Just Imagine: Visions of Partnership

Just Imagine: Visions of Partnership
By Livia Racz

For those of you who came to a summer service on a hot Sunday morning last August, what I have to say today will sound familiar. I got such an overwhelming response that day, that I’ve decided to share my thoughts more broadly. At the same time, I hope what I have to say will answer some of the questions that many of you asked me that day.

Back in August when I was thinking about what to say, I began to try to dissect what it is that’s so compelling about overseas partnership for those who get involved I it, and why, at the same time – in our congregation at least – we fail to share the experience with more of our community. And then I moved onto our partners’ perspective. What are their challenges? How could a thriving partnership enrich both our communities?

In some ways, I feel uniquely qualified to explore these questions, because although I speak both Hungarian and English at a native level – Hungarian is the native language of Transylvanian Unitarians – I had never set foot in Transylvania or ever really thought about the place until I joined First Church. I had a fresh perspective just like everyone else, yet, because I sound pretty much like any of the villagers, when our church group traveled there in 2010, people opened up to me there in ways they never would have if we had had a more conventional translator. I was privileged to have many conversations in Désfalva about our respective lives and how we each view our partnership.

But before I jump to Transylvania, I would like to examine ourselves and why we get involved in overseas partnership. For some, it’s the historical connection. Most of you have heard by now here at church that Unitarianism started in Transylvania in the 1500s, with the Edict of Torda in 1568, which guaranteed religious tolerance and the freedom to practice one’s religion. The edict, which was remarkably progressive for its time, was issued by a Unitarian minister, Ferenc (known in English as Francis) Dávid, and was the culmination of a unique political and social situation that prevailed at the time in the Kingdom of Hungary.

For others, the attraction of the partnership is social action. The Transylvanians, our co-religionists, have been persecuted on and off since about 10 years after the Edict of Torda, right up through today. Though we like to think we are getting more civilized with time, not less, their persecution has been worst in modern times, since WWI. In the events leading up to the war, Hungary was the lesser nation in the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a result, they got sucked into a war not of their making, ending up on the losing side.

The Trianon peace treaty that officially ended the war for Hungary is considered by historians to be one of the most catastrophic events in the history of the Hungarian people. With this treaty, the decision to dismember Hungary was implemented, and created the largest ethnic minority group in Europe. 3.2M Hungarians ended up in other countries without moving an inch, most to suffer constant oppression and discrimination from that day forward.
Transylvania, an important region of Hungary that was home to some of its most beautiful cities, landscapes, universities, and by the way its entire Unitarian population, ended up as part of Romania, which it is today. Ironically, historians today feel that destroying Hungary had far-reaching effects that sowed the seeds of WWII, creating an opportunity for Hitler to exploit the unrest in this formerly peaceful region. It was around this time that the UUA created what it called the sister church program to try to save the lives of the Transylvanian Unitarians, but the program was impossible to maintain through the war.

The low point for our partners came as recently as 1989, when the UUA began to receive reports of a kind of “final solution” being proposed by the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. He proposed to destroy the Hungarian culture once and for all by creating large industrial centers to which village populations would be forcibly moved, while the ancient villages are flooded and destroyed. Hungarians were jailed if they were heard speaking their language; thousands were arrested and disappeared, never to be seen again. The flooding was stopped at the 11th hour by the assassination of Ceausescu and the fall of his government, but the UUA saw a sufficient threat that it decided to revive its defunct Sister Church program. This is today’s Partner Church program.

Although nobody is trying to destroy Hungarian Unitarian villages overtly at the moment, there is still plenty of scope for social action. Here are just a few things I observed. There is little, if any, signage in Hungarian, none in urban areas. No Hungarian schools are allowed. No institution, including a church, is allowed to fly the Hungarian flag outside under any circumstances. When we were in Transylvania on August 20th, St. Stephen’s Day, Hungary’s national holiday, we saw an awful lot of covert Hungarian flags being displayed indoors, leaned up against the pulpits of various churches that we visited.

Hungarian Unitarians have a very difficult time getting into college and getting jobs. Their villages are so poor that they cannot afford even a high school education, since they have to travel to boarding schools outside their village to get it. Our partners keep telling us that the most important thing we do for them is our scholarship program. $250 a year pays for a student’s books, room, and board so they can attend an out-of-town high school.

The Hungarian villages have no train stops and their roads are not paved, nor do they have running water or trash collection. Yet, the amazing thing is, despite the daily grind, the simplest of people finds a way to be highly educated. Stop any Unitarian off the street and you can carry on an intelligent conversation about poetry, classical music, mathematics, history, or fine art. This is no accident. Learning is one of the pillars of Transylvanian Unitarianism, and our friends take it absolutely seriously. Our partners’ lives are so difficult that people there in their 50s and 60s look like people here in their 80s and 90s … but they all talk like professors.

In the past 2 years, the government of Hungary has started to look outside its post-Trianon borders to try to help ethnic Hungarians, and have granted them the right to apply for Hungarian citizenship. The tragedy, though, is that 90 years have passed, and these people are no longer made welcome in Hungary. Several tearful Transylvanians, including John Dale’s wife, shared their stories with me. Unfortunately, Hungary, like the U.S., is experiencing a political and sociological swing toward hatred and intolerance, and these ancient Hungarians who put themselves and their families in danger every day in order to preserve their heritage are deemed neither Hungarian enough for Hungary nor Romanian enough for Romania.

We Americans who get involved in partnership feel, and rightly so, that for very modest financial investment, we can help support a liberal religious tradition that has become an island in an increasingly radical environment, and we can help ease these people’s day-to-day existence. There’s no question that this is a worthy cause, and it makes us feel good to be part of it.

The curious and surprising thing is that no matter what diverse avenues may have brought each of us to the partnership in the first place, it takes those of us who have been fortunate enough to meet our partners in their homes, no longer than the first meal together to realize that we had it all wrong. It’s not about history, or social action, or liberal religion, or even in my case a shared language. Just that one meal showed us that despite all of their hardships, or perhaps because of them, our friends have achieved something in their lives and in their communities that we only wish we had. Let me illustrate by excerpting a sermon given in 2005 by the Rev. Csaba Tódor at Starr King Seminary.

[Look] at the archaic lifestyle of my grandparents. They live this way in the Homoród Valley even now, in a pristine, deeply spiritual way. People finish their work in the village fields around mid-June, at which time the famil[ies], including the animals, move “far away”. This “away” is no more than 2 miles from the village, but it is “far” in that it is a complete return to nature. There, everyone becomes [one] family. There is a common fireplace where they bake bread for the whole village, with everyone donating ingredients. Every night, people gather around the fire and have dinner together as a community. The men sharpen their [tools], the women make meals together, and the children have the job of gathering the animals.

Every Sunday morning, the whole procession [walks] back to the village in long lines, everyone does their laundry, bathes, and gets dressed in their Sunday best to go to church together. They build and maintain the church building with their own hands. These simple villagers truly, deeply believe in the charity of love.

Though we certainly weren’t there long enough to see every facet of the life that Rev. Tódor describes, we saw enough so that, almost immediately, we went from being the dominant partner in the relationship, the givers, the smug ones, maybe even the slightest bit condescending, to being the humble partner who is the recipient of all the gifts. Why? Because our partners exemplify what a real community looks like. The privilege of being accepted immediately and unconditionally into such a community is the true reason why church partnerships thrive.

Of course, not all of them do thrive. Today, I would say that ours doesn’t. There are many challenges; the perceived inequality in the relationship that I just referred to is one of them. Our partners take their community for granted, so they don’t understand or see its value to us.

Further, it’s costly to stay in touch, both in time and in money. Overseas travel is expensive and beyond the reach of everyone there, many here. Before our 2010 trip, based on the advice and best practices of other area congregations, our committee set up a restricted trip fund, available to any so that money would not be an obstacle for those wanting to be involved. The response to the fund was poor. Members of this congregation who excel at helping others are not so good at being on the receiving end.

Then there is of course the challenge of visibility and fragmentation, which every committee experiences. We dream of finding volunteers, no one has time, we all do too many things. We get lots of wonderful suggestions to incorporate Skype into our services, send each other videos, post church events on YouTube, etc. Unfortunately, these all require an investment of time on both sides of the ocean, and in both congregations, we wish we had the person with the right combination of interest, energy, time, and technological savvy, to make this sort of thing work.

Yet, when things do work, the rewards are immeasurable. We need look no further than Concord to see how. First of all, Concord has recognized and affirmed its partnership as one of their social action pillars, and their partnership is not a committee-, but a congregation-wide activity. They organize a trip from Concord to Székelykeresztúr every other year and host the minister of their partner village on the alternate years. They use the restricted trip fund model with great success, regularly sending 30-40 people overseas. Every single Sunday service commemorates an element of the partnership in it.

Amazingly, they’ve even achieved financial parity. The villages in the Homoród valley experience flooding fairly frequently. When this happens in Székelykeresztúr, of course Concord comes to their aid. However, the tables were turned in 2009 – you may remember that was the very wet spring when everybody seemed to have hoses snaking out of their basements for weeks on end – and the Concord church was one of many buildings that sustained serious water damage. The Keresztúr congregation came to their aid, collecting $n from their meager incomes and pensions! In terms of purchasing power parity, that’s something like our congregation coming up > $1M to send overseas! Never mind that Concord is a wealthy community and the people of Keresztúr know it. This is something they really wanted to do, and it’s incredibly humbling to think about what they had to do to accomplish it. Imagine what our church community could be like if we felt strongly enough about anything to manage a feat like that.

In closing, I’d like to read a few words paraphrased from the sermon given on Thanksgiving of 2006, in Concord, by the Rev. József Szombatfalvi of their partner church, and I ask you to imagine how a relationship like this could enrich your life.

We know your faith and we witness your love – for you encourage our children to dream boldly and to believe that their dreams can come true.
Even the old farmers know it; those who still plough their farmlands using oxen,
sow their seed by hand, and bake bread in their own ovens.
These Unitarians know your faith and they never cease to give thanks.
They come to church to celebrate the Harvest in September;
they come at Christmas and Easter;
they come Sunday after Sunday according to tradition to pray in thanksgiving
for the land and its blessings.
…it is YOUR names that are in their thanksgiving prayers.