The Church as an Agent of Community Development in Bulgaria

Religious groups traditionally have played a major role in shaping communities. In modern civil societies, religious beliefs are still among the key factors that bond people together to form communities, both large and small. In countries like the United States, it is often emphasized by researchers that religious communities are the backbone of American civil society. Most of the modern social institutions’ roots in many countries, such as hospitals, schools, retirement homes, etc., can be traced back in the structures of the churches.

The church is often regarded as an institution itself, and this attitude is often passed onto the social institutions that the church creates and maintains. In many countries the church has a special place among the state’s institutional partners, as a key provider of a long range of social services. However, with the advancement of the welfare state, the continuing secularization of modern societies and the further separation between church and state, the institutional role of the church decreases. The religious institution can be a full-fledged provider of certain social services at acceptable levels of quality, but all other things being equal, it is in a position to compete for state or public support with secular providers of similar services only within certain limits. And these limits are exactly the communal dimensions of the church’s approach to social problems. Therefore, the Church may be of interest to the state and to the NGOs exclusively in its capacity of a distinct community, and not so much as an institution. Further in the text I will try to argument this statement.

Whenever a communal spirit, high level of personal motivation, or a personal approach to the sometimes dehumanized “target groups” is needed, the church has a lot to offer. The church cannot compete on the grounds of quantity, but it has no match on the grounds of quality or holistic personalized approach, when it comes to provision of different kinds of care for the vulnerable groups.

How are these generally perceived and registered trends reflected in post-Communist Bulgaria?

Bulgaria is a country with extensive Easter Christian Orthodox heritage, dating back as far as the 7th century, when the first proto-Bulgarian tribes began to settle on the lands south of the Danube river and to form the first Bulgarian kingdom, mixing with Slavonic and Thracian ethnic groups, under the heavy cultural influence of the Eastern Roman empire, Byzantium. After a series of historic choices (accepting the official church jurisdiction from Constantinople, translating the liturgical books and the Bible in Slavonic, etc.), the Bulgarians firmly embraced the Eastern Christian tradition, and it has been so for nearly 14 centuries now. Thus, Bulgarian identity has been shaped almost exclusively by what is now known as Christian Orthodoxy.

Most of Bulgarian history has been spent under some sort of foreign domination (Byzantine and Ottoman are the typical examples). In the centuries of a practical absence of a national State, it has been the Church that provided the communal bonds that kept the nation together. Even in times when it was not possible to read or write in the national language, the Orthodox identity of the Bulgarians and the language they spoke made them different and separate from all the other nations that formed the Ottoman empire.

But this historic role of the church was not manifested only on the superficial meta-level of the abstract notions of “nation” and “faith”. Virtually all community life in those days was somehow related to, focused in, or streaming from the church. In the small village communities, during the times of the Bulgarian national revival (17-18th  century), people started to self-organize in community centers and to put aside portions of their income for education. This was done mostly through the so called “cell-schools”, which were a completely church-driven institution, and the “reading rooms”, which were a unique Bulgarian-invented form of small community centers in virtually every village, many of which have survived up to this day.

One might have expected that after the liberation from the Ottoman empire, which was finalized in 1878 with the Russo-Turkish war, and the establishment of the new Bulgarian state, the need for such community-centered activities and church-driven education would vanish. But both these institutions (the Church and the “reading rooms”, which had separate elected Boards of Trustees) proved to enjoy a stable and deep public trust. And while the former “cell-school” educational system was quickly and irreversibly replaced by the new secular state school system, still the church managed to find a special and extensive role in many aspects of public life in the beginning of the 20th century.

For nearly 50 years (from the liberation from the Ottoman rule until the Communists’ takeover in 1944) the church developed both large-scale and small-scale social enterprises and services. Hospitals, schools, retirement homes, soup kitchens, crisis centers and many other forms of community action have been in the arsenal of the Bulgarian church in those times. It is notable that the church has never been reluctant to “experiment” with sophisticated organizational forms and to go beyond the general concept of “charity”, understood mainly as giving alms to the beggars on the street. In the early 20th century the church operated complex social programs, involving large numbers of specialized personnel, using modern scientific approaches and demonstrating unprecedented effectiveness. Apparently this was not done only with the efforts of the clergy; many lay people have formed voluntary organizations to support the church in its social mission.

None of these would have been possible without the general public support and the focus on community level, the true laboratory of both church and social life. Examining the history of Bulgarian philanthropy, one can easily track down the obvious dependency: large private donations on a national level have been made to the Bulgarian state, while the greater amount of small-scale donations and testaments were directed towards the Church, mostly within concrete communities.

The two largest single endowments in recent Bulgarian history have been the establishment of the Sofia University and the Svishtov School of Economics; both are results of private donations, made soon after the liberation from the Ottoman empire. Both are secular in nature and are invested in the secular education field. On the other side are the hundreds of smaller donations of land and other property, directed towards the church by generations of community-rooted people. There is therefore a clear tendency that national causes related donations are usually made to the state, while community-oriented philanthropy normally finds the Church as the most likely recipient. Apparently, in the national perception the church is a stable and community-centered entity.

The years between 1944 and 1989 have interrupted this old tradition of the church’s deep involvement in the lives of Bulgarian communities. The Communist regime’s prime concern towards the Church was to block its ability to be an alternative to the all-encompassing State; to provide any care or to play any public role. For nearly half a century the church’s role in the society has been severely limited to a function in the national protocol; a merely historic institution of some importance to the national identity. All social institutions which used to belong to the church or to the many church-related organizations (CRNGOs) have been confiscated. The church was allowed only to perform its “religious ceremonies”.

The “awakening” of the church which many expected to take place soon after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, however, never occurred in the field of community involvement. Partly due to a continuing schism, which tormented the clergy and the laity for more than 10 years, partly because of the clergy’s difficulties to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and to respond to both the society’s expectations and to the church’s own historic heritage, the Bulgarian Orthodox church entered the 21 century with virtually no national platform for social action.

At the same time, the local church communities have proven to be effective vehicles of social change at a grass-root level. With assistance from international sources and local businesses, many parishes started to develop their own small-scale charitable and educational programs, oriented to the needs of the local people. Church communities have turned to look at the needs of the larger communities they are situated in, often reaching out to nearby social institutions (orphanages, elderly homes) and creating the fabrics of a local social support network.

Although sometimes neglected by the central church leadership, such initiatives have enjoyed substantial public interest and the priests involved in these activities have been largely recognized in the media. Fr. Georgi Fotakiev (Varna), who is running a drug-rehabilitation program, Fr. Ivan (Novi Han), who has established a shelter for abandoned children, and several others have become acclaimed figures in the eyes of the public.

It is clear, however, that enthusiastic groups and leaders cannot be a substitute for a nationally implemented church-related policy for restoration of the social mission of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and of the other religious communities, where similar processes have occurred. With that understanding in mind, one of the largest CRNGOs in Bulgaria, the Pokrov Foundation, has implemented a program which involved both access to small-scale funding for grass-root groups and parishes, and relevant training in project management, in order to ensure the re-establishment of the (Christian) traditions of organized philanthropy and social action in Bulgaria. The program took place in 1996-2004 and has exposed hundreds of individuals, dozens of organizations and church institutions to both motivational and skill-building sessions, providing courses and tailor-made support for many church-related initiatives. The Pokrov foundation has taken the challenging role to be a catalyst for what may be described as the rebirth of the social mission of the Orthodox Church in modern Bulgaria.

The exposure to good practices and the resulting networking activities within the community of CRNGOs have resulted in many lasting relationships on local and national levels. And although the church leadership has not been particularly active in these processes, the results in dozens of villages and cities have been encouraging and inspiring.

There are at least 4 good reasons for non-religious national and community-centered NGOs to consider the parishes and the church in general as potential partners for long-term socially-related programs.

1. The Church’s ethos, or code of conduct, if you wish, is firmly rooted in the concept of the (spiritual) community. The very word “church”, in Greek, ekklesia, means “gathering”. Contrary to common misconceptions, that relate the church to a (nationally presented) institution, the genuine meaning of the church is actually “community” of believers, united by a common faith. Although universal in nature, the church is manifested through concrete local “churches”, or communities.

2. From a purely pragmatic point of view, the church is one of the few institutions, that have a “branch” in virtually every settlement, both large and small. When a high level of reaching out is sought, or a national coverage for a program is necessary, the church is one of the most natural partner for awareness-raising campaigns, regional programs and large-scale networking initiatives.

3. The church has property in proportions which rank it second only to the state. This property includes buildings, agricultural lands, etc. This resource has not been explored and taken account of by none of the national programs for social integration or provision of social services. Many projects for regional development would benefit if proper patterns of cooperation with the church are established.

4. It is within the church’s mandate to serve the community it is situated in, without differentiating or discriminating anyone on grounds of gender, age, social status, or, for that matter, religious belief.

To conclude, the religious communities in Bulgaria, and the Orthodox Church in particular, are facing challenging new opportunities, resulting from the integration of the country in the European Union. While there are still many obstacles for the church’s full participation in the larger development projects (legal, political, related to capacity, etc.), there is already good evidence that the traditional cultural and instrumental elements of a possible church’s involvement in the lives of the Bulgarian communities are already present and deserve the non-governmental sector’s attention.

Studies in World Christianity, vol. 14, Number 3, 2008

Дарение за нов албум на Пламен Сивов

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