Thursday, June 27, 2013

Into Romania

Our First Effort

We were all pretty nervous when we first gathered on that June Saturday morning. On the forty minute drive into Budapest to pick up the crew, Janos was silent, but I talked nervously. One by one we picked up the team: Andras Suranyi a skilled camera man; Vince Kapcsos, a calm and competant sound man; Bernadette Frivalski, a talented interviewer; Janos Erdos of the Ars Longa Foundation; and me. Of the five, four were Hungarian, and the other one could speak very little Hungarian and understand only a little more. Can you guess who? Language was just the most obvious sign of the cultural differences soon to emerge.

The Haller Castle ~ One View
The excitement of a new beginning carried us to the first test of our teamwork at the ruined Haller Castle near the village of Kereloszentpal. Mostly home to birds and bees, the castle was also the residence of a Roma family living in the stable. In the past, the Ars Longa Foundation had often provided food, medicine, and other aid to the family living there. So they shyly welcomed us and graciously allowed the film crew in. To see the film, follow this link:

While the film crew was in action, I stayed out of the way – mostly – camera in hand. I saw: =yo

The music is Psalm 77 recorded during an informal conversation at the home of Emma and Rev. Lajos Gulacsy in August 2003. As a young pastor, he was taken to a gulag in Kazakhstan and spent several years there. Emma said that Psalm 77 reflected the hearts of those left behind.

Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?
~ Psalm 77: 9 NIV

Until Now

So far, if you have read the posts, you may have received the impression that everything was sweetness and light. To be honest, it wasn’t. Puzzled looks, averted gazes, embarrassed silence, sleepless nights, occasional inclusion of scatological language, and excessive use of antacids were all signs that in spite of our good intentions, being a team would not be easy. Limited by my personality and my cultural blinders, I had made assumptions about the interview strategy. My assumptions were not shared. Communication was complicated and sometimes tense – and that’s putting it mildly. I didn’t sleep much that first night; it would not be the last.
Sonja Henderson
 Kolozsvar Seminary Chapel

To further complicate matters, the heat was relentless, over 90 degrees F. every day. Air conditioning was pretty much non-existent. Hardly an auspicious beginning.

With apologies to the skeptics out there, I can say that whenever I was acutely uncomfortable in my producer role and ready to pack it in, an angel appeared. The first was Sonja Henderson, a Canadian English teacher living and working in Cluj-Napoca (in Hungarian, Kolozsvar). I was especially relieved when she agreed to accompany us for a few days.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Psalm Contacts: A visit to Debrecen

Reformed Theological Library
Debrecen, Hungary
Dr. Csaba Fekete was a thoughtful and gracious host when I visited the theological library and museum in Debrecen. I gasped when he presented an ancient book of maps. If I remember correctly, it predates the Reformation. We saw an old copy of Calvin’s Institutes and numerous Genevan Psalter treasures. It gives a whole new meaning to the term, “old” especially to one coming from the “new” world.

Dr. Sandor Berkesi, director of the Debrecen College Cantus, had many suggestions for our interview team, but the most lovely gift was a copy of the CD, Hungarian Psalms.

I used some photos from the library visit and Psalm 42 from the Hungarian Psalms CD for the slide show. The psalms shaped the project.

Here's a link to the choir's website:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

One More Introduction?

You might be thinking, “So when will she ever tell the stories." I beg your patience for just one more introduction, this time to some of the Hungarian people who helped with the Psalm Project. You can find the page, "Getting Ready" in bar at the top of the blog. Crossing into Romania is coming soon!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Early On

Summer Camp Staff - 2001 
It didn’t take long to discover that American directness didn’t go very far. In 1999, I accompanied a mission group of fact-finders. They, too, were shocked by the conditions in the Ukraine and Rumania and genuinely wanted to know more. In typical American style, they asked direct questions, fully expecting to hear straight answers. Instead, they were introduced to a style of discourse rooted in years of Communist control.

They heard polite evasions when they expected direct answers. Church leaders and ordinary farmers evaded questions that in the United States would have been candidly asked and answered as a matter of course. It was both puzzling and disconcerting.

I wondered where this dialog style had come from and heard this from my colleague. “During the days of the dictatorship, the truth was only told between four ears,” meaning that after 40 or more years of surveillance, oppression and sometimes torture, fear trumped truth-telling. Later a seminary professor would tell me that it would surely take at least forty more years to erase such embedded patterns.

Beregrakos, Ukraine
For the next few years, as an American contact for the Ars Longa Foundation of Hungary, I traveled to Rumania, the Ukraine, and Croatia as well as to Hungary. I participated as an English teacher in summer camps held for children and young people in Baranya County, Hungary and visited weavers in Transcarpathia, Ukraine. There, Reformed Christians had launched clinics, homes for abandoned children, and Christian schools.

I walked the main street of Szent Laszlo, a Reformed village in Croatia that was ravaged during the Bosnian conflict.

Reformed Church
Szent Laszlo, Croatia 2001
Each trip made me more aware that the Hungarian character and culture would not be easily revealed and that I was limited because I could only see with my American eyes. Janos Erdos, my main contact with the Ars Longa Foundation, never volunteered explanations or offered tour-guide talks. He waited for questions and then answered but only obliquely. And after fifteen years, while some aspects have become clearer, I still cannot claim to really understand what it means to be Hungarian.

However, in most of the churches I visited between 1998 and 2002, I did recognize many of the Genevan Psalm tunes and could even sing along - sometimes. In Transcarpathia I saw full churches and wondered how faith had survived. Even in very small Reformed congregations, I heard psalms sung with remarkable conviction not only in the Ukraine, but also in Hungary, Rumania, and Croatia. I wondered about the music of the Genevan Psalter and the survival of faith and hope during the Communist era.

In 2003, with encouragement and support from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and with the logistical support of the Ars Longa Foundation of Hungary, I set off on a journey. I was part of a team that gathered the stories of Reformed Christians and the Genevan Psalter during the Communist period.

Looking back, I can say that while many may have felt abandoned by God and humankind, there were those whose faith sustained them through long hard years. And these men and women of faith survived with their spirits intact and a vision of God’s kingdom that has led to the rebuilding of churches, schools, homes for abandoned children, and clinics. A living faith blossomed in many communities; yet it has been a difficult road for the faithful – overcoming the destruction of trust and the withering of community cohesion. Rediscovering charity as the overflow of full and grateful hearts, these faithful men and women told stories that gave voice to the words of the Psalms, stories of hope and fear, doubt and faith, and most of all, of God’s amazing grace.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

There Was Hope

Though the dominant theme was grey, we did discover hope in Transcarpathia. Stories were grim, but faces were peaceful and smiles were warm. Though cautious, some were willing to talk. One was a church member we met on a spring day in late April 1998. He was sitting on a bench planted in muddy water puddled everywhere from a recent rain. His clothing was shabby, but his lined and worn face also carried genuine good cheer.

Our guide stopped to talk with him and asked how he was doing. He responded by describing his aching knees. (“How are you doing,” is not simply a polite way to say hello; it is considered to be a genuine expression of interest with the expectation that an honest response will ensue.) I was tempted to say that maybe he had been on his knees too long or not long enough, but fortunately, only asked why they hurt so much. His answer stunned us pampered North Americans. He said that he had spent several years on his knees picking coal in a mine shaft only a few feet high - as a guest of the Communist regime.
Tivadarfalva, Ukraine 1998

The second encounter was with the widow of a pastor who had disappeared during the Communist era. While we stood in a narrow hallway, I listened to the story of her efforts to track down her husband’s memoirs. Although her clothing was severe, widow’s black, she was filled with a grace and serenity not often seen in the faces of harried North Americans.

A third encounter was with Daniel Szabo, a lay leader of the Reformed church who during the weekend retreat, challenged Christian teachers to “cradle the baby birds who had fallen from the nest, and gently return them to the warmth and safety of their home.” Their work nurturing the young, he continued, was at least as important as rebuilding monuments and establishing universities. Although Communist authorities denied him the privilege of ordination during the long years of occupation, he never stopped nurturing the faith of the leaders and ordinary church members with a gentle strength always seasoned with a deep and abiding trust in a good and loving God.

A Reformed church service in the village of Tivadarfalva was, perhaps, not a fourth encounter but more of an epiphany. At that time women filled one side of the church and men occupied the other, while the placement of the teenage boys in the balcony and the girls below definitely discouraged eye contact, presumably promoting concentration on worship. When our contingent of two women and one man arrived, not one more could fit in the women’s section, so we were led across the room to the last empty pew in the territory of the men.

When the singing began, it was immediately apparent that the psalm books were not stocked in the pews; worshippers carried their own Psalters. My attention to the small shared book was soon broken by the voice of a man sitting in the pew ahead of us. Light flooded his face as his solid voice boomed out above the others. I wondered at the fervor of his singing. What had kept the light shining for him?

Before we left to return to the States, one of the Ars Longa principals asked whether I would consider acting as the foundation’s representative in North America. We agreed to a trial run that lengthened into more than a decade of joint effort on behalf of the Reformed high schools in Transcarpathia, Ukraine, and other projects supported by the Ars Longa Foundation.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Listening to the Teachers

It was challenging to lecture in tandem with a translator, reading faces to guess whether I made sense at all. By the end, I could only imagine that the people packed in the classroom were tired too, ready to get up and stretch. To my surprise, after the Q. & A. time and after I had thanked them for coming, they just smiled and stayed in their seats. Puzzled, I asked the translator whether something was wrong. He explained that they just wanted to talk.

During the days preceding the conference, many questions had surfaced for me, so with a translator at hand, it was my chance to ask them some questions. It was surprising to hear that in this bread-basket region, getting enough food was a problem. Later I learned that many teachers had given up precious planting time to attend the conference. It was precious because most of them relied on their own gardens to supply food for the following year. The economy was in a state of collapse; stores were empty; many relied on their own gardens to supplement meager salaries.

And then other stories tumbled out: how the disaster of Chernobyl affected pregnancies, how much of the rich and fertile soil was polluted by many sources including tractor fuel. Prior to the communist period, farmers tilled their own fields and managed their own production. After the takeover, though, their farms were incorporated into collectives managed by distant bureaucrats who could articulate ideology but weren’t so good at farming. For a time, a farmer’s pay was based on the amount of fuel left in the tank at the end of the day. As cynicism grew the farmers-turned-machine found it expedient to make a few passes with the tractor, and then drain the fuel out into the ground.

How It All Began

Toward the end of my educational career, I helped revise a Bible curriculum. This work led to an invitation to participate in a weekend conference for Christian teachers living and working in Transcarpathia, Ukraine. Eager to travel and interested in the story of Hungary and its 1956 revolution, I accepted the invitation. Dutifully, I read Hungarian internet history, visited the local library, scoured bookstores, and read every bit of tourist propaganda I could get my hands on.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the trip across the border into the Ukraine in April of 1998. Surly guards first stared at and then ignored us, leisurely finishing their cigarettes. Finally, after a couple of hours, they searched our little car, inspected our passports, and waved us through. It was only the beginning.During the next few days we traveled through this westernmost area of the Ukraine, an area once part of Hungary and once populated mostly by Hungarians. It was a time to look and to wonder what we were really seeing. I became painfully aware that I was quite ignorant of the history that had shaped this part of the world.

One time our guide stopped in front of a small store. He handed us a few grivna, the local currency, and instructed us to go buy something. Though we spoke not a word of Hungarian or Ukrainian, we didn’t want to appear intimidated, and entered the store. It was soon apparent that his goal had nothing to do with using grivna. He wanted us to see the shelves, mostly empty except for shelves loaded with bottles of vodka.

We saw ornate bourgeois public buildings, purposely encouraged to decay, standing side by side with more recent public buildings whose grim form reflected their function.
We shared the road with aging Trabants, fat-wheeled bicycles and horse-drawn wagons. I saw a derelict stadium built with public funds at the behest of a faithful local comrade, a gift to the 200 or so souls living in the village. Unneeded, unwanted, and unused, it too had fallen into decay.

Roma children often greeted us with expectant faces, and outstretched hands. Our guide responded with gentleness and humor, always ready with a gift of food or money. We were impressed.

By the time the conference began, I wondered whether I should ditch my lectures and instead be the student.


This is to welcome you to my new/old blog, Journey With Psalms. Ten years ago, I began a journey that initially took me to Romania, Hungary, the Ukraine, and even Slovakia. I wanted to learn how and to what extent the Genevan Psalter had served to preserve faith of Reformed Christians during the Communist dictatorship.  I learned much more during that 2003 visit, so since then I have been on a journey of discovery. It has taken me back in Hungarian history, to Hungarian thoughts on the period of the dictatorship, and to musings about faith, the church, and its mission. The main part of the blog contains the stories of the people I met along the way – stories of courage and fear, faith and treachery. In sidebars you will find some ancillary material: how I became involved, some history and pictures of the countryside along the way.  As the blog evolves, watch for film clips and more. I welcome feedback and comments.