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.

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