Bethel’s Centre of Pastoral Care (BCPC), part of the Bethel Congregation, aims to promote social mobility by addressing its activities to socially vulnerable children and youth. The Congregation was founded in 1927 and re-established after the Soviet period in 1993. It is a Protestant Congregation with a wider vision to be an active church and integrator of the local community. Traditionally the church has not played a noteworthy role in social care in Estonia, as we know from many Catholic countries. Bethel Congregation is thus a notable exception in this regard. In 1997 the congregation started working with street children in Northern Tallinn. Bethel’s Centre of Pastoral Care, comprising of a day-care centre and shelter for street children, was founded by the Bethel Congregation in 2000.
BCPC offers different activities in their day-care centre for approximately 10-15 children and overnight accommodation for approximately 12-18 children. The centre also provides lunch, different sports and cultural activities. Teachers help the kids with schoolwork and also teach the Estonian language to children whose mother tongue is not Estonian. Approximately 90% of the participating children have a Russian origin (much more than the average proportion of Russian-speakers in the district and in Tallinn). BCPC organises theatre visits, hiking and camping events. In addition, because of the international contacts with Scandinavian and German Protestant congregations, the BCPC is able to take children to different events abroad. Bethel’s Congregation supports low income groups with food, footwear, clothes, and hygienic supplies and offers scholarships to children from risk families. Currently the congregation supports 135 low-income families regularly.
According to the director of BCPC, the vision of BCPC is a “healthy and safe society where the church has a clear role and also carries out the social task. The church is already a social, serving and guiding entity by its nature.” The main aim is to provide social and material support, develop the neighbourhood’s social, economic and religious competence, to be a mediator between different population groups and to deal with children and youth. An important purpose is to increase children’s access to education—to help children with behavioural problems (school dropouts) and to re-acquire the school routine.
Currently 11 children live in BCPC. Throughout its existence, the centre has accommodated approximately 70 children and helped hundreds of people with day-care work. Twenty people work in BCPC voluntarily and in addition, some employees trained to work with risk group children are engaged. BCPC is financed mainly by donations made from Estonian and foreign civilians and entrepreneurs. Between 2000 and 2004 it was also supported by the city government but not anymore. The cooperation was bogged down with legislative dissensions (as mentioned before, social work in congregations is rather unusual in Estonia and does not have working legislative framework) and has slowly gained pace again in recent years. Information on current resources was not presented.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The actors involved in the BCPC define diversity as a co-existence of different ethnic groups, but other issues are also involved:
“Diversity to me means that people who speak very different languages live here. This human environment—Ukrainians, Russians, Estonians. Northern Tallinn is ethnically very diverse. One part of it is clean, beautiful and well-groomed, but the other is inversely different: there are municipal houses, where children become drug addicts when only five years old.”
As the BCPC fights against poverty, attention is focused on the negative aspects of socio-economic diversity. Socio-economic and ethnic aspects overlap with each other, and it amplifies the problems for marginal groups. The BCPC considers it important to help the children from problematic families in the beginning of the downward spiral where there still exists an opportunity for a positive change. In a wider scope, it is important to create places where different ethnic population groups can meet:
“As long as there is no place for encounter created, the two main ethnic groups, Estonians and Russians, live separately and shun each other.”
Because of the absence of successful governmental mechanisms for bringing Estonian and Russian population groups together, the Bethel’s Congregation and the BCPC, and other institutions alike, are important for increasing the socialisation of marginalised groups and in binding the two ethno-linguistic communities together. It is remarkable that (if going to the church at all) the Russian-speaking community in Estonia is rather related to orthodox and the Estonian community to the protestant church. The BCPC thus crosses even this centuries-old border of two separate Christian communities.
Main factors influencing success or failure
According to the interviewee, the main factor influencing success is the special role of BCPC as a non-governmental and religious organisation, which enables it to create a relationship of trust with marginal groups.
“We have often taken the first step to reach the marginal groups, families living in poverty, having absolutely no contact with society. The marginal groups have usually some kind of prejudice and disappointment against the state and they don’t want to ask for help. We have a different role, we can help them because our contact with marginal groups is based on trust.”
Most likely such trust and the impartiality of national institutions are the reasons why BCPC has been so successful without public support and subsidies. The religious organisational form ensures the motivation of the stakeholders and sufficient funding by virtue of donations.
The main problems relate to the poor legislative framework in their specific area of activity. More specifically, BCPC does not correspond to any law in the sense that it does not match to a boarding school, youth centre or an orphanage description in Estonia’s legislation and, therefore, no subsidies are granted by the state nor by the municipality. Moreover, there has been some talk regarding the closure of the BCPC, but as the initiative is so successful in its social care aims, no action has been taken. The Chancellor of Justice of the Republic of Estonia examined the BCPC activity and found that this conception works, but it does not match with the legislative framework in Estonia.
Bethel’s Centre of Pastoral Care aims to overcome poverty and exclusion, the negative aspect of socio-economic diversity. It realigns the marginal groups in ordinary life which positively affects social cohesion in Northern Tallinn, and tries to facilitate the social mobility of the vulnerable children in the very beginning of the downward spiral. If the normal socialisation process in a family does not create necessary links with the society, the congregation enables these connections both economically and socially. The role of congregations in social work is neither acknowledged nor frequent in Estonia, and the innovative nature of BCPC in Tallinn stems from independently developing this kind of social activity framework which is vital in the city. The social work in the context of a religious organisation, although self-evident in many European countries, is not that common in Estonian society. BCPC has thus served as a forerunner for these discussions in the society.
Image: Rene Seeman