BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Two months ago, the Rev. Mark Hicks was immersed in his ministry as pastor of the English Speaking United Methodist Church in Prague.
By May 4, he was on his way to the United States, with only two suitcases and the clothes on his back to his name.
Due to visa complications related to COVID-19, Hicks is now in East Tennessee, reeling from an abrupt departure from his new home in the Czech Republic.
“What we hoped to do in Prague was happening,” says Hicks. “It was not easy to do ... but creative work to teach Jesus in the most atheistic nation in the world was happening. To see all that come crashing down is heartbreaking.”
After a two-month separation followed by a two-week quarantine, Hicks and his wife, Heather, are together again in a rental house in Bristol. When members of Holston Conference learned the missionaries were in need of help, they sent money and organized a virtual household shower to quickly re-establish the couple in the U.S.
“Mark and Heather sold everything they had to answer the call,” said the Rev. Tom Hancock, chair of Holston Conference’s mission team. “I just feel it's important to support all those who have answered the special calling to missions.”
The couple moved to Prague in December 2018 to pick up the leadership of a church that Holston Conference helped launch in 2011, through a partnership with the United Methodist Church in Czech Republic. Hicks is the third pastor from Holston Conference to serve at English Speaking United Methodist Church.
Since then, Mark and Heather Hicks have been taking classes to learn the Czech language and building on the ministry developed by the congregation and former pastors.
The church recently bought 20 new chairs to add to its existing 50 chairs, after worship attendance swelled to 40 a few times in the fall. Average worship attendance is about 30, Hicks said, comprised of English-speaking internationals and tourists as well as Czech natives who want to practice their English.
Outreach ministries with local orphanages and a prison were in the beginning phases. Hicks also signed a one-year contract with a rock radio station to host a show on recovery, grief, loss and stress. Hicks’ radio show, “Life Strategies,” started in April on Color Music Radio.
In early March, Heather packed a suitcase and went on a two-week trip to visit her adult sons in Tennessee and Florida. Mark stayed in Prague.
Ten days into her trip, Heather learned the Czech borders had been closed due to COVID-19. She also learned her temporary visa (issued because her and Mark’s applications for visa renewals had not been processed) was now invalid.
“To say that this has been one of the most difficult times we have faced is an understatement,” said Heather. She stayed in the U.S. – separated from her husband for nine weeks – hoping for pandemic restrictions to be lifted and for her visa to be processed.
During that time, Mark and Heather wrestled with a decision.
“Unfortunately, the Czech government is not processing visas at this time,” Hancock said. “The Czech government has also restricted all travel into the country. Projections range from six months to a year before things reopen and return to normal. However, if there is a resurgence of the virus this fall, the timeline could be extended for 18 months to two years."
The situation was emotionally and financially vexing, Hicks said. “We were looking at three months to two years of Heather being in the U.S., renting a house, while I was in the Czech ... There were so many moving parts.”
In early May, the pastor made the decision to return to the U.S. while requesting an appointment to a local church in Holston Conference.
Mark packed two suitcases with family photos, crucial documents, and irreplaceable belongings. After he left, friends in Prague went to the Hicks apartment and donated clothing and other household items they left behind.
“It’s outrageously expensive to ship, and it’s just cheaper to buy what we need here,” Mark said.
When Mark arrived in East Tennessee, he had to stay separated from his wife, albeit in the same house, while he quarantined for two weeks. He recently completed the quarantine in good health.
“It’s such a shocking thing to have left for a two-week visit, and now I’m living here,” says Heather. “I didn’t get to go back. I didn’t get to say goodbye. It’s been such a surprise. We were committed to living there for many years.”
The Rev. Hicks is now projected for an appointment at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Afton, Tennessee, effective July 1. In the meantime, he’s still taping radio shows for the Prague station and is leading online worship for the English Speaking United Methodist Church through the end of May.
“I’ve not missed a Sunday yet,” he says. Hicks also leads an online Tuesday Bible study for Prague members.
Holston church members have donated about $1,400 as well as gift cards through the Three Rivers District office, in addition to meeting other needs for the missionary couple.
Jade MacEwan, a member of the English Speaking United Methodist Church in Prague, said she is disappointed the Hicks’ ministry was interrupted but the congregation is strong enough to carry on.
“We had started working on some new missions just before the [COVID-19] crisis took hold, and it really looked like everything was moving towards a great future for the church with Mark as pastor,” said MacEwan. “We've got a lot of people willing to preach, lead worship, and everything else that needs to be done to keep our church going.”
Victor Ortega, another member at the Prague church, said he hoped Hicks would return.
“I understand that, with not knowing how many months it would take before he returned, resigning was likely the right thing to do, but the decision and the trip occurred so quickly that the shock was overwhelming,” Ortega said. “Mark and Heather are good and loving, and they have been and felt like part of our church family.”
Hicks and Hancock said decisions have yet to be made about the future of English Speaking United Methodist Church in Prague, especially as the pandemic rages on.
“There are so many uncertainties at this point that the church needs to move on,” said Hicks.
“We live in difficult and uncertain times,” Hancock said. “I’m not sure what the future looks like, but we are hopeful we can build on relationships we’ve had with ESUMC.”
Story update: In a May 23 email, the Rev. Petr Prochazka, superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Czech Republic, said the English Speaking United Methodist Church in Prague is pursing pastoral leadership through the Methodist Church in Great Britain.
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Holston Conference includes 864 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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