United Methodist missionary the Rev. John Calhoun, who pastors the English-Speaking United Methodist Church of Vienna (ESUMC), shares how radical hospitality with a multicultural population is playing an important role in congregations in Austria.
Discover how hospitality can help you keep your spirit in shape.
John is an ordained elder of the New York Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church who has served in New York City, Berlin, Jerusalem, Moscow and Kiev.
The Rev. John Calhoun
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This episode posted on January 7, 2022.
Crystal Caviness, host: Happy New Year! In our first episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape for 2022 we talk with the Reverend John Calhoun who, for the past 2 decades, has served as United Methodist missionary in Europe. His current appointment is in Austria where Methodism goes back to 1870. John talks to us today about the important work of the United Methodist Church in the region where radical hospitality with a multi-cultural population is playing an important role in the ecumenical movement.
Crystal: John, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
John: Thanks, Crystal. It’s great to be with you.
Crystal: I’m so excited to talk to you today. As I read your bio and learned more about you, you’ve just done some really important and interesting work for the United Methodist Church, and I definitely want us to have a chance to talk about that. We’ll kind of start with you’re currently serving an English-speaking United Methodist Church in Vienna, Austria. And I didn’t know much about the United Methodist Church’s presence in Austria. So I did a little research and was really surprised that that Methodist history goes back to 1870. So there’s this really rich Methodist history in Austria. Can you talk a little bit about that, John?
John: I can. Sure. Indeed. The original Methodist movement started here in 1870. The first congregation was started the next year in 1871. And so this year, 2021, we’ve just celebrated…just a few weeks ago…the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Methodist Church in Austria. And it was a fabulous celebration. We had friends from across the ecumenical community, representatives of the government, other religious and non-religious organizations representing at our celebration, just a few weeks ago. And it was really impressive for me being relatively new here to this mission assignment in Austria to hear others speak about the history of the Methodist movement in Austria and how over this span of 150 years the Methodist Church has been very active in living out the Wesleyan traditions, especially in terms of social justice and social holiness. Over the years the Methodist Church has been very active, for example, for resettling persons displaced by war and violence and conflicts after the Second World War, conflicts rising out of the Cold War and some of the problems in Eastern Europe amongst persons living under religious persecutions during the Cold War era, and then, of course, more recently in 2015 with the influx of persons seeking asylum and assistance coming out of the Middle East. Yeah, over the history of the church the Methodists have been very active and very committed to living out the social holiness gospel that we proclaim.
Crystal: John, you’re now serving an English-speaking church in Vienna. How long have you been there?
John: Yes. I’ve been a missionary with the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church for the past 21 years. For most of that time I served in Eastern Europe in Moscow, Russia for 5 years, and more recently in Ukraine for the previous 8 years. But about a year ago I was sent from Kiev, Ukraine to here in Vienna to serve as the pastor of the English-speaking United Methodist Church of Vienna.
Crystal: What’s your church like? Tell me about your congregation.
John: Yeah. It’s a congregation of about 250 persons coming from more than 30 countries around the world and really representing just as many different Christian traditions as well. It’s very international, very multi-ethnic. We have many Austrians who worship with us, many families that are comprised of persons from different nationalities married to one another, raising their children here in a cross-cultural, multi-ethnic community here in Vienna… quite a number of persons who came from different countries here decades ago to either study or to work. Those persons have raised their children and now their children are raising their own children as kind of second or even third generation persons from other places around the world, who are now living here in Vienna.
Crystal: From what I read, The United Methodist Church in Austria has a long tradition of working with refugees. What does that look like today?
John: Well, today the work is not so intensive. But, as I mentioned, over the decades as there have been refugee flows through or into Austria, into Vienna, the church has been very involved. Most recently in 2015 when Vienna was kind of a way port for persons fleeing war and persecution in Syria, in particular. The United Methodist Church, our congregation and other Methodist congregations here in Vienna, worked with other ecumenical bodies, other churches, to provide shelter, humanitarian assistance, at times legal assistance to those persons who were fleeing persecution and were in process of either seeking asylum or on their way to another place where they could settle.
Crystal: You mentioned that you have served throughout Eastern Europe. What’s that switch been like for you to come from the Ukraine where you served for 8 years to now to serve in Austria?
John: Well, the congregations in Ukraine are very young in The United Methodist Church in the former Soviet Union although it traces its history back to the Imperial Russian era before the Soviet Union. Most of the congregations in Russia and in Ukraine were founded within the past 20 years. And so they’re very young communities of faith. And they are small and also minority churches and not with a great history and not a great connection to the larger society. And so there’s a lot of misunderstanding in those communities, in particular, of what it means to be a Methodist or you know how Protestant churches are different from the Orthodox Church which is predominant, especially in Russia, as opposed to here in Austria where again the church has been part of the Austrian society for the past 150 years. It’s a recognized church that has very formal relations with other church bodies, although it’s a small church here in Austria compared to the Roman Catholic communities and some of the other Protestant churches. It’s very well regarded and very much part of the ecumenical movement in the country.
Crystal: That must have been exciting for you, though, to be a part of young churches and really sharing the Methodism. I don’t know if that’s also indicative of their faith being new, but introducing the denomination to these families or these people.
John: Yes, especially in Ukraine. For the last number of years that I was there I was working very closely with the growing international student population in Ukraine. Many of the members of our faith communities were African students who had come to Ukraine to study in various professions. Many of them were medical students studying at some of the Kiev’s teaching universities. And some of them came from Methodist backgrounds. Some of them came from other Protestant or evangelical churches back in Africa. So it was a joy to work with them and to be in ministry with them, but then also to kind of walk with them as they became more and more integrated into the local United Methodist Church, which is predominantly Ukrainian. So it was a very interesting mix of young people, very new and vibrant in their faith coming together with others who were also new in faith, but coming from a very different background.
Crystal: So, John, it occurs to me that you have a unique perspective having served churches across the globe on connectionalism and how the United Methodist Church is connected across continents. Can you talk a little bit about how you see connectionalism in action?
John: Well, one of the aspects of my ministry is that I’ve been involved for a number of years in multi-cultural ministries with congregations and communities in which persons have come to the community from literally all around the world. In Ukraine we had quite a number of African students who had come to Kiev to study medicine and other faculties. Many of them were from Methodist churches across Africa. And so they knew of the Methodist Church. They knew of the connections. You know. And so when they found a Methodist Church in Ukraine they had a certain sense that they would be welcome, that there would be something familiar to them and for them there, that they would be seen not as foreigners coming from a different place, but would be received as Methodists coming to another Methodist Church. And that’s certainly the case here in Austria. We have, again, quite a number of persons, members of the congregation who have come to Vienna for work or for studies or for family reunification or to establish a family. Many of them come from places where they grew up in a Methodist Church, either a United Methodist community or perhaps a more independent Methodist Church. Again, for them to be able to find a United Methodist congregation in their new home, in their new city has been a great blessing. And so, you know, it is in this way that we see the connectionalism quite alive and vibrant in the church today.
Crystal: I really love that. I think sometimes those of us who maybe are just in our own church for a long, long time or we’re at least in the same region of the world. We hear the word connectionalism but we don’t really understand what that looks like or what that means. So I can certainly appreciate what it must mean for people to see the familiar, maybe a familiar local of the church or hear familiar words or just maybe sing familiar hymns. All of that just makes us feel like one. I’m sure that’s really beautiful to see time and time again. John, you also have served churches in the New York Annual Conference. How is the United Methodist Church in Europe the same or even different from churches you’ve served in the U.S.?
John: That’s really hard for me to say. I served for 3 years as a pastor of a United Methodist Church in New York City on Staten Island as part of the New York Annual Conference, which is my home conference. I am an ordained elder of the New York Annual Conference. But, you know, this was more than 20 years ago. And, um, you know, I’m sure the landscape in that community and across the conference has changed a bit. I have attended annual conference in my home conference from time to time, but it’s a bit hard for me to put my finger on that. Here in Europe we face some of the same difficult issues that are facing the church today in the United States. You know, we’re all aware of the tensions and the fractures that exist within the United Methodist Church that still need to be addressed at upcoming General Conference. You know, those tensions also exist across Europe. So all of us, I think, in the Methodist body around the world are, you know, in prayerful anticipation for the coming General Conference, and you know, prayerfully hoping that delegates to the conference will discern what the path for the church is going forward.
Crystal: What about your ministry gives you hope for the denomination?
John: Well, I think that what I’ve come to experience over the past year here in Vienna is the resiliency of the faith of the members of our local United Methodist Church and how throughout the pandemic our local congregation has been such an important part of their lives. I’ve had the misfortune of coming and starting my ministry here in Vienna right in the middle of the pandemic. My first Sunday was just about a year ago, was at a time when the doors of the church were closed. And so we had a very scaled-down service of installation for me that was transmitted via Zoom to our church members who were watching from home. For the first several months of my ministry the church doors were closed and all of our ministries were happening online. But throughout that time and since that time, as the pandemic has eased a bit here in Europe and vaccinations have become more available here in Austria, we’ve been able to open the doors of the church again. And our members are slowly coming back and appreciating the ministry of the church. And it’s been hopeful to me to see how even in the midst of pandemic, the commitments to the church and to the congregation has been very strong among the members. And even during those many, many months when they were not physically able to come to the church building they were still connecting. They were still joining, taking part in worship services online and Bible study and fellowship opportunities that we were able to provide online, and were continuing to pray for one another and connect with one another as they could.
Crystal: I love that word that you used ‘resilience’…. ‘Resiliency.’ It’s an important word for those of us in the church, I think. John, as a missionary when you tell people what you do, what’s the favorite story that you share?
John: Well, it’s very interesting. As United Methodist missionaries every few years we have the privilege of coming back to our home countries and going on a period of itineration when we visit local churches that have been in partnership with us over the years, to tell the stories of our mission service, to answer questions that people have, to bring to life a little bit of the service that we do on behalf of local churches in the United States, in my case, coming from the U.S. And so it’s interesting because I get to tell different kinds of stories to different kinds of communities. But one of the things that always strikes me when I come back to the United States is how deeply committed many local United Methodist Churches in the United States are to mission service, not perhaps in the international context, but in their own local communities. And, you know, it may be for folks in the local community, you know, kind of a privilege and something interesting for me to come and speak about my ministry in Ukraine or my ministry in Austria. But I’m as equally moved by hearing stories of local United Methodist Churches, you know, far from international borders who are deeply committed to serving their neighbors in the communities that they serve as well. You know, these kind of interactions between missionaries and local churches that support the missionaries are really two ways. And it really demonstrates the kind of partnerships and mutual relationships that we share, supporting churches to missionaries serving outside of the United States.
Crystal: That’s a really good reminder that we’re really all missionaries, aren’t we? We don’t have to be serving on another continent or a different country. Thank you for that. We’re going to share this episode during Advent. So I’d love to talk about Christmas for a minute. I know you’re new to Austria. But are there some unique ways that you’re expecting to celebrate Christmas in Vienna this year?
John: I’m actually very much looking forward to it because I was here last Advent and Christmas here in Vienna. My first Sunday serving with the church was the first Sunday of Advent. And for much of the Advent and Christmas period the doors of the church were closed. We were able to have a couple of worship services, including on Christmas Eve last year, when we had to limit the number of persons who could come to the service because of social distancing requirements. This year we’re looking forward to having the doors of the church open and welcoming larger crowds and having the full celebrations that this congregations has experienced in the past. So I’m very much looking forward just to gathering with the congregation again in full, singing the traditional hymns of our faith. We use, because we are an English-speaking United Methodist Church, we use our United Methodist hymnal that is known to our churches all across the United States. And we sing the hymns that are sung in United Methodist congregations all around the world. We also have one Sunday when we have a very special service of lessons and carols and we have choirs in our church who will lead us in the singing of these beloved hymns and the reading of the lessons. And this is a special service that in my experience is not so common, perhaps, in United Methodist Churches in the United States. But because of the more international flavor of our community this is…this is a tradition that many people have brought here to Vienna. And so we will celebrate that particular service with great joy.
Crystal: That does sound like you’d really look forward to make the holidays really special. Well, thank you for all that you are doing and all that you did here with us today. But the last question is a question that we ask all of our guests on Get Your Spirit in Shape. John, how do you keep your spirit in shape?
John: You know, Vienna is a really beautiful city—not only the architecture of the city, especially the old city and the center, but all across the city there are parks and green spaces and open spaces where people can go out and breathe a bit of fresh air and appreciate the nature around us. In addition, just outside of the city center, just to the west of Vienna there’s a very large forest that’s kind of a national park where there are miles and miles of hiking paths that crisscross forests and go up and down the hills that are just outside of Vienna. And then when one has time one can hop on a train and within an hour or so be out in the foothills of the Alps. It’s a beautiful setting and location for sports and leisure and exercise. So one of the spiritual disciplines that mean so much to me now is one that I’ve really taken on just over the past year as I’ve been here in Vienna. And that is just getting outside of the city, getting beyond the church walls. I live in apartments that is in the church compound just behind the sanctuary. And so much of the ministry is just kind of right here within the walls where we live and we serve. So as often as I can I try to get out and just be in nature. And in particular when I have a free day I will get on the train and I will go outside of the city. Sometimes I go off with other church members who also like to hike. Sometimes with a family member. But more often than not I just go by myself. And I take time just to walk in the forest and up and down hills and along ridgelines and up to tops of small peaks, just to experience nature, just to slow down, to widen my horizons a little bit, to take the time and the space to think through some problems maybe that I’m facing, or challenges in the ministry, to look for a germ of a…or a spark for an idea for a sermon for the coming Sunday, and really just to be present in nature, and to experience God’s beauty and the beauty of God expressed in God’s nature. And oftentimes when I’m walking in the hills or I’m reaching the top of a small mountain I’m able to look out over the valleys and to the very tall mountains beyond, I think of Psalm 19, chapter 1, which tells us that the heavens declare the glory of the Lord, the skies proclaim the majesty, the goodness, of God’s creation. For me that’s a very important moment to just recalibrate, to refresh, to pause and to reflect before God and God’s creation and to then, you know, with a fuller spirit get back on the train, come back to Vienna, come back to my home, to my office, to the ministry, but more inspired and reenergized for the ministry.
Crystal: That really sounds lovely and to be able to do that there in a beautiful country and beautiful city of Vienna, what a blessing. Well, thank you, John, for how you serve God, how you serve the United Methodist Church and thank you for being a guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape.
John: Thank you, Crystal. It’s a blessing to be with you.
Crystal: That was John Calhoun, a missionary serving in Austria on behalf of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries. To learn more about John and the work he does go to UMC.org/podcast and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s first Get Your Spirit in Shape episode of 2022. I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.