Friday, December 19, 2014

Blessing in Bucharest: Christmas behind the former Iron Curtain

Flicker of candlelight representing a ray of hope  (wikipedia)
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA, December 19, 2014 – In the dark days of the Cold War, there was a sense of mystery and intrigue whenever you ventured into Eastern Europe.  It was a sinister feeling where everything seemed became black and white; devoid of color.     

During that time, I traveled to Romania three days after Christmas with a group of students from Wingate College, and those shadowy, ominous feelings were very much a reality in the most intensely surveilled region in Eastern Europe.

The purpose of the visit was to understand the struggles of organized religion to exist under the influence of Communism. 

The sky was overcast with a slate gray ceiling. Christmas wasn’t acknowledged by the government, but the New Year’s trees were brightly decorated, providing rare bursts of color in the otherwise bleak surroundings.
We were welcomed by Reverend Ilie Ionescu, the pastor at a small Baptist church in the eastern part of the city.   

"You must know that my members will appreciate your visit very much.  For them you represent hope.  Freedom.  They know very little about your country, but they know enough,” said the minister.

"We have more than 400 members.  For most it is quite difficult to get here so we have three services each Sunday. We have no young people in our congregation. Everyone is elderly.  We must register with the government, and they do not like it when we go to church.  They make it very hard for young people to get decent jobs if they worship.  For older people it does not matter so much. They come, and they pass along the messages to their families.  Only in the choir will you see young people.  Singing is considered a cultural program, so some young people sing because this is not counted against them.

"This is a place of hope.  Sometimes there is no heat in the church or we have no light.  There are brownouts, you see.  But we do our best.  We try very hard."

There was sadness in Reverend Ionescu's voice, but he was as open as he could be under the circumstances. 
Interior of a Romanian Orthodox Church  (wikipedia)
Then he led us into the sanctuary. Once inside, we turned to the right and walked up the stairs to the balcony to have a better view.
The sanctuary was filled with seniors. Only the choir showed any signs of youth. By American standards the service was lengthy.  Since the people had to endure extreme hardships to attend, the church made every effort to ensure the congregation was ministered to thoroughly.

The women sat on the left side of the aisle, the men to the right.  No one removed their coats despite the length of the program.  Aside from a small stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary, the only visible color was in the babushkas the ladies wore on their heads. 

Throughout the service members of the congregation kept turning toward the balcony. It was unusual for them to have visitors of any sort, especially so many and so young.  Americans too.  Rarely did they see Americans.
For the next couple of hours, the Romanians continuously turned and gazed toward the balcony, communicating only with their eyes as they reached out to touch the Wingate students with their hearts. 

Old church interior similar to the Bucharest church in Bucharest, Romania  (wikipedia)
When the service finished, the Wingate students walked down to the vestibule to greet the Romanians as they left the church.
Spontaneously, the students formed a semicircle from the door through the narthex, shaking hands with people and smiling as they departed. The Romanians looked tired, yet they were deeply appreciative. Somehow the mixture of languages was comprehended, though neither group spoke the other's tongue. 

As one old woman passed the interpreter she caught the eye of a student approached her. Softly she uttered the word, "Pace."
Bewildered, the girl looked to the interpreter.  He smiled and said, “’Pace.’  In Romanian it means ‘Peace.’”
The girl turned back to the Romanian woman and repeated the word, “Pace.”

A classmate standing to the left overheard the exchange and immediately spoke to another woman in front of him.  “Pace,” he said.

An broad smile spread across the woman's face as she returned the wish saying, “Pace.”
Dreary streets of Burcharest in Romania  (wikipedia)
Soon the vestibule was filled with the gentle sounds of Romanian and American voices, all echoing the same simple word, “Pace.”  No other word was necessary. 

They repeated it over and over again, “Pace.  Pace.  Pace.”

Then in the dim light of the room, the Wingate student reached into her purse and removed a small bible she had brought from home.  She placed it in the palm of the old woman’s hand, covering it with her own.  The woman gazed intently at the girl for a long moment before looking down at the treasure she gripped within her gnarled fingers.  And then she began to cry.

As the tears made silent trails down her cheeks, the Romanian woman looked at the interpreter and said something in her native language.  He listened carefully to be sure he understood precisely what the woman was saying.  When she finished, he translated her words. 

She says, “All of my life I have dreamed of having a bible written in English.  For me it is a symbol.  Today, you have answered my prayers.”

A hush fell over the room.  Everyone stopped, spellbound by the words of a woman who had but one simple wish; to possess a book written in a language she could neither read nor understand.  Yet that book symbolized all the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a life she would never know.  A book that was her bridge to a world she would never see.

But the old Romanian woman wasn't finished. The interpreter cast his eyes toward the young girl while the old woman slowly uttered her message. 

“She says, ‘I only know three words in English.’” 

Then the Romanian woman moved forward and hugged the student. When she pulled away, she smiled gently and whispered into the young girl’s ear the words, “I love you.”

Her voice was not loud, but it was enough to be heard by those close to her.  When the Romanian woman spoke, everyone nearby was overcome with emotion.
Three words.  Simple words.  The only English words the old Romanian woman knew.  “I love you.”  The message was universal.  Even in that bleak corner of the world there was indeed hope, there was faith, and yes, there was love.
A small flame of hope in a desperate place  (wikipedia)

In the span of a few spontaneous moments, we came to realize that those Romanian people had warmth enough for everyone nestled deep within their hearts.  We knew that there would always be candles to brighten the darkness, flickering with their silent flames of hope, because those elderly Romanians still believed in miracles.

Now the Wingate students understood how the Romanian people had persevered for so long under such impossible conditions.  Through it all their faith had kept them going because better than anyone else, they knew the true meaning of the word, "Pace."