When Goshen native Jessica Morris-Ivanova left Arkansas in 2009 for a mission in Bulgaria as part of the Church of the Nazarene, she didn't know that her brief trips to see family in America would always remain visits.
Morris-Ivanova, 43, began her mission work in helping to develop literature for the church, coordinating between editors and translators of different works. One of the first texts she would encounter would be English pastor and theologian John Wesley's A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.
She would spend years amid Bulgaria's contrasting landscapes of cities, sprawling greenery, wide-open spaces and mountain ranges.
"There's a lot of green and I came from the Ozarks, so that felt very much like home," said Morris-Ivanova, who found it easy to draw parallels between the home she knows in Arkansas and the faraway country of Bulgaria.
Despite its beauty, it was the country's people she said she "really fell in love" with.
"They know what Southern hospitality is," Morris-Ivanova said. "If you're a guest in their home, they'll put every last thing they have in the cupboards on the table. ... They strongly value family and community and being together.
"I would say those are Arkansas values that I really appreciate."
And although she had spent two years in Bulgaria on a previous mission with the church, arriving in 1996 -- just six years after the fall of communism in the country -- it wouldn't be until Morris-Ivanova's second mission to Bulgaria that she would meet Ivaylo Ivanov, 48, a United Methodist lay pastor at a church in Shumen.
"I remember being very intrigued by this silent rock, because I'm the jabbermouth," Morris-Ivanova said. "He's actually kind of a hard nut to crack."
Her mission work was a collaborative effort with the United Methodist church, and when visiting the Methodist church's superintendent in Shumen, a city in northeastern Bulgaria, she would run into Ivanov, who would stop by often for one reason or another.
The two began translating books together -- Morris-Ivanova is fluent in Bulgarian and Italian -- among other projects.
"Along the way I started dating [Ivanov], and the Methodist Church began to plot how they could steal me and keep him," said Morris-Ivanova, grinning.
In the meantime, their work hearkened back to some of the goings on during the time Bulgaria was ruled by communism, a dark time for the country. From 1945-90, clergy across different faiths -- even the Orthodox church, which has a longstanding history as the country's most widespread faith, according to Morris-Ivanova -- were imprisoned and churches shuttered or appropriated for other uses.
Bulgaria, a country roughly the size of Ohio, has 31 Methodist churches but only three -- including the church in Shumen -- remained open, with unspoken conditions: country officials would watch each Sunday as parishioners would file in and out of the church, and their identities would be noted. The church in Shumen would, not for the last time, buck the rules and not only remain open during that time period but distribute Bibles and other religious literature in secret.
The Methodist church in Shumen was without a pastor, and in time a bishop took Morris-Ivanova aside and made a proposition: marry Ivaylo and with him become pastors in the Methodist church.
"I kept saying to the bishop, 'He hasn't even proposed to me,'" Morris-Ivanova said with a laugh. "I'm not married, the man hasn't proposed, and you're proposing that we become co-pastors of Shumen? Hang on a minute."
During her mission trips, Morris-Ivanova was able to visit her parents in Goshen once about every two years, something that also has been difficult for her. Her three siblings are far-flung across the United States and Australia, "and we all say it was [our parents'] fault, because [they] trained us to love the world and to be faithful [and] go wherever God wanted us to go."
There was also the issue of her commitment to the Church of the Nazarene, in which she'd grown up and was still a member of Arkansas' north district.
"It felt like I was leaving my family," Morris-Ivanova said. "It was a hard time because I loved and still love the church, and they supported me and loved me from when I was a kid and watched me grow up. ... It was a very difficult decision that God was leading me to make."
Jessica and Ivaylo were married in his hometown of Russe in July 2016 -- she added to her name the female form of his name, Ivanova -- and they now co-pastor the Bulgaria's United Methodist Church of Shumen.
Taking the role of pastor also made Morris-Ivanova the country's second-ever female Methodist pastor, and the country's third female pastor overall. (The country's first female Methodist pastor, Margarita Todorova, is still active in the church, serving as a chairman of the faith's ministerial board that screens ordination candidates; the third woman pastor heads a Church of the Nazarene congregation, according to Morris-Ivanova.)
Nechi Fullerton, who serves at Little Rock's First United Methodist Church's outreach committee for international missions, learned of Morris-Ivanova's Arkansas roots from other Bulgarians while at a conference for Methodists held in Prague in December. She had been astounded they knew about Arkansas.
"I was like, 'What?' " Fullerton said. "Europe has never even heard of Arkansas. [Europeans] pretty much know New York and California, and everything in the middle is Texas. I told them we're above Texas."
Fullerton managed to touch base with Morris-Ivanova, and among other activities on Monday the couple visited with staff and others at First United, telling their story and discussing future partnerships.
During an interview with Jessica and members of First United, Ivaylo sat beside his wife with his hands in his lap -- his wedding ring resting on his right-hand ring finger like Jessica's, as is the custom in Bulgaria -- and his eyes flitting from speaker to speaker and meeting Jessica's with a calm serenity. Except for a couple of sentences he remained reticent because, Jessica said, he understands much more English than he can speak.
It wasn't until later that, with Jessica translating, Ivaylo communicated his thoughts on all that had transpired in their lives together over the past couple of years.
"I found the love of my life at the age of 46, and that means that I have sought that love for a long time, and in that time the philosophy for seeking that love changed a lot," Ivaylo said. "I've stopped speaking of the right person and I instead tried to become the right person ... the best person that I could be within my understanding of what that was. And then things came together for me, and I met the person that was suitable for me.
"I think this is good advice for young people."
The United Methodist Church of Shumen in Bulgaria is where Jessica Morris-Ivanova and her husband, Ivaylo Ivanov, share a pastorship. It is one of 31 United Methodist churches countrywide.
Religion on 01/13/2018
Print Headline: Ex-Arkansan is second female pastor in Bulgaria