By Paul Hayes
By name and deed, the 150-year-old Peace Cathedral in the Republic of Georgia has claimed the mantle of Christian peacemaking, investing in a vision of inclusive and merciful community.
Situated in the shadows of the Caucasus Mountains, Peace Cathedral was established as First Baptist Church of Tbilisi. It serves as the mother church of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, an Alliance of Baptists’ Active Hope Partner.
A few months ago, joined by a delegation from the Alliance of Baptists, clergy and laity from Peace Cathedral celebrated the ongoing ministry that has taken place there since 1868 and its persistent commitment to oppressed minorities within Georgian society.
Under the leadership of Bishops Malkhaz Songulashvili, Rusudan Gotsiridze and Ilia Osephashvili, Peace Cathedral has repeatedly taken bold stands in support of oppressed minorities, even as the church has suffered periodic harassment from Orthodox extremists.
The faith community, which organizes itself under an episcopal form of church governance, has embraced gender equality, ordaining women to serve as pastors and bishops, and provided hospitality and safety to Muslim refugees during the Chechen-Russian war and to those who lost their homes and livelihoods when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.
Most recently, Peace Cathedral’s congregation and leadership have publicly denounced violence targeting the LGBTQIA population in Georgia, a position that has resulted in the church being marginalized by other leaders and churches within the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia.
Perhaps the best demonstration of the church community’s commitments, however, is its current endeavor to construct a mosque and a synagogue attached to the church building, creating by 2019 a spiritual home for Abrahamic faiths, including both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Peace Cathedral will be a profound example of what the world can be.
The 150th anniversary celebration highlighted just how important the church has been and continues to be. The Alliance delegation that included Paula Dempsey, James Pollard, Claudia Dickerson, Wayne Grinstead and Paul Hayes, worshipped with representatives from the American Baptist Churches, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany, and the Georgian Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities.
Bishop Songulashvili spoke eloquently of the symbolism of their silver communion chalice — a “Chalice of Peace” originally from the church’s founding that he rediscovered at the library at Mercer University. It had been given by the church to Baptists in Moscow in 1928 as a gesture of oneness in faith, and later offered by Russian church leaders to Baptist World Alliance and Southern Baptist representative Louie Newton in 1946 as an expression of overcoming differences in the post-war era.
In 2011, Mercer University returned the chalice to Peace Cathedral, its rightful home. The chalice now serves as a symbol of the differences in ideology, language and culture bridged over the course of the past century — an expression of divine and human grace.
Toward the end of the service of celebration, Paula Dempsey joined Bishop Songulashvili in dedicating an infant boy — part of the next generation to bear witness to such vision and faith.
In addition to the anniversary celebration, the Alliance group experienced contemplative worship, toured historical cities and sites, and visited the various ministries of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, including its multi-faceted program at the Beteli Center and the refugee work at the Baptist church in Gori. This latter mission of mercy is desperately in need of funding.
Though our visit was short, the spirit and company of Malkhaz, Rusudan, Ilia and many more members of this beloved community in Tbilisi blessed us. As we deepened our friendships and shared our experiences, we strengthened the ongoing relationship with this Alliance partner. We look forward to future chapters in their remarkable story.
Paul Hayes is the pastor of Noank Baptist Church in Connecticut and a former member of the Alliance of Baptists’ Board of Directors.