Hungary…To Know More
May 5-6, 2017
You may have noticed that the world seems to be coming apart at the edges – frayed and afraid for all kinds of reasons. So it might seem strange that a small group of people from a local church in Ohio (David’s United Church of Christ in Canal Winchester) would go to Budapest as some kind of pilgrimage of discovery. Those who have been to Budapest or know of its beauty might think, “Why not go to Budapest?” It has been called one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Indeed the architecture is grand with a parliament building that is the first choice of many travel brochures.
But that is not really why our group has come to Budapest. We have come to be changed and reminded that as the world around us becomes frayed and afraid, there is a strong work of weaving love that God is at work doing in the life of the world despite the evidence. We know it because we have come to be with our partners, the Reformed Church of Hungary and to witness to their work and that of one of our own members, Kearstin Bailey, who serves here as a Global Mission Intern in partnership with them.
But there is more. One of our group, Frank, has come in search of his Jewish family history and all the tragedy that may carry as a result of the Holocaust. We journey together because we recognize that such searches are really a pilgrimage that connects us to each other and to God whose very life of love is made real by making the walk together.
So on our first day, Kearstin led the walk (over 17,000 steps to be exact). We walked through the city with its markets and marvels and the pulse of the people. She took us to places grand and places poignant like the memorial called Shoes on the Danube. Here artists have frozen in time the terrible memory of Jews and others being killed toward the end of World War II by Hungarian Nazi sympathizers. Forced to take off their shoes at on the banks of the Danube they were then shot, their bodies falling into the depths of the Danube only to be raised again years later as a testimony against all that would diminish, deny and degrade the precious humanity of any person. Kearstin took us here so that we could know and remember our common connection not only with those who died so long ago, but also those who cling onto life even now as war forces people in fear to flee from their homes, many having landed here in Hungary.
Kearstin led us by the National Academy of Sciences building where the officials of naming do their work to be sure that each child born in Hungary has a name that faithfully reflects their Hungarian heritage. It seems a strange thing to us Americans who are used to hearing children called by all kinds of names, often made up and hard to spell. But an Academy like this also can give one pause to consider that there is in the cosmos an academy of naming. And truthfully there is really only one name for any of us. It is Beloved. How often in this frayed and afraid world this name is forgotten – the result being a torn human family fabric.
But we understand there is a weaving and a stitching going on and with it a mending of life. It is why we have decided to make this pilgrimage. Our hearts long to see the slow, persistent work of love in a land where the frayed lives of those torn apart by war are beginning to get a glimpse of a world made new. Some days this can be hard to see. But this week, we dare to trust that empowered by God’s relentless spirit we may encounter people on the edges stepping into shoes and discovering a path by which they may walk into a whole new future.
We have come to bear witness to this work and we thank God for the privilege of this opportunity to share with others that God is not finished. The work of mending the world continues and each of us in some small way are part of the work. Thanks be to God!
– Rev. Dave Long-Higgins, Sr. Pastor
David’s United Church of Christ in Canal Winchester, Ohio.
Hungary to Know More….. Day 2
May 7, 2017
Today was a day of intersections, as most days are if one is really paying attention. One life crossing with another, one story unfolding on top of another. One hope daring to cross the despair of another.
On this day, St Columba’s Church where Kearstin worships was one of our places of intersection. At this Church of Scotland Mission that is connected also with the Reformed Church of Hungary, the world seemed to gather.
There we met 17 year old, whose special needs prompted his parents to leave Istanbul, Turkey, to form a new life of hope given the difficulties which Anthony experienced in their home of origin. Two weeks into a future that was still unformed, Anthony’s mother shared her fear, while Anthony shared his hope about the future. Such are the intersections of life.
There was a man from Iran, who had chosen a new name upon coming to Hungary. He now has a job at Aqua World, a water park, even as he is dipping his toe into the waters of Christianity. At St. Columba’s his life has been strengthened and we were reminded that all it takes is one person intersecting your life, reminding you of the love of God for a whole new life to emerge, even if it is in fits and starts.
Even the leaders of this congregation come from other places. Pastor Aaron came to this church by way of the Presbyterians in the United States and the associate pastor, Njeri, came by way of Kenya and the United States along with her husband, also a PCUSA pastor.
People come and go in and out of the life of St. Columba’s all the time. Some are there for weeks, others are there for years. There is no time for the usual niceties of tentative engagement. In this intersection of God’s people, if you feel led to be in leadership, you are blessed to respond to the nudge of God as quickly as possible. In that space the imprint of God gets placed on this community in ways that fashion a taste of the beloved community. We will learn more about this tomorrow, but for today it was enough to simply worship – that is to pray, and sing, and hear a good word about God’s far-reaching love whereby a disciple’s life intersected with an Ethiopian eunuch and everyone was somehow changed for the better.
But the intersection wasn’t just about the formal worship, it was about the discovery of God around the table of fellowship. Lunch was potluck – a kind of loaves and fishes thing where there was more than enough for everyone who found a place in the circle which surrounded the table of nourishment and grace. That family from Istanbul that was the newest in the midst of the gathered community were invited to approach the table first, because Jesus tells us this is how God’s love works. The most vulnerable, the most unsure of the future are given the place of honor. After them, people approached the table from all points around the circle such that there was no other pecking order of priority, just a mix of lives intersecting in the big life that is God’s love always breaking forth in the most unlikely of ways and in the most unlikely of places.
Lunch was followed by playing a board game that people floated in and out of as their schedules allowed. There were conversations among strangers in two’s and three’s only to discover that by the act of risking a word there fewer strangers and more friends, because this is what the intersection of the holy in the midst of the ordinary will fashion.
After St. Columba’s, it was off to Heroes Square, a classic place of pillars and statues of warriors on horses from days gone by. Children climbed up onto the horses, as if to say, “I will ride with you O hero of yesteryear!” – an intersection of past meeting the present. But such places leave one wondering. How long will it be before such intersections might become testimonies to peace, the victory of an alternative way by which human beings solve the intersection of their differences? What kind of statues might those be? Only time will tell.
Off to the right of this intersection was another just down the street. In the city park there was the intersection of resistance to the powers and principalities of today. Seems the government wants to move all the museums from around the city into the green spaces of the park, sucking the life out of communities where those museums now stand, and turning green into granite or some other form that diminishes the capacity of the human to intersect with creation in the midst of the city.
Today was a day of intersections, as most days are if one is really paying attention. One life crossing with another, one story unfolding on top of another. One hope daring to cross the despair of another. A crucible of discovery and maybe even a cross of love if one looks hard enough and long enough to be changed!
-Rev. David Long-Higgins
Hungary to Know More….. Day 3
May 8, 2017
Maybe you have noticed the power of one. This is not the power of rugged individualism so prized by American culture so much of the time. It is not the worship of the island whereby there is no contact with anyone else except oneself. The power of one, is much more like the salt and light of which Jesus speaks. It is the discovery that inside each life there is a power to effect a kind of lasting difference in the life of the human family or the wider creation. Today we were witnesses to the power of one who by living inside the One strengthens everyone around them.
So our journey took us to the Synod Office (national headquarters) of the Reformed church of Hungary, our ecumenical partner in this part of God’s world and a sister church of the Reformed family of churches. Kearstin has been working in this office offering her English skills for website development and other things written, as needed. Here we met Balazs Odor, Ecumenical officer for the Reformed Church of Hungary and the European Representative to the Common Global Ministries board. We also met his wonderful colleague Dia who works with Balazs in the Ecumenical office.
Our conversation began with a presentation about the Roma mission of the Hungarian Reformed Church. This mission to Europe’s historically most visible nomads is something that has gained acceptance within the Reformed church over the past 20 years in ways that have even surprised members of the Hungarian church. Balazs followed this presentation of one of his colleagues with a heartfelt conversation about the challenges and opportunities facing the Reformed church which for many years lived first under the shadow of the Nazi’s and then under the oppression of communism. During those years, the survival of the church was the highest priority.
Now that the immediate weight of those realities has been lifted, Balazs shared that the church is faced with a new challenge, or some might say opportunity. The pressing question now is, “What is God calling the Hungarian church to be and do in this time in which they find themselves?” Truly this is the question of all forms of church in every place and time.
As Ecumenical Officer of the church, Balazs is an interesting and vital bridge both for the Reformed church of Hungary and for the church worldwide. He feels both the tension of a past in which being insulated from the wider world assured security and the tension of the present for the church to be engaged in new ministries and new ways of being an expression of the Gospel. His is a vital voice in both directions. What a privilege to be with this one and his colleague, Dia!
From there it was on to Kalunba where Kearstin has worked with the ministry to refugees, many of whom have come from Syria and Iran and many other places far and wide. Here we met Dora, the amazing head of this ministry. The refugee situation is both complex and simple. The complex piece is that people coming from widely different places and cultures have much to tend as they seek to establish their lives in a new location while learning a new language. The simple piece is that all these people are God’s children, worthy of love simply because they are part of the God’s beloved family.
You may have noticed, however, that simple truths do not necessarily equate with easy realities. There are mixed opinions in Hungary about refugees, as there are among some in the United States. There are differences of opinion within the church about what the mission should be regarding refugees who are not Christian (should they be converted or not). Despite all of this and the threat that Kalunba might not survive these complexities, there was at least one powerful voice that would not let the vision of faith to serve immigrants die.
That voice was Dora’s, the director of this program who would not let the heart of Christ and the call of the prophets be silenced. Because members of her own family had themselves been immigrants along the way (some now in the United States), this one woman of Hungary challenged the church and others around her to continue the mission of tending God’s people in their place of greatest need. Now, this work is not done by Dora alone – not in the least. But her voice on behalf of the voiceless, reminds all who come in contact with her that we are not islands unto ourselves, but members one of another.
Sometimes, if we are paying attention, we may discover our own calling to share the power of one. So it was that prior to our trip, one of our members, Bill, focused in on the need he heard about for men’s dress shirts so that refugees at Kolunba could go for job interviews. Bill took it upon himself to get 28 new dress shirts by working out a deal at Kohl’s. No sooner had the dress shirts been put on hangars at Kalunba when one man, recently hired by Starbucks took one of the shirts so that he could begin living into his new life. Everyone smiled because of the power of one to encourage another.
From Kolunba we went to the church where we had worship the day before, St. Columba’s Scottish mission. Here Kearstin has found an amazing English-speaking faith community that is truly an intersection of worlds. Of the many stories that we heard from Pastor Aaron and Associate Pastor Njeri, the power of one was no more poignantly felt than with the story of Scottish teacher and missionary, Jane Haining. She came to serve as a teacher of Jewish and Christian girls at St. Columba’s prior to World War II. Once counseled while back in Scotland not to return to Hungary due to the shadow of the Nazis she replied, “If the girls need me in days of sun, how much more do they need me in days of darkness.” On May 4th, 1944, members of the Gestapo took her away from the school and sent her to her death at Auschwitz. Within two hours of the Gestapo’s visit at the school the children were taken to other places. Through Haining’s life witness and sacrifice, the power of one served to save others who would have died.
Just one more thing we observed today: There is something our group has noticed about this power of one as it shines through Kearstin’s life. Her colleagues say that she “sparkles”. We would agree. She knows the secret that one person, driven by the passion and fire of love, can be a force for good that helps those around her discover that they are standing with her on holy ground. It is the power of one living inside the One. We saw much of it today in different ones and together our lives were strengthened – and so too, the life of the world. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Dave Long-Higgins
Sr. Pastor, David’s U.C.C., Canal Winchester, Ohio
Hungary to Know More….. Day 4
May 9, 2017
Sometimes, you may have noticed, beauty reveals things that are hidden in plain sight. You may have also noticed that sometimes in order to see that which right before you a new position or perspective is necessary. Sometimes history cries out to be understood through the forms of buildings which offer a statement about the nature of life.
Their grandeur, beauty and artwork can convey something of power, nobility, the reach of the human spirit and even a sense of a hidden holiness. But beneath or maybe inside these buildings or architectural wonders are living stones of another kind. These stones are the sacred histories, sometimes hidden, sometimes not, of people seeking to live into their highest selves, discovering their creative place in the world.
Every now and then we may be gifted with a certain kind of pause that allows us to be absorbed by beauty and drawn to a place where we discover a delight and a joy that connects us to these stories. So today we headed to the Buda side of Budapest. For those of you who don’t know, Budapest is really one city which was once two, divided by the Danube River with Buda on one shore and Pest on the other. Strangely, the Danube is now the fluid place of joining.
We crossed the Danube River via the Chain Bridge, the first bridge to stretch the expanse of the Danube in Hungary and thus join Buda and Pest. This bridge, considered an architectural wonder when it was built in 1849, formed more than a road between two towns. It formed a future, even as the Hungarian people were languishing following the Hungarian Revolution of the 1848 which had been put down by the Hapsburg Empire.
In this way, the bridge represents more than an architectural curiosity. It symbolizes the possibilities of a new opening and connection, even when losses would have suggested otherwise. This bridge stands as a testament against the apparent defeat of the moment – a stretch across the expanse that links a people with a yet not fully realized future. There is a hidden wholeness in the making. Herein may be the deepest gift of beauty – a new perspective if one will take the time to notice the possibilities of a new story unfolding. And so we did.
From the hills of Buda we were able to get a new view of Pest as we had not quite seen it before. Maybe this is the gift of discovering oneself joined to something or someone. It enables a different perspective whereby the horizon gathers in a view that otherwise would be unknown. So from the hills of Buda our horizons were widened.
We saw the amazing Parliament building in its grandeur in a different way. But like most things, there is more to the story. Apparently, during the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire when Hungary was suffering yet another low point in its history, a representative from Budapest slipped in an additional zero on the budget proposal to officials in Vienna. It’s amazing what can be built with an extra “zero”. So Hungary, often the step-child of other nations, came to hold one of Europe’s architectural jewels. Today we beheld the beauty of such a surprising turnaround.
But our trip to the Buda side of things, held an even more important and more personal hidden story. Down the street from another architectural wonder, the Mathias Church, was the National Archives. From an architectural perspective, this building has no special reputation. But from the story perspective, it is rich indeed.
One of our group, Frank, has been on the search for his family roots and a desire to know what happened to his family during World War II. Though his family was originally from Transylvania, he was led to believe that some of their history might have migrated to Budapest. On this day, we arrived at the archives accompanying Frank on his pilgrimage, hoping that more of his life story might unfold. Unfortunately, the electricity was off. But the charge of the human spirit was not.
So a conversation with a guard at the door led to a conversation (quite by chance or maybe not) with a woman who directed Frank to one of her research associates. With no electricity, the woman could not check their records. But she could interpret a record that Frank had brought with him. Turns out he had been carrying the death certificate of his great-grandmother who had died at age 40, after bearing six children. It was not all that Frank had hoped for, but it was another piece in the puzzle of his family history now placed on the table where the picture of his past is beginning to form. And with that piece came just a little bit more delight in the process of discovery – a part of Frank’s story hidden in plain sight.
Sometimes it is the night that can reveal a new perspective on things which the day will not allow. So an evening river cruise on the Danube, revealed a nuance to the buildings we had been viewing in the light of day. As the sun set, its light lay differently on that which we had already seen. A new beauty subtly emerged.
The depth of the view was amplified by the wonderful sounds of violin playing on our upper deck of the boat. The soloist accompanied by two others, offered an auditory landscape of classical, traditional and show tunes which were both technically impressive and artistically inspiring. It wasn’t just that the music was good, it was that there was a spirit in the musicians that had an infectious quality. So again we discovered that every moment is filled with the potential for delight and joy – beauty revealing things hidden in plain sight. Yes! Yes! Yes!
Rev. Dave Long-Higgins
Sr. Pastor, David’s United Church of Christ, Canal Winchester, Ohio
Hungary to Know More…Day Five
May 10, 2017
Likely along the way you have noticed the power of presence. Maybe you have experienced hurt beyond your wildest imagination and someone, seemingly out of nowhere shows up in your life and by their presence you find yourself accompanied and strengthened. It may have nothing to do with what they say or do, but simply the fact of not being alone that makes the difference. Presence is where this elusive thing of the love of God shows up incarnated in another human being.
Today we got out of Budapest and went to Szentendre (St. Andrew) a quaint little town with shops that also rests on the shores of the Danube. We went with Balazs and Dia from the Hungarian Reformed Church office. Today was one of those days where we were able to be present to each other, but differently so than the first time we met.
We found ourselves savoring the sights and noticing things together, each drawing attention to some curiosity or beauty as it crossed our paths. And in this act of being present we were able to go just a little bit deeper in our story sharing, allowing the presence of the spirit to bind us in some new ways. There was a quiet power of love that seemed palpably present as we sipped coffee and laughed and savored just being near each other. We discovered that though one can learn about another by reading websites and background material, it takes being in each other’s presence to be known by each other.
This may be one of the most important parts of a pilgrimage or a mission trip in this day and time – simply to be present. Of course we came to be present to Kearstin and learn about her work and see where she lives and the city through which she moves. But we also wanted to be present to those with whom she works.
When Kearstin first came, her work was divided into three different areas: Working at the ecumenical office of the Reformed Church of Hungary; working at the Roma Mission with children; and working at the Refugee ministry known as Kalunba. Now her time is mostly spent with the Ecumenical office and the Refugee ministry. Kearstin has come to be a presence to those who have been challenged in a whole host of ways. But she has also been changed and deepened by the presence of those she has come to serve, because this is how mutual love works.
Kearstin mentioned to us that she has been immensely strengthened by the presence of mentors in each of her work settings. Balazs has not only provided support and empowerment to her in the ecumenical office of the Reformed Church, but has also been supportive in setting up a potential new GMI setting in Greece. Dora has shared her passion and wisdom in such a way that Kearstin now has confidence to do the work God has called her to do with refugees. The presence of these mentors has been vital.
But Kearstin has also brought her presence, her spirit, her sparkle to the people and situations to which she has been called to work. Recently at a house where both Afghani and Iranian refugee men live, there was some conflict due to the fact that some have recently converted to Christianity while others still feel a strong call to their Muslim faith. Things got heated to the point that one of the Afghani men called the police.
Kearstin was asked by Dora to be present to the man. Seems he struggles at many levels. So Kearstin listened. The more he talked, the more safe he became. Amidst tears he shared that he comes from a family of seven children and that his older brother lives in the UK. He had always thought when he was old enough would follow in his brother’s footsteps. But it has not been as easy as he thought it was going to be. He struggles with how haram (disrespectful) it is in the West, especially toward women and how they dress. He lives with the pressure of needing to stay strong for his family sending money as he is able. It seems his situation is improving, those conversations with Kearstin providing a vital and life-giving presence, a slow healing of sorts, as one of God’s children’s listens to another of God’s children struggling to find his way in the world.
Likely along the way you have noticed the power of presence. Maybe you have experienced hurt beyond your wildest imagination and someone, seemingly out of nowhere shows up in your life. And by their presence you find yourself accompanied and strengthened. So Kearstin has showed up in the lives of people in ways that sometimes surprise even herself. And we have showed up for Kearstin because presence matters. Through it we are all a little bit stronger. And that is good news for not only for us, but for the world. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Dave Long-Higgins
Sr. Pastor, David’s United Church of Christ, Canal Winchester, Ohio
Hungary to Know More…Day Six…Endings and Beginnings
May 11, 2017
It is no secret that our lives are a series of endings and beginnings. They are usually not all that clear, a new beginning overlapping the ending that precedes it. So it was for us that as this pilgrimage was coming to its final day, we were just beginning to get a picture of life in Hungary. Altogether incomplete, we were opened to a history and a present that helped broaden our view of the world as God sees it and moves within it.
There was yet one important opening that needed more tending before our departure. As we have discovered throughout our time here in Hungary, you cannot explore the rich and often times painful history of this country and not be aware of the tremendous wounds of the Jewish people. Where once there were many Jews in Hungary, only a fraction survived the Holocaust.
Such statistics can feel remote, but as mentioned in our blog a couple of days ago, these numbers had a personal dimension for our group. One of our group members, Frank, was on the search to discover something more of the story of his Jewish family who lived in Transylvania (formerly part of Hungary) prior to World War II. He had been led to believe that some of the records for the Transylvania Jewish community had been transferred to Budapest.
So our search for another chapter in Frank’s emerging family narrative took us to the Dohany Street Synagogue. This is the largest Synagogue in Europe and the third largest in the world. Designed with an almost basilica-like quality, the ornate accoutrements rival those of St. Stephen’s Basilica built just down the street at about the same time. The interior design draws one’s eyes upward in such way it that you cannot help but have a sense of the Holy.
But this was not the only place where the Holy made itself known. Connected to this impressive center of worship is a cemetery where Jews, hastily killed toward the end of World War II, are buried. Nearby, an artist’s rendering of a Willow tree has the names of Hungarian Jews killed in the holocaust etched on the leaves.
To stand inside the canopy of this tree is to sense the despair of those who were so callously executed. Strangely when the canopy is struck by the light, which it was on the day of our visit, the willow tree almost glows, as if to say ,”even in our endings there is a new beginning.” Truly a place of the Holy at the intersection of suffering.
Connected to this place of memorial and remembrance was Jewish museum where a guide shared about how his family had been saved by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish Ambassador (later died in Russia, but declared a righteous gentile), who hid Jews in his home even while some were being shot across the street and allowed to fall into the Danube River. A researcher at the nearby Family Research Center, confirmed that there were not records of Frank’s family in Budapest – an apparent dead end. But she also provided contacts in Transylvania – a possible new beginning on the pilgrimage trail.
That evening, as we did each evening, we processed our day, a kind of group thinking backward through the day as the mystics often call it. Each day we named what we noticed – some of which has been summarized in these blog entries. On that last evening, we pondered the week as we prepared for our trip to come to an end, knowing our interpretation task was just beginning.
We remembered and gave thanks for Kearstin both in the work she is doing and for the incredibly patient tour guide that she was (follow that red purse). Kearstin told us how proud she was of us for entering into each of her settings with a genuine openness, engagement and authenticity that honored the stories of those she serves. She expressed how meaningful it was that we came all the way to Budapest (and with peanut butter and candy buckeyes no less) to be present confirming that we care about what she is doing.
Each night as we closed our processing, I would ask for a word from each person that summarized the day for them. These were then formed into a prayer of closure. The words for our last day were: transformational, unstoppable, wow, love, power of one, family and wonder.
Our prayer went something like this: We thank You, God, for your unstoppable love that dares to use each one of us in your work of transformation. Let your wow rise in us, as we find ourselves formed ever anew into your family. May we gaze in wonder at the rich variety of your people as you empower us to join in Your building of a more just global community. And may the end of this pilgrimage mark a new beginning in our shared journey and witness. In Your Holy Name we pray. Amen.
Rev. Dave Long-Higgins, Sr. Pastor
David’s United Church of Christ, Canal Winchester, Ohio