; it changed my personal life and faith, some of my attitudes; it made clear to me what I need to know; it helped me to have a wider picture of theology; I had no idea what theology is; it brought us together from different places in Georgia; the teachers were excellent and we admire and appreciate their engagement for us, it freed us from the danger of being isolated from the Christian world outside Georgia.”
“The stuff taught was just huge, immense and new; the great disadvantage is that there is almost no literature to follow up and study more. ( There is a very good chance that the first Bible Dictionary in Georgian language will be published in 2007) Some of the material was hard to understand, but it may also be due to a poor translation into Georgian. This should be better controlled.”
“The course must continue. It would be a crime to stop and not further develop. The course must be longer 10 days or two weeks - to have more time for the themes and have not such a full day as now.”
“The teachers spoke an understandable language, but we had difficulties with all who taught in the field of counselling, since their terminology, their words and terms were completely unknown to us.”
“The course should include more younger students in the future.”
The second plenary meeting was held Friday afternoon. It was a real surprise that most of the students want to write a special paper and go for the diploma. They wrote down the themes and subjects they want to deal with. It was decided that all will work on their proposals and come back in March with a more precise theme and if possible with a first outline.
On the 19th of January a baptismal ceremony took place in the Cathedral Baptist Church of Tbilisi. 22 people were baptized by the Senior Bishop and the President of EBC of Georgia. After emerging from the water, the neophytes were given white robes, as a sign of their new life in Christ and partook of communion for the first time.
Sulkhan Murmanishvili a missionary of the Borjomi region says: “It was a very special day for me and for my wife, because our 4 children were baptized. I lead the devotion at home everyday and noticed that our kids have grown in faith incredibly. Before the baptism day I had suggested them to be baptized and follow Christ, the Messiah. I will never forget this beautiful moment when they accepted my invitation. Now, I am the happiest man in the world because they have become members of Christ’s Body”.
What is happening here in Georgia?
Information from Bishop Malkhaz Songualashvili, February 3, 2006
The news has already been spread that the Gas Pipeline has been restored and gas has reached the Capital city of Tbilisi. All this is true. But the problem is that only certain parts of Tbilisi have been supplied with gas. Yesterday I spoke with the Mayor of Tbilisi, Mr. Gigi Ugulava, who told me that a number of districts of Tbilisi still do not have gas and he did not know how soon the entire city of Tbilisi will be covered with gas supply. The Mayor looked indeed tired and exhausted. Yet he was very keen to know how the Betheli Center was doing.
At this time the situation is very difficult in the city of Kutaisi, where the winter is making it very hard and roof are broken because of the heavy snow.
“How are you heating!” has become a kind of greeting word in Georgia instead of “How are you doing”. In the past we did have a lot of crises but this time it was an unusually severe winter that has made things very difficult. At my place I have a nice fire place where I usually go after the strenuous day and relax in the chair looking at the fire. In the beginning of October I bought enough wood for the fire place. But since the crisis started I can not burn the fire in my room. It seems unfair to enjoy the fire place while a lot of people have nothing to worm themselves up and I keep visiting them seeing their desperate situation. I return usually very late to my place and dive into my bed with trousers on. It is all right to sleep in the freezing room after you have wormed up your bed, but getting up in the morning is terrible. Every day I wake up with feelings of a boy who is lazy to go to school.
The Beteli Center and especially the Home for the Elderly unit did manage to survive the crisis owing to courage and creativity of the entire Betheli community. Mr. Gia Labadze, our technician, worked very hard sometime even by night to keep the home at least minimally warm on diesel and wood heating system. The fire place proved to be most reliable partner for coping with the freezing cold. Mr. Dato Giorgobiani, our gardener, brought his guitar every day and sang for the elderly in the large common room to lift up their spirit. The elderly also sang with him and had a great time. Sometimes they were so loud that I could not work in my office which is exactly above the common room where they sang. But I did not mind. It was very important that the elderly would not panic, like some of the nurses and doctor Nana Zurashvisli, who were not sure whether some of the elderly would survive the cold. Luckily everybody survived. The gas was supplied yesterday to our district and we were able to worm up the building again. For a while the house was full of joy and jubilation like after winning a war. But very soon we realized that there were other people in Tbilisi who still were suffering in the freezing blocks of flats.
Even though the crisis has been largely overcome, the crisis has left us with dreadful consequences. A lot of people are dying. The health conditions of thousands of aged citizens have damaged for ever. The Orthopedic Institutions are full of the elderly, who have broken their legs or arms while going for ceresin or food on the icy roads of Tbilisi.
After yesterday I visited some of those people and I can share my experiences with you.
The Revd Meliton Khechuashvili, 83 has been known at the Cathedral Baptist Church as a great man of prayer. His wife Eter Jimsheleishvili, 82 is still considered a genius expert in finances in Georgia. Just last year the President of Georgia awarded her with an Order of Dignity. Both Etheri and Meliton came to the Church when they were young and being a Christian was extremely dangerous. They went through the trial of their faith. In Communist time they were persecuted by the authorities. This is a period of their life they hate to speak about. But what we know is that the KGB kept them taking to their headquarters at 1 a.m. and after interrogating and insulting them they let them go at 4 a.m. It continued for a few years. Meliton developed a nervous illness that was partly healed later. There was a time when he gave up even attending the church. After having recovered from emotional depressions he became the most committed member and than a minister of the Church. Etheri, his wife proved to be a much stronger character and the KGB was not able to break her spirit. Etheri worked for the Ministry of Culture as a Chief Finance Manager for a number of decades. At the same time she was a choir director of the Cathedral Baptist Church. She was an active supporter of the Baptist Orthodox dialogue in the 70-ies and sang along with her Baptist Choir in the Sioni Orthodox Cathedral during the Divine Liturgies.
Meliton, being very committed to the daily prayer in the Cathedral, went to the church for prayer last week when it was freezing cold. In front of the Cathedral Baptist church he fell and broke his hip. Mrs. Esma Mazmishvili our chief accountant at the Cathedral took him to the hospital. The doctors insisted that they would operate him immediately. But Meliton refused the operation. When Merab the President of our Church and I visited him at his place we learned why he refused an operation. “I do not have so much money” Meliton told me. I wanted to cry. Life is so unfair!
We immediately made a contact with a famous doctor in Tbilisi and asked his opinion. We realized that he had to be operated immediately but there was another way to treat the broken hip. The doctor promised to help him under the condition that he would have spatial care. Etheri who is very feeble herself could not offer such a care. The Betheli Center would be an ideal place for him but all the rooms are already occupied there. Ultimately we decided to move both Meliton and his wife to a room that has been reserved at the Betheli Center for guest lecturers. Yesterday I visited them in their Betheli home and saw their doctor. I wanted to thank Dr Thamaz for taking responsibility over Meliton. But much to my amazement he started thanking me for taking Meliton to the Center. “In Tbilisi I know all the places for the patients but nothing can be compared with the Betheli Center.” the Doctor told me. “Recently Patriarch Ilia II asked me to take care of two elderly professors who also broke their legs. The Patriarch gave them a place but it was a dreadful place to have patients. Thank you for building such a place in Tbilisli.” He was genuinely exited. “I am going to tell everybody what a place is here. Meliton is very fortunate.” he kept saying. We can agree with the Doctor. Meliton is fortunate now to be in the Betheli Center but there are a lot of people who have no access neither for medical treatment nor for human care.
Celebrating the Gas Arrival
With a couple of my colleagues I visited one of the oldest members of the Russian Baptist Congregation in Tbilisi. Mrs. Roza Azikova. Her ancestors came to Tbilisi from Shwabia, South Germany. She lives alone in her flat close to the Cathedral Baptist Church.
She was a trained nurse and worked for a number of years in a very prestigious hospital for World War II veterans. In Soviet time it was one of the best medical institutions in the Caucasus. At the same time she was a very committed member of the Russian Baptist Church. He had to suffer a lot for her faith in her younger age. She is still very active in the church life. Her memory is remarkable. She remembers all the stories of our church in Soviet and post Soviet time. She was wise enough not no leave her home during the recent crisis. She stayed at home being taken care of by some people from the Russian church.
As soon as we entered her flat she declared us solemnly “Now I have gas to heat the flat!” She was very happy to welcome us. “If this is the case we should celebrate” was my answer. Roza immediately disappeared in her kitchen to put on a tea-kettle.
It did not take much time before we sat at the table waiting for our tea. Ultimately Roza produced a tea pot. Before pouring tea she stood a step back from the table and started saying something like school girls do when they dare to say something yet they pretend to be shy. “I have something more to celebrate today,” uttered Roza.
I started thinking what it could be. She had her 79th birthday in January so it should not be her birthday to be celebrated. I could not figure it out what was she referring to.
“Tell us what is it?” I asked her.
“Today we should celebrate the 52nd anniversary of my arrest.” declared ‘the school girl’ proudly. Obviously I could not guess it by any means. In 1953 she was arrested along with other 29 Baptist leaders under the allegation of the Anti Soviet Propaganda. In accordance with article 52a she was to sentenced with 10 years of imprisonment. Others were to sentenced with 25 years of detention. Than she was 26 years young and an absolutely beautiful girl. In March 4th 1953 Stalin died and very soon both Roza and other Baptists were realized from the KGM Detention Institution.
Roza was so happy to tell us stories about her time in the prison, people she met there, experiences she had. Every now and again she would stop and say “now I can already tell you this.” I am glad those days are gone when neither she nor others were not allowed to say certain things but unfortunately the legacy of Stalinist regime is still here in this country as well as in other former Soviet countries. I was sorry I could not stay with her as long as I wanted. Instead I have promised her to send somebody professional who can record her memoirs that are very important for the history of Christen struggle under Stalin.
Hospitality in the spirit of St. Francis
During the crisis I tried to be with the people at the Betheli Center and organize some support for the suffering. One day I went to my office very early. It was still very dark when I got to the gate of the Center. My car stopped. I thought it was because of the heavy snow. I looked at the driver. He was sitting in the car very calm. Very soon I realized we were stopped by sheep driven by a couple of shepherds and a few shepherd dogs. I opened the car and spoke with the shivering shepherd. I was wondering why on earth they were bringing the sheep to the Capital city.
“Well, you know,” the shepherd told me, “we had nothing to feed the sheep in the mountains and bring the sheep to Tbilisi with the hope that they can find some grass in the parks and gardens of the city.” The sheep looked really very hungry and miserable.
I felt sorry both for the sheep and the poor shepherd. I somehow identified myself with the shepherd. I know very well what it means to be responsible for the “sheep” without enough recourse to help.
I shared my concern with Mr. Benjamin Bakuradze, a teacher at the Betheli Center, who managed to get some hay from somewhere. This was how we invited special guests to the Beteli Center. The sheep were led with goats who volunteered to enter the Betheli Center first. With the help of Mr. Valery Buidlishvili, the Director of the Home for the Elderly and other colleagues we “set a table” for the guests. In the flock there were goats, rams, mother sheep and a lot of lambs. The flock was accompanied by Bora a very experienced, wolf fighting shepherd dog, that was also welcomed and well fed at the Center.
Very soon we were joined by those elderly who were courageous enough to walk out from the building first time since the crisis started. They immensely enjoyed the company of the guests and were generous to share some food with Bora.
Before finishing this report let me tell you once again that you can not imagine how important your support is for me personally and for a number of people in Georgia.
All support, letters, phone calls, prayers have helped us to keep going. The financial contribution you gave made or are going to make is very significant for us. Like the support of the shepherd with hay. You help me and my colleagues to help the most vulnerable in the society. I will keep you informed about the further work that we will carry out in this land. The situation in Tbilisi is improving but in West Georgia it’s worsening. Your prayerful support is still extremely important for us.
Cardinal Casper, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, visiting Georgia
Today ( Friday Febr.3rd) we are having the Ecumenical Prayer hosted by the Cathedral Baptist Church. The Cardinal, who is visiting Georgia, was to preach. Yesterday the Cardinal apologized that he has to leave the service before the end of the service, since he has an appointment with the Chair of the Parliament. The Cardinal will only greet the congregation. But we are happy that he is visiting or country at this time.
The Civil Council and the Protection of Basic Rights and Freedoms
On the 18th of January 2006, the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights negatively evaluated the public defender’s report for the last 6 months, where he emphasized the negative impacts of the agreement between the Orthodox Church of Georgia and the Georgian government. Particularly he underlined that the agreement in itself is non-discriminatory, but it is inevitably going to be a source of discrimination unless the other religions existing in the country have the same privileges as guaranteed to the Orthodox Church.
Certain members of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights heavily criticized the public defender. Also, they negatively addressed the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia. They pointed to the shelter for the elderly of the “Betheli Centre” operating in the framework of the Evangelical Baptist Church which the church uses to cover their real activities and intentions.
As a result of the above mentioned Parliamentary Committee meeting, the report of the Public Defender became one of the issues to discuss at the Civil Council during the second year anniversary assembly on January 30, 2006. The representative of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights was present at the meeting. All the questions were addressed to her and she appeared to be in the minority and to be not really competent to answer the questions.
The Bishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia brought in the initiative to organize a round table meeting where all the religions and Governmental and non-governmental organizations will be presented.