Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in generations.|
Before the mountains were brought forth,
Or even thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.
...In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like[s] it, well; if not, no one shall compel them, for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall annoy or abuse the preachers on account of their religion, [as] according to the previous constitutions, [or] allow any to be imprisoned or punished by removal from his post on account of his teachings, for faith is the gift of God. This comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
"Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves." Matthew 10:16
This morning I want to talk to you about the experiences Mike and I have had with the Partner Church movement in Romania. First, some brief background material. Dr. Gellerd Judit, a physician, is the daughter of Dr. Gellerd Imre, a Unitarian minister and scholar from Transylvania who committed suicide due to threatened re-imprisonment by the communists. In 1988, she began to translate her father's historical study of 400 years of scholarly sermons. She also drew attention to the plight of Unitarians in Romania and spearheaded a movement to form connections between American and Romanian Unitarian churches. As the movement gained momentum interest grew in understanding the religious roots of our Unitarian movement and in providing economic, educational and humanitarian assistance to Unitarians and others trying to rebuild and recoup from years of totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe.
Our involvement with the Partner Church program began with being in the right place at the right time. It started quite simply; it was the unintended consequence of my decision in January 1992 to join the choir at the UU Congregation of Fairfax. Two weeks later, Dan Couch, who is a master at gently nudging people to expand their boundaries, asked me if I was going with the choir on their singing tour to Romania in July. Well, I was startled, but I quickly decided that I wanted to go and that I wanted to take my daughter and boyfriend along. The adventure appealed to me, as did the opportunity to see Europe. Mike was motivated by the opportunity to enjoy a vacation with his girlfriend, me. We were not particularly looking for a religious experience.
None of us anticipated the impact the trip would have on us. The choir was to start out singing in Kolosvar, which is an historic Unitarian religious and Hungarian cultural center. We were also to sing in three other cities in Romania: Marosvaserhely, Szekelyudvarhely, and Szekelykeresztur, and in Szentgerice, a small farming village which was the location of our Partner Church. The names I have given for these places are Hungarian, but the official names are Romanian and historically many places also have German names.
While in Romania we would be hosted by a family in Szentgerice. All of this: concerts, welcoming celebrations, sightseeing excursions and getting to know our host families was to be crammed into about five days. The trip planners, worried that choir members might not react well to the absence of creature comforts like indoor plumbing and the presence of rustic aspects like chickens and geese in the dooryards of every home, left us only a few hours each day to be with our host families. To our surprise, without exception, our host families waited up late at night for us, sometimes until Midnight, doted on our pantomimed recitations of our excursions, fed us no matter what time we returned and seemed to anticipate our every need. More than anything else being in the village was the high point of our trip, because, through the villagers' reactions we knew first hand the importance of our trip. Every year since then, eleven years altogether, Mike and I have gone back to visit the same small village in Romania, spending a significant part of our yearly vacation in Romania. I have been there twice with the UUCF choir and once with a youth group that included my daughter. One year I went twice, one of the times without Mike.
Before the first trip we did not fully appreciate the significance of the moment in history for Romania and Transylvanian Unitarians. We knew the political facts; it was only two and half years since the communist dictator Ceaucescu had been assassinated and his government overthrown. The deep emotional longing of the Transylvanian Hungarians for freedom, the degree to which they had been isolated from the rest of the world, and the attraction which we Americans as representatives of democracy carried for them surprised us. I also did not know much about the early history of Unitarianism in Romania.
Among the things that I will always remember about the first trip in 1992 is the choir's entrance into Szentgerice. We reached Szentgerice as the sun lowered on our third day of travel, and at the edge of the village we descended from our great silver and fuchsia tour bus. Josiah Bartlett, who was interim pastor of UUCF at that time, described this scene, "Who can forget, or find words to describe, that sunset when we walked singing into the village, down its unpaved street, with old folks waving from the gates of their neat little homes, children running beside us, and ... our hosts smiling, crying, throwing flowers, while the startled geese flapped away in alarm?"(3) Thinking about it still gives me goose bumps. It was truly a magical moment.
The 16th century was a time of great religious ferment in Europe. The ideas of the protestant reformation continued to spread throughout eastern and western Europe. In Transylvania, David Ferenc, a Catholic priest, was instrumental in spreading and expanding on the ideas of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Socinius. David alternately converted to being a Lutheran, a Calvinist and finally an anti-Trinitarian which is how Unitarians were identified then. He was a strong influence on the young King of Transylvania, John Sigismund, and converted him to the view that religion should be a matter of individual conscience and not spread by force or coercion. The validity of the idea of the Trinity and other religious concepts were discussed in a series of public debates. At one of the debates the King was persuaded to issue the proclamation of religious freedom. Although the Edict of Torda might seem ordinary by today's standards, in the 1500's it was a radical departure and remarkable given the political and religious tensions in Transylvania. During those heady times, David converted the King, himself, and large numbers of other Transylvanians to Unitarianism. Within three years after the edict there were 400 Unitarian congregations. More than 100 of them still exist.
Unfortunately, King Sigismund did not enjoy a long life, and upon his death, a Catholic prince became King of Transylvania. He quickly reinterpreted the edict and limited religious freedom to the four previously established Christian religions: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Unitarian, and strictly forbade any religious innovations. David Ferenc, however, was undeterred from continuing to question church doctrine and to search for truth. When he began to argue against invoking Jesus in prayer, he was convicted of blasphemy and innovation and sentenced to imprisonment for life. He died in prison in 1579, firm in his convictions that "God is one".
Unitarians in Transylvania today continue to preach the gospel of love and tolerance and to believe in the unity of God. The words "Edgy Az Isten" which in English means "God is One" appear on the entrances to their churches. The biblical verse from Matthew that David Ferenc cited as Jesus' most important teaching is the inspiration for the symbol of the Unitarian Church in Transylvania, a peace dove encircled by a snake. It is a symbol that reminds people to deal with their enemies - wisely, cleverly and peacefully.
Despite great political and economic suffering, Transylvanian Unitarians have retained their faith through four and a half centuries. David Ferenc is viewed as a martyr and his death is commemorated yearly by Transylvanian Unitarians in November.
In 2000, UUCF's choir returned to Transylvania and upon entering the village met with another elaborate greeting. A crowd at the bridge blocked us from proceeding. Several young men, dressed in black and white ceremonial dance costumes, sat astride their horses and the young women, wearing red and black full-skirted costumes with white aprons, fanned out in a semi-circle around them. Many villagers carried bouquets of flowers which they bestowed on the choir members as they debarked from the bus. Then the villagers serenaded us. Julia, the teenage daughter of my host family, handed me a stalk of beautiful white flowers. (Last year we attended her wedding.) Then all of us, choir members and villagers began to walk arm in arm into the village, greeting other villagers as we passed their homes. Along the way my stalk of flowers grew into a much bigger bouquet as Margit, my hostess in the village, her mother, and each of her three sisters-in-law, Pauli, Iren and Gizzie, greeted me and added a stalk of flowers to my bouquet. Over the years, I have gotten to know each of these women a little, and I was very touched by this greeting. The women had worked it out so that each of them participated in greeting me. Their tangible gift was a bouquet of ephemeral beauty, but their actions left an intangible, but permanent mark on my heart.
The wedding of Julia and Ferenc was the social event of summer 2002 in the village. There were about 150 guests at the ceremony and 300 guests at the reception.
The preparations were amazing because of the scale of the operations and lack of conveniences, and would not have been possible without an impressive amount of cooperation and organization. The reception included a full sit-down evening dinner, all night dancing with a Gypsy band, continuous supply of wine and palinka - that's the local brandy - and a full, cooked sit-down breakfast. The band was still playing at 8AM Sunday morning. The last partiers dispersed shortly after that. Mike and I slept for a few hours, then, got up for 11:00 am church service, and visiting with friends afterwards. That was the day we started drinking coffee again, after not having had it for 10 or 15 years.
All the food was prepared in the village, except the wedding cake which was small and seemed like a mere nod to modernity. Not only was there no catering service, but everything was prepared from scratch, really from scratch. The butchering of cows and pigs was done before we arrived on Tuesday, but the baking was in full swing and went on for six days prior to the wedding. Ovens around the village glowed from sun up to sun down. When I say glowed, I mean with fire. Most of the baking was done in outdoor brick ovens, fired with dry corn stalks or wood, depending on whether they were baking pastries or bread. In my host family, the oven was tended by the bride's grandmother and eldest aunt who were both in their late sixties or early seventies. They worked all day long in temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, not even counting the heat that the oven was producing. Their work was truly a labor of love and devotion to tradition.
It was a very communal activity. The bakers arrived at the bride's home before breakfast and ate lunch and sometime dinner with the family. The baking team consisted of seven women, altogether. In a departure from the tradition that the bride's family prepares all the food for the wedding, there was a second team of women baking cookies at the groom's house. This was also evidence of the good relations between the bride's and groom's families. The women approached the baking with precision; the cookies had to look good, as well as taste good. Many of the cookies were quite elaborate, involving multiple layers, fillings and icings. One of the most elaborate was intended to represent a peach. It started with dough that had to be rolled thin, cut in small round shapes and then molded around a greased half of a walnut shell. After baking the molded cookie shells were filled with a chocolate and nut paste, gently pressed together, dusted with yellow sugar glaze on one side, a pink glaze on the other side and capped with a tiny twig bearing two real leaves.
Mike calculated that the two teams produced a total of approximately 7000 such cookies.
The wedding began about 3:30PM on Saturday. The groom, with family, friends and musicians processed on foot through the dusty, dirt streets to the bride's house where they serenaded the bride until her father went to the gate and invited the groom to come inside. Once the groom and his attendants were seated and offered refreshments, the bride's friends and family began a charade of offering the groom substitute brides. The real bride was brought out after the groom had rejected a young girl and a much older woman. After more refreshments, the bride and groom and their entourage processed through the streets to the small white church where the ceremony would take place. By outward appearances the ceremony was similar in form to ours, but I can't tell you about the content though, because I could not follow the Hungarian.
Romania today is still largely rural. There are large Unitarian churches in the cities, one has about 3,000 members, but the predominant experience of a Unitarian in Romania is as a member of a small village church. Many times the village in which a Unitarian church is located might be entirely Hungarian speaking and might have one or two other churches such as Reformed or Roman Catholic. Szentgerice has both a Unitarian and a Reformed church. In the villages, the ministers play a very prominent role in community life outside the church. The Unitarian minister in Szentgerice, Rev. Balazs Sandor, is as influential in the community as the mayor and is actively involved in promoting the physical as well as spiritual health and welfare of the community.
About two years ago, Szentgerice completed construction of a medical clinic that was built with financial donations from the UU congregation of Fairfax, and the Reformed Church of Dronton, Netherlands, as well as, with many, many hours of volunteer labor from villagers. A local, public foundation manages the ongoing operations and funding of the clinic. Rev. Balazs was actively engaged in every aspect of planning its construction and motivating volunteers. I was present when bricks were delivered one morning and the minister donned gloves to assist with unloading them from the truck. Rev. Balazs is often visionary in thinking of the welfare of the people of his village, but he is also a warm and hospitable host, a subsistence farmer and a very, practical, street-smart person.
The most important reason we continue to go to Romania every year is the knowledge that our visits make a difference in the lives of our hosts. People there ask when we are going to return and tell us that our visits make a difference. The Rev. Gyero David a young Unitarian minister from Sepsyszentgyorgy says most of all Unitarians in Romania are grateful for the physical presence of American Unitarians because it helps them to feel safer and know in times of social and economic struggle that they belong to a larger community. "The living connection" with us is the most important thing.(4)
Our contributions are often simple. We are known for photographing people we meet. Many times people in Romania have never had family photographs. Sometime when we return the next year with snapshots or enlargements for them, they are overcome by emotion and do not know how to thank us. For us it is thanks enough to see the pleasure in their faces, and know that we have offered them something that they will enjoy for years to come. I remember a young man who came to us and wanted us to photograph him with his wife and brother sitting in their horse-drawn wagon. The wife's face was disfigured from some genetic condition, probably a cleft palate, but the husband's delight in her presence and in being photographed with her and her sweet shyness at coming forward were memorable, and I think come across in the picture, because of the direct and unself- conscious way in which they faced the camera.
Reflecting on his church's experience with a partner church, Rev. David Bumbaugh, says the benefits are not easy to measure, but it dramatically altered the way his church thought and behaved as a religious community. It enabled his church to focus on realizing their dreams and encouraged them to act from an expanded sense of possibilities, and feeling of abundance, and blessing and gratitude. Challenged by the example of their partner church's accomplishments in the face of great adversity, his American church began to dream more boldly and to apply those dreams to their work at home as well as to their partner church experiences.(5)
These words are very appropriate to my own experience with our partner church in Szentgerice, as I will explain.
A project that I have been involved with for nine years is the selling of handmade textiles made in our Partner Village. Never did I imagine when it started that I would be involved this long. Some of us who went to Romania in the early 1990's began noticing beautiful linen and hemp towels, rugs, lace and embroidered cloths made by village women. The village churches, be they Catholic, Reformed or Unitarian, are decorated with extensive hangings and tablecloths embroidered with a single color, white, blue, black or red, on a beige or white background. Many of us also received beautiful textile items as parting gifts from our host families.
When the choir performed at the Unitarian church in the city of Szekelyudvarhely, I asked to use the bathroom and was directed across a grassy courtyard to a ramshackle outhouse. When I came out, our translator directed me to the open doorway of a rude, old home. The elderly women living there offered me a bar of home made soap, a pan of water and a beautiful hand woven linen cloth on which to wipe my hands.
Several of us, who had been to Romania, began discussing the possibility of bringing textile items back to sell here in the United States. As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man was lying in the path and we were standing there looking at him.
One evening in the Unitarian parsonage in Szentgerice, we discussed the possibility with Rev. Balazs's wife, Sari, and a group of women from the church. A proposal was made that we would sell items on consignment and send money back to the village. Fifty percent of the money would go to the church for construction of a community medical clinic, and fifty per cent would go to the person making the item. There was hesitancy on the part of some of the women. What price could we sell the items for? One woman made certain we knew she wanted a fair return for her efforts. We asked about the labor that went into making various items, but concluded we could not make any fair determinations based on the answers. Not having sold items previously, we could not give exact prices, so we assured the women that we valued the items and we would attempt to get good prices for their work. They were satisfied and we began collecting items that we carried back in our suitcases. A year later we returned and distributed the proceeds.
Now nine years later, the sales continue to fund the clinic and other community service projects, as well as, provide valuable supplementary income for the women making the items. I hope also that it helps to preserve knowledge and practice of traditional crafts and that the pride in knowing their work is valued by people of another culture will encourage the women to succeed in other pursuits. Sari, the minister's wife, says to me, "You have no idea how much this helps the women."
When went back in 2000 with the UUCF choir, three of us spent nearly all our free time in the village collecting items to bring back. As we were leaving the village, Sari, the minister's wife commented on the how much work we had done. Looking at her, I smiled and said, "Yes, but this is work of Joy."
We had lifted the man from the street, and were ourselves elevated thereby. As Jesus indicates in the parable, do not doubt that you can make a difference.
` "...the dream lives on; the dream of liberty for the human conscience, and the cry of those who never would bend to blasphemous orthodoxy, the insistent claim of freedom, 'Egy az Isten' - God is One - sounds on the lips of our country's people even today. We dream of a human community of diverse religious life, in which our souls might be satisfied"(6)
Page near the beginning of
"Guidebook for Unitarian Universalist Partner Churches", edited by
Dr. Judit Gellerd, Uniquest and the Center for Free Religion,
Chico, CA., 1997.
Chapter VIII, "Guidebook for Unitarian Universalist Partner Churches",
edited by Dr. Judit Gellerd, Uniquest and the Center for Free Religion,
Chico, CA., 1997.
Bartlett, Rev. Josiah, "Parson's Notebook", The Fairfax Unitarian,
August 11, 1992.
Gyero, Rev. David, "A Happy New Millenium for Transylvania", Sermon,
delivered at UUCF on March 4, 2001
Bumbaugh, Rev. David E., "Benefits of the Partner Church Program",
Sermon, Summit, N.J., in
"Guidebook for Unitarian Universalist Partner Churches", edited by
Dr. Judit Gellerd, Uniquest and the Center for Free Religion,
Chico, CA., 1997.
|6.||Dreams", First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, Minn., worship service delivered at UUA General Assembly 1998.|