Monday, June 9, 2014

A Break in Hungary

After completing our interviews in Romania, we left behind busy cities, rural communities, and forested mountains. The questions I took with me were not as easily dismissed. How does one make sense of the mutual mistrust among Hungarians and Romanians? How does one understand "Roma "Castles" and anti-Roma sentiment? Does the residue of communism shape the present?

It was still a warm day when we crossed into Hungary. We were all ready for a break and stopped at a town market whose name I cannot remember, but it is a typical Hungarian town market.

Evening brought us into the outskirts of Budapest. 

The next day I spent exploring the Budapest, truly a lovely, historic city. The Matthias Church restored during the 19th century is spectacular. The Liberty Bridge was one of the many 
Danube River bridges rebuilt after World War II

Today I wonder even more about questions Hungarians might ponder if they visited the U.S. Would they question the poverty in our cities? Our attachment to guns and violence? The aging and pockmarked roads and highways? Our raging political divisions?  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Psalm 23~God is My Waiter

When we translated Ferenc Visky's interview, I was struck not only by the originality of his understanding of the Psalms, but also by his awareness of God's presence in his life - even as he recalled events that were decades old. He, like many others no longer within the walls of Gherla Prison, lived in the shadow of the secret police, the Securitate. He once described his release as going from a smaller one into the larger prison of Romania. To maintain a tone of terror in this prison world, the Securitate could demand admittance to any home, anywhere, anytime. Considered enemies of the state, the Visky family was a regular recipient of such visits. 

Psalm 23

Ferenc Visky~June 2003
In 1980 we were free from prison but had another house search one day when we were having breakfast. Five people entered, secret police from Bucharest. One was an important officer; it was a very distinguished group. After they entered, they showed us their permit to search. I said, OK, and we continued having breakfast. We asked them to have a seat in another room because there was no place for them to sit in our breakfast room. They declined and instead chose to stand in the room with us.

So, we continued with our breakfast. I could see that they were uncomfortable with the situation, standing and watching us calmly eating. We should have been the uncomfortable and anxious ones, but they were. This was good. Then we started to talk and I told them that I had known that they were coming that morning because I had read Psalm 23 in my Bible that said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing. Even if I am in the valley of the shadow of death etc. etc. etc. I told them that this was a treasured psalm for me.

The officer  looked startled and asked me how I knew. I didn’t need to be asked twice, so I began to explain. It meant a great deal to me, I said, that in the Word you can read, ‘You make the table for me in the presence of my enemies. My cup is full and I have no fear even in the valley of death because I know you are with me and your hand holds my hand.’ I told the officer, Usually in a situation like we are in, the appetite of the man about to be arrested is always gone, but now you brought my appetite instead.

They looked puzzled, so I had to tell them that I had a good appetite because the text says that God is the one who prepares my table. So, I continued, God is my waiter today or I should say, host. Please understand that God is very near to us, but he doesn’t always put on the table the sort of meal that I really like. For instance, presently, I do not really like what you officers are going to do with us after a few moments, but I’m not looking at the things that are on the table. I’m looking at Him who put you on my table, and this is why I have a good appetite. And this is important to me, that I can be liberated this way at such a moment. This is the message of Psalm 23.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ferenc Visky: Reflections on Psalms 115 and Psalm 90

Because the interview with Ferenc Visky had been rescheduled, the team spent a few days in Hungary and Slovakia and then returned to the Visky home in Oradia/Nagyvarad, for our meeting. Watching him speak throughout the interview made me wish that I could have been present for one of his sermons. Rev. Visky must have been an expressive preacher because he was always in motion; his gestures and facial expressions revealed how involved he was in the Word and with the words he was speaking.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us
But to your name be the glory,
Because of your love and faithfulness
Psalm 115:1 (NIV)

Ferenc and Julia Visky ~June 2003
When we became engaged to marry, the psalms showed up in an interesting way. The once-engaged person is sitting here with me now. Fifty-six years ago we were looking for the confirmation that we belonged together and that we had tasks to do together. We remembered words from Psalm 115.  At that time we had decided to turn toward Romania, and we knew that our field of service would not be in Hungary but in Romania where my father used to be a pastor. It was very good to be in harmony in this and to know that the true meaning of our service would happen under this quote, “Not for us O Lord, but for your name. Soli Deo Gloria. And we wished and we do wish that this will stay with us always.

Teach us to number our days aright
so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12 (NIV)

Maybe I will not tell the stories chronologically - so I am jumping in time now. I would like to tell you about the marriage of my grandchild. He is a pastor, by the way. At his wedding we received a message from Psalm 90, the well-known verse, “Teach us to count our days that we can get a wise heart.” 

According to the text here, we can say that it’s well-known, but I think a verse has to give a new meaning each time it’s read. We usually say that, well, it’s a familiar and well-known verse so I do understand the message. But I think we can’t say this. I won’t tell you the whole preaching here, just some parts of it. First of all, the first words say ‘Teach us.’ It means that I have a need of teaching because I don’t know, because I am standing in front of things that I don’t understand. I don’t know how to be a husband, how to be a wife, how to be a pastor, how to preach, how to be a grandfather.

There were some church leaders present at that wedding, so I preached to professors and to lay leaders of the church district too, the curators. But it was their misfortune that they were present. I preached that I really don’t know how one can be a curator, a professor, or a bishop, and it’s high time to study how to do these things; a whole lifetime is necessary to learn these things. This message alluded to my family’s history.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Contrasts in Culture

On this trip, I left Romania trying to make sense of the many contrasts. Here are a few.

Rural and Urban

Old and Young


. . . and New

Saturday, May 3, 2014

On the Way Home

We were on our way to Nagyvarad/Oradea, when we received a phone call postponing the interview with FerencVisky. We were disappointed, but it was also a relief. I for one was satisfied with a break from the intensity of the previous days. I think the others were quietly relieved too, and the van was peaceful during the long trek home. And then . . . next to the highway, about halfway to the border – I’m not sure who spotted them first –  two men were shearing sheep.

I think we were all happy to stop – no conversations, no differences,  no questions – just cameras. The men were methodically shearing a pen full of sheep with hand clippers.  

That was in 2003. I don't know whether they use the same techniques today, but I was impressed!                                                                               

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Still in Romania ~ With Istvan Tokes

I looked forward to the  prospect of meeting Professor Istvan Tokes, father of Laszlo Tokes, the Reformed pastor famous for his courageous stand against Romania's Communist dictatorship.

Professor Istvan Tokes - June 2003
Professor Tokes, a retired seminary professor, welcomed us with a warm, firm handshake, a delighted smile, and glass of his own sweet wine. The crew set up quickly, and Andras placed him in front of his desk, surrounded by books. Plaques of Reformers dominated the wall behind him.

We politely mentioned the names of the people who had already been interviewed as well as the names of those still on the list. We reviewed the reason the interviews had been
 set up – to understand the survival of faith and the way that the Genevan Psalter reflected the suffering and the survival of the Reformed believers.

The Entryway
Apparently eager for polite introductions to be over, he seemed pleased when the interview began in earnest in Hungarian. I could sense that the topic we proposed was only tangentially related to other questions and topics important for him. The translation proved that I had guessed correctly. The long version of his
Rev. Laszlo Tokes
interview is being edited for inclusion in a book. It will include his discussion of the episcopal structure of the Reformed Church in Hungary and Romania, the confessing church vs. the folk church, and theological influences that shaped the response to the Communist dictatorship.

I’m not sure how long this interview lasted, but when it was over, Tokes spoke for a few minutes in English. Urged to comment on the Genevan Psalms, he spoke briefly, sort of an afterthought, I think. “The psalms,” he said, “were and are very important today in the church liturgy. They are loved by church members and sung with joy. Although there are only 40 Genevan psalms in the version most used by Reformed churches in Transylvania, these 40 are well-used. He explained that after WWI a new psalm book was required, and the committee appointed to handle the revision decided to include more hymns, choosing only those psalms that are most easily sung and understood.

Although the psalms are excellent literature and can stand on that basis, they should also be understood to contain the Word of God. Singing the Psalms is important only to the extent that singing conveys the meaning of the psalms. Singing was and is not as important as the preaching.” Spoken like a true preacher.

With that, we all stood up and stretched. While equipment was being dismantled, Tokes showed us his rosegarden and cut two long-stemmed roses, one for Bernadette and one for me.

Ah! He loved flowers; he was a gardener too.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

In the Words of Klara Dobri

A few years ago, one of my Hungarian friends told me that the stories of women were often overlooked, and she asked me to be on the alert. This entry serves as an introduction to Klara Dobri, a courageous and strong woman who cared for six young children while her husband, Janos Dobri, was imprisoned between 1957 and 1963. She managed to support her family by working long hours as a district nurse while additionally caring for ill and aging parents. Due to the terror that crippled social relations in Transylvania, most church members were fearful, and few offered encouragement or support. Here is just a short excerpt from our visit in June, 2003.

Klara Dobri, June 2003

Still in the city of Kolozsvar/Cluj, the dawn of a new day brought the prospect of meeting Klara Dobri, the widow of Janos Dobri known to me by this time for his daring underground exploits. Having met her first in March 2003, I was ready to see her again, though by this time I was aware that it would not be easy for her to retell a painful story.

When we arrived at her door, she welcomed us into her home and waited quietly while the team set up. Her son hovered nearby, concerned, perhaps, that revisiting events of long ago would overtax the stamina of his 85 year old mother. We promised to be aware. Determined to tell the whole story, her voice remained clear and calm and never faltered throughout the interview.

Her first words were, “In our life faith meant a lot. We had a hard life.” With those words, it became clear that we would not hear just her story, but theirs, the story of Klara and Janos Dobri.

*          *          *          *          *

The year 1957 was notable because it marked an intensification of repression in Romania. Though Janos had been interrogated and imprisoned twice after his return in 1948, the evidence presented never established his guilt. In 1957 he was arrested and accused of typing and distributing poems and behaving as a rebel. After the failed 1956 revolution in Hungary, even a semblance of justice disappeared in Romania. Anyone known or suspected of harboring pro-Hungarian sentiments was labeled an enemy of the state. Janos was arrested, sentenced, and sent to a labor camp, part of the Danube Delta system and then later to the Szamosujvar/Gherla prison.

Janos Dobri
With Janos gone, Klara faced the enormous challenge of providing for six children in a nearly impossible situation. They were living in a world where fear ruled. Seminary professors still in their positions didn’t speak to Klara, afraid to be associated with a victim of the system. The seminary provided their lodging; no-one had the heart to throw out a mother and six children, but they provided little else. She fondly recalled the generous encouragement provided by Andras Nagy, by that time retired from the seminary. She also remembered that Istvan Tokes had written a letter on their behalf. However, many of her husband’s former colleagues chose to look the other way when they met her, afraid to risk the attention of the ever-present securitate. During all those years, Klara worked as a district nurse. Because she visited different people at different sites, she had the flexibility to drop in on the children sometime during the day.

Klara described the situation at home. Life was hard for everyone, so we did not have high expectations. There was no time to think. Life must go on. You must give food to the children and you also have to work. Sometimes my brothers and sisters brought food from the countryside. Sometimes a loaf of bread with some fat on it was all we had. 
*          *          *          *          *

When Klara talked about faith she said, “One should trust in the future because, truly, only God can help us in all things. If we trust, he helps us.” When asked whether music and the psalter supported her faith, she smiled and responded, “Even now I have the psalm book beside me. During evening prayers I usually sing a few songs. I have my hymnbook and the Bible beside my bed. Every evening I am engaged with them. Now-a-days I can’t remember all the verses. Sometimes I cannot catch a line and have to look it up. I never used to forget anything, but now, sometimes, I can hardly remember names and . . .. After all, human life ends, and we must acquiesce. But it was without hesitation that she named her favorite, Psalm 25 - Lord to you my soul is lifted. Let me never be ashamed.  I like others too, she added. I used to love singing, but now my voice is gone and I sing only for myself.

As the interview came to an end, Klara asked, “Have you recorded all of this?” When she heard an affirmative reply, she nodded and said, “So this cannot be denied.”

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Introducing the Viskys

Julia and Ferenc Visky, September, 1974
Though there was plenty of suffering and guilt to go around in Romania,  I would like to focus on Grace through excerpts from the story of Julia and Ferenc Visky, especially his reflections on the Psalms. If you would like to learn more than I include here, search for Ferenc Visky on the internet. You will find dozens of articles and references. First, though, a bit of context.

Reformed Differences

While the Fulops represent the classically Reformed, Ferenc and Julia Visky would fall within the renewal wing of the Reformed church. Following World War II, the remewal branch, sometimes called Bethania, experienced a powerful revival that touched thousands in Hungary, Romania, and Transcarpathia, Ukraine. By 1950 the movement had been forced underground by Communist persecution. Its leaders were kept under surveillance, and by 1958, many had been arrested and sentenced, some up to 22 years, including Ferenc Visky. Because of her continuing witness, Julia and her seven children were soon after sent to one of the camps of the infamous Danube Delta gulag. Their son, playwright Andras Visky, told her story in the play, Julia.

March 2003

When we first met Julia and spoke with Ferenc Visky, I soon sensed that they lived and breathed in the presence of God. It was also apparent that one needed to be ready for his sharp wit. We had crowded into his small study close to the kitchen, and with a gleam in his eyes Visky began,

“Come, let us get close together like small piggies in this small room. I don’t mean that you are pigs; I don’t want to begin by hurting anyone . . . If the shirt doesn’t fit, don’t wear it!”

I described our mission of recording his understanding of faith and his perception of how the psalms reflected his life under Communism. The gleam had not yet disappeared and Visky inquired sweetly whether my congregation back in Grand Rapids ever sang any of the Genevan Psalms. Sensing a trap, I answered quickly that we sang some, but never Psalm 119 in its entirety.  He smiled and appeared satisfied with my answer. Having thus established that we were not complete nincompoops, the conversation could begin.

Regarding the Genevan Psalms

“From a biblical perspective, singing and choirs or liturgical musical singing is prophetic according to Holy Scripture. Singing itself is not significant; it is significant only when inspired from above, and only when it’s directed from above, not only based on our emotions or other factors. It is most important that I listen attentively and wait for the one from above to touch with his fingers the person, the string. Somehow it is very nice when someone strums me. So this is very crucial that singing also be treated as the preaching of God’s word. Singing of the Psalms in itself is preaching too.”

I’d like to include everything from that first meeting here, but will jump to an excerpt from the June interview.

Singing the Psalms

"After my release, I was appointed to serve a congregation in the Nagyvarad area. In that congregation, every Sunday afternoon, after the worship, we spent ten minutes learning songs. We started to study the psalms, and somehow people began to like them. How does the Hungarian proverb go? “It’s easy to take Kate to the dance if she likes to dance. 

If you teach with love, they learn more willingly, and if you sing with joy, then the songs stick. Maybe depression sticks too, but happiness does as well. If I like the psalms and sing them with love, they stick. We sang the Genevan Psalms from the official psalm book of 1672, according to the music’s prescribed tempos and rhythms.

The meaning of Selah

We were diligent, and in many of the Psalms we read the expression, Selah. When we visited Richard Wurmbrand in Los Angeles, he told me that the meaning of Selah had been unlocked. Some said that this was a musical pause, and some thought that it meant de capo al fine. There were arguments about this, but Selah – even its sound is fine –  means something different. When a song finishes, it leaves an echo in the congregation or in the singer. It leaves a sense of holiness and happiness that lingers. Selah is the moment when you hear at once what has been sung, an impression beyond the melody and beyond the text. This congregation was not especially spiritually sensitive, but when we studied these ninety Psalm melodies, they understood that God was taking care of them.

Friday, April 4, 2014

What Happened in Romania

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, 
so far from the words of my groaning?  
Psalm 22: 1

In recent posts, I introduced Denes Fulop, a well-read thinker, a gifted pastor, and an engaged member of the community. He wasn’t a crackpot; he wasn’t a Hungarian nationalist. He was a deeply committed Reformed Christian. And when he was enduring in a concentration camp, I was entering college, an absorbed member of the free to be generation, concerned with a kind of justice that did not include a critique of Communist societies. In this post, I’d like to describe just a little part of what Denes endured. Though the stories themselves are powerful, I’ve included a few references, and if you wish, a quick internet search reveals dozens of related documents. This is a good one:                                                                                                                             

Here's how the state handled dissent.

Unflinching Stalinism: Communism in Romania  ". . . the Dej leadership unleashed ruthless purges of the Bucharest, Cluj and Timisoara universities.

The repression of 1956 set the stage for another wave of terror from 1958 until 1961. The targets were intellectuals who, in the late 1940s were not arrested, but had been only marginalized. This social cleansing accompanied a new offensive toward completing the process of collectivization."                
In the book, Gulag, Anne Applebaum described the gulag system in Romania as concentration camps, places where "enemies of the state" were worked and starved to death. It used methods perfected and exported by the Soviet secret police. p. 454

Crime and Punishment 

As a seminary student and a Hungarian, Denes was certainly aware of the 1956 events in Hungary. When Russian tanks  helped crush the revolution, like other students, he became the target of the Romanian securitate (secret police). He escaped the purge of dissidents in 1956, and after graduating from the seminary, became the assistant in the castle church in Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures).

He was caught in a later wave of terror and arrested. Following his arrest, Denes was flown to Kolozsvar (Cluj) and lodged in the Gherla prison where for six months he was interrogated and then beaten when he refused to reveal names or events. He soon learned that though he didn't talk, others did.

Gherla Prison
Though Denes had never confessed anything, he was brought to trial because the prosecutor had produced a witness he thought was reliable. Wearing chains and shackles, Feri, the young seminary student who, under torture had talked about Denes, now in court denied it all. The judge was furious and ordered him out of the courtroom. Here’s how Fulop described the scene many years later, "In the deathly silence that fell over us, Feri turned to leave. The only sound to be heard was the clanking of his chains as he made his way down the hall."

The Danube Concentration Camp

At a second trial, Denes was  convicted and sent to one of the labor camps at the delta of the Danube River."For a while, I lived on a wreck of a boat decaying in the middle of a field of bamboo located between the dike and the river. During the winter, we were herded out on to the ice to harvest this bamboo. The rusting boat was home to 400 men crowded into stacks of metal bunkbeds. The whole boat was made of thick metal, If it was warmer inside than out, water condensed and dripped down, black and dirty. The fetid smoke from smoldering wood mixed with the humid air creating filthy conditions."

The cold was terrible, especially because we were very thin, and due to lack of nutrition had little strength. Many times we were so hungry that we collected leaves growing at the edges of the fields where we worked, plants we used to feed the pigs at home.  We also gathered another source of food, the snails attached to our pants."

One of his most terrible memories was of a Sunday morning early in the spring, a day when the milder weather had caused the ice to begin to thaw.  It was not strong enough to hold the weight of the prisoners, the bamboo cutters. Like the days before, the men marched out on to the ice. It caved in under their weight and with a sickening whoosh, they fell through. Those who followed tried to stop, but with guns and dogs the guards forced them to continue into the icy water. The whole group of prisoners reacted as one with an animal shout, frightening the guards. The sergeant was a cruel man and forced the men to stay in the icy water all day long. The cold and suffering was so great that prisoners begged the guards to shoot them.

While researching the camps in Romania, I found a site constructed by high school students in Romania. Given the status of the world today, it was heart wrenching to read of their hope that the genocides of the 20th century would never be repeated. To see how they described Gherla Prison, the Pitesti Prison, and the Danube Delta camps, see their website:                                                                                                                                                

I must confess that the impact of the stories grew on me, especially when we began to translate and transcribe them. At first I was immersed in the organizational and personal details of the project, keeping track of costs, of the schedule, and always aware that I was the foreigner in the group. When we began to translate and transcribe them, I began to realize that I and my generation had been deaf to stories of unspeakable horror. We justified our deafness with a selective definition of justice that did not include our Reformed brothers and sisters behind an iron curtain whose existence we barely acknowledged.

When atrocities happen,
those who remain silent and don't speak or act against evil
become its accomplices.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Whom Shall We Fear?

The Lord is my light and my salvation
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life,
of whom shall I be afraid?
Psalm 27:1

I've been thinking about the purpose of the blog and also thinking about the hundreds of pages of material from the Ukraine, Hungary, and Romania that we gathered and translated. At first I had planned to include most of the material in the blog; now I'm taking a different tack. I'm working to publish the bulk of the material in a different medium, and will briefly introduce the men and women we interviewed and try to explain how their stories affected my thinking about the church and its mission. A young friend recently told m
Ilona Fulop served as the "executive secretary" of the parish.
e that she would like to hear more about my journey through East Central Europe and its effect on me. I'll try to do just that using short pieces from the interviews. And I'll try to remember to put my thoughts in italic.

Today, more about Ilona Fulop. I first met her in 1999 when I visited the church where her husband, Denes, was still serving. I soon realized that she was fearless, especially when she led us in the dark, over shaky scaffolds and through the construction site of a center to serve to the needy in the church district. Both she and Denes were instrumental in creating this center of welcome, warmth, and service in their city. Though Denes is gone, the ministry continues to this day.

In March of 2003, they told the following story over lunch, a few months before the official interviews began. 

Ilona knew that Denes was an extraordinary man when he came to her village. The Reformed church there had been torn by a conflict that began when a previous pastor had angered some of his parishioners. Denes knew that it would be a challenge, but was surprised by the conditions he found. The church building was neglected, the garden overgrown, and he had to share the manse with hoards of mice feasting on the grain stored there. The people from both sides watched and waited, eager to hear this latest lamb to determine whether, like the others, he was ready for slaughter. His first sermon surprised and confused them. Denes noted that the garden was filled with weeds and prickers, the gate broken, and the church neglected. He invited anyone who wished to help repair the church to join him the next day. "The End." Along with several others, Ilona took up the challenge and appeared the next day to help; she continued by his side for many years.

In June of 2003, the Fulops were one of the first subjects in Romania. Denes settled in the chair at the end of their dining room table, and the crew crowded in, equipment and all. It soon became clear that there wasn't much room for a silent observer, so I slipped out to find Ilona. I took pen and paper notes while we drank tea and talked without benefit of camera and crew. She told me how her family had been affected by the Communist regime.

I think that hearing the stories from the mouth of a warm, relaxed human being in an informal setting, somehow made them more real and believable.

Every small village in Romania was visited by an official of the state who was given the task of assessing and categorizing the villagers. All hardworking farmers were labeled kulaks. Although  the term kulak originally meant a wealthy, tight-fisted farmer, it came to be the designation for any farmer, wealthy or not, who resisted the confiscation of his land by the state. Once you were labeled a kulak, you were by definition an enemy of the state.

Here's what happened to her family. In 1959, when Ilona was still living at home, her father, a hardworking farmer, refused to sign away his land to the local collective. After repeated threats from local thugs and repeated refusals by her father, he had some help with his decision. One night a long black car stopped in front of their house and two security men offered him one last chance to sign away his farm. When he refused, they took him away. For six months, his family didn't know what had happened to him. When he returned home, everything was gone: the land, cattle, and all the farm machinery. From then on, grain grown on the farm belonged to the state, was collected and sent away, presumably to Russia.This story was repeated in every village of Romania.

At first, stories like these didn't keep me awake at night, but I was beginning to listen with different ears especially when Denes described his days in a camp at the mouth of the Danube Delta or Ilona described an incident in 1989, when the secret police came for their daughter in a long, black car. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Denes Fulop and the Case of Richard Wurmbrand

In March of 2003, I traveled to Romania for preliminary meetings with the men and women we planned to interview in the summer. We talked with Denes Fulop for an hour before we shared lunch together. From those conversations, I gleaned a kind of overview of his life just before and
He chose to serve - 2003
following his arrest. 

Was Denes Fulop a terrorist?

As part of its attempt to control people and movements, Romania’s Communist government decided to join two universities, one Romanian and the other Hungarian. Denes had been asked to represent the seminary at a meeting of students from both universities. There was one other blot on his record. While still a student,Denes had attended the trial of Geza Paskandy, a well-known Transylvanian poet and writer. These anti-state activities guaranteed a visit from the secret police - three years later. The securitate had been busy hunting down other threats, but Denes remained on the list.

In 1959, Denes Fulop was one of hundreds swept up in massive arrests of pastors, students, and others labeled enemies of the state.  He was beaten, interrogated, tried twice,  and sentenced to 11 years in prison to be followed by 10 more years under government control. He spent one year in the prison and three years at a the Danube Delta. He was released in 1963 because of pressure from the U.S. government, but remained under government control for several years.

So What About Richard Wurmbrand?

At that March meeting I asked whether he knew a pastor called Richard Wurmbrand. He not only knew him, but in 1959, Denes had shared a cell with him. I was surprised to hear him describe Wurmbrand as brilliant, extremely kind, deeply humble, courageous, and a man of great faith. His description did not much correspond with the man described by my cohort in the U.S. They hinted at moral flaws and dismissed him as a bit of a crackpot. However, other Reformed pastors in Romania shared Fulop's view and affirmed that Wurmbrand was responsible for sustaining hope when brainwashing, torture, and starvation drove many to long for death.

Denes illustrated Wurmbrand's character with this story. In the Romanian prisons, conditions were especially harsh for political prisoners. It didn't take many weeks for them to be reduced to skin and bones. Denes, like others fed just enough slop to stay alive, soon was in the same state. Everyone was always hungry and longed for home, remembering the scent of roasting pork in their mothers' kitchens.

Richard Wurmbrand, however, never participated in these sessions. Instead, each week he gave his dinner to the person who was suffering the most. Denes wondered how Wurmbrand, a large-boned man, could do such a thing and asked, “How can you do this when you yourself are skinny and starving?” Wurmbrand answered, “You can survive forced hunger by choosing voluntarily to be hungry.” Denes watched and copied Wurmbrand, no longer talking about food  or complaining about hunger. And he found the near starvation endurable.

Pastor Fulop wondered how and why Richard Wurmbrand was known so differently in the United States than among Christians in Romania. So did I.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Romania Continued

Introducing the Fulops

It’s been a while since I’ve added to my Journey With Psalms blog. Family trauma last summer resulted in a shared office, a full schedule, and, I must admit, a distracted blogger. But I’m back and invite you to again join me on the journey. 

In retrospect, I can see that when I first visited the Ukraine in 1998, I was becoming aware of trails I had never seen before. Though I still carried the title, "Queen of Bleeding Hearts," at least with my family, I was beginning to question my understanding of how a just society should be achieved. The Romania interviews generated more questions.

Now Meet Denes and Ilona Fulop

We interviewed them in June of 2003. Denes and Ilona met and married after he had been
released from the Danube Delta prison camp. In 1959, he was one of many young Reformed seminary graduates accused of anti-state activities. Later I’d like you to hear parts of that story. Now, however, I’d like you to meet them.

At the very beginning of his interview, he summarized his understanding of the Christian life. That’s what I’d like you to read now. He saw himself as an ever-reforming child of God.

In His Words – Denes Fulop.

“When I was 15, I was overwhelmed when I read Doestevsky’s, Crime and Punishment. Until then, I had not thought deeply about the books and stories that ran through my life and hands. They were simply occasional reading.

Maybe for a year or more after I had first read, Crime and Punishment, I couldn’t read any other book. It contained the whole human condition for me, a world of human characters and emotions, both good and bad. It troubled me that Sonya was forced to register as a prostitute and carry a yellow card, but her spirit was deeply innocent. Raskolnikov killed the old lady, but in the depths of his soul, he was not a bad man. Most important for me was that in spite of all their sins and faults, they could beg for mercy.

The main characters arrive at a point where they can confess and then on the basis of forgiveness, start something new. In this story I could see human kind finding its true path. This is true for individuals, for all humans because we are filled with errors, faults, and mistakes around us and within us, faults from which we should step back and start a new beginning. This new beginning is an important way of life for me. It’s how I solve problems, how I confess sins, and how I beg for mercy. We confess that we have to start again and again each day, accepting the fact that we are not without sin, that we are not perfect.

New beginnings are made possible by Christ’s resurrection at Easter and Pentecost. The healing and forgiveness are rooted in the crucifixion and Easter resurrection. And we are like the disciples at Pentecost, who spread out, hesitant and unsure of the future but with a desire to act based on emotion, rational understanding, and will. There are moments in life when these three come together and there is a change. This is rebirth through the power of the Holy Spirit – everyone may be reborn.

This is the essence of my theological understanding of life. Some years later, though I didn't kill anyone, I followed Raskolnikov’s path to prison and the path of doubt both in prison and after. And then I received the strength of regained faith and hope. I had to begin my life again. I believe this Latin saying, semper reformanda, always reforming. Our confessional ancestors told us that the reformation is not just a historical event, but a continuous act.”