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Past Sermon


Copyright, © Thomas D. Wintle, 2002

A sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Wintle at the First Parish Church in Weston, Massachusetts, on June 11, 2000. The scripture readings were: Acts 2:1-11 and I Corinthians 12:4-13.

"And how is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language?" (Acts 2.8)

I. What can I say about my trip to Romania? I remember that Mary Hennessey said that a good travelogue requires either a two week visit or a stay of many years: observations based on anything in-between will lack either clarity or completeness. My report on a ten day trip will certainly lack completeness, but my impressions are very clear. People told me it would be a transforming experience. I did not really believe them. They were right!

We went to Romania to visit our partner church, the Unitarian Church in Torda, in Transylvania. There have been Unitarians there since the 1500s. In fact, it was a Unitarian king, John Sigismund, who in 1568 issued the world’s first edict of religious toleration. Most of the medieval world operated under the principle that the religion of the ruler would be the religion of the people, but here the Unitarians welcomed a sharing with Orthodox, Catholics, and Calvinists. It is a most impressive and distinguished history.

What can we say about Romania today? There is too much to say, but let me share impressions about just four aspects of the visit — the slide show can wait until the fall!


First, post-communism This was my first visit to eastern Europe, my first visit to a formerly Communist country. What a dreadful experiment communism was!

There is the communist architecture – drab, ugly concrete apartment buildings lined block after block. They called it, after the late communist dictator, "Ceaucescu gothic." I was struck by how depressing, how uninspiring, the collectivist vision became in actual reality. It also found expression in the creation of ugly factories, all part of the regime’s attempt to "industrialize" a largely agricultural area. Perhaps it also finds expression in the fact that there is probably not one truck exhaust muffler in the whole country: they live in black exhaust fumes!

In Kolozsvar, the ancient Hungarian capital of Transylvania, the main street has three names – there was the old medieval name, then for 45 years it was "Lenin Street," and now it is "21 December Street," recalling the revolution in 1989 that toppled the communist regime.

I asked about the changes since then. The food stores, they said, where once they stood in line for just a few products, are now full; under communism there was television for two hours a day and only one channel — now all day, with a choice in channels (a mixed blessing perhaps!); before it was illegal to have a foreigner in your home, even a relative — now they travel and welcome people freely; before, Russian was required in the schools — now nobody learns or speaks Russian and all schools teach English (indeed, I was struck by how completely the Russian presence disappeared – restaurants, for example, would have menus in Hungarian, Romanian, German and English, but nothing in Russian, even when they have caviar!).

I had dinner in a restaurant one evening with a Unitarian theological student. When I asked him about the changes since communism, he said: "Back then, we would not have had this conversation in a restaurant, because the man in the next seat might be an informer, and you might disappear forever."

To be sure, there are continuing problems – runaway inflation being the worst. "Before," said the student, "you had money but nothing to buy, now there is stuff to buy but you don’t have enough money."

But there are changes occuring. Two examples struck me. One is how the collectivist farms have been broken-up, the land given back to the people from whom it was taken. The farms were divided not into farm-lots, but into twenty-foot-wide strips that would go all the way across a field and up the mountainside: easier to farm, I suppose. We saw families out weeding their patches of ground with hoes, working across the fields.

The other is the story of the lay president of the Torda congregation. When last visited by Westonians, he was working in a ceramics factory; this time he had his own business, a kiln in back of his house, people working for him, designing and selling his own ceramic figurines. And he was a happy man!

III - Kolozsvar

We had dinner with the Unitarian bishop (yes, they have a bishop, and have for centuries) in his elegant apartment in Koloszvar and were treated like royalty. Indeed, everyone we visited wined and dined us. They were glad that somebody on the other side of the world / knew about them and cared about them.

I should say that much of the visit was emotional for me because I was actually visiting places my beloved predecessor in Lancaster, Alexander St.-Ivanyi, often described. He told me about the village where "the sun rose twice": I never understood until I saw the great high stone mountain in Torocko where the sun rose on one side of the mountain, then disappeared behind the mountain, then rose again over the top of the mountain. He told me about teaching and preaching in the seminary in Kolozsvar: I saw his church, and stood in his pulpit, and they remembered him there. He told me about resisting the Nazis in Budapest during the war, about hiding escaped Allied prisoners-of-war, and about the day two German soldiers knocked on his door — just to come in and see his Christmas tree — and I visited his church, his parsonage where he hid a secret radio transmitter during the war, where the Gestapo came seeking to arrest him; and I saw the bullet-holes, the shrapnel marks, all over the courtyard side of his building (the front had all been repaired). It all became so real.

IV- Torda

It needs to be said that the trip was not all rugged. I was advised to take woolite to wash clothes out in a sink, but our host in Torda had a washing machine! I was told to take a jar of peanut butter so I’d have some food, but I never ate so much food, or drank so much wine, or sang so much, or hugged so much, in my life. The Hungarian Unitarians are wonderful, warm, exuberant people.

While in Torda we participated in the service of rededication for their ancient Unitarian church building. It was a very moving service, with some 400 people, which I can’t begin to describe to you. The next time we have communion, I might tell you about their communion service – how when the ministers entered all the people stood, how they sang the Hungarian anthem, how first all the men line the aisles and receive the bread and wine, then all the women do the same; how no words are said during the distribution of the bread and wine, but the minister is supposed to look into your eyes and into your soul (and they look back into your’s). I can tell you now that, while I was standing there, one of four ministers during the communion service, the bishop leaned over and said "YOU give the next prayer." I said "Huh?"! Give a line of scripture and then a prayer, and I’ll translate for you! Could you think of a line of scripture with ten seconds warning? Somehow I did. I don’t think I embarrassed Weston.

I can’t think of a more moving worship service in my life, and I didn’t understand most of what was said!

V – Villages

There is just one more aspect of the trip I have to mention – the villages. When you leave Koloszvar and Torda and head out into the villages, you leave behind the city and go into places that haven’t changed for centuries. You drive into a village with all dirt roads, where the road clearly belongs to the goose and her goslings – who look at you with great annoyance when some mechanical vehicle approaches! Best of all: we weren’t just tourists passing through the villages; we were invited into the homes of the ministers.

There was the village of Meszko: dirt roads, vegetable gardens in the front lawn, a woman minister who studied in Chicago and was now here with her veterinarian student husband; a minister in the 1930s brought his Danish-American wife there – they painted the ceiling tiles of the Unitarian church with wonderful decorations, she wrote a book called "Alabaster Village"; an older parishioner described to me how, in 1944, the Russians came across the valley and there were Hungarian soldiers in the belltower of the Unitarian church, viewing the Russian movements, and how the Russians shelled the church and destroyed part of the tower and roof.

And there were other villages, villages where all the inhabitants were Unitarians; villages which had been Hungarian for a thousand years but into which the Romanian government has been importing Romanian residents and building Romanian orthodox churches and monasteries. In some ways, it was all lovely. In some ways, one felt the Hungarian-Romanian tension could become Kosovo.

VI – Conclusion

In some ways I feel a little like the people in the description of the day of Pentecost – encountering people from "every nation under heaven" and yet hearing "in our own native language." There was something quite extraordinary about how we were able to communicate on this trip. Larry Coburn’s wife, Gabriella, made it all possible – she is a Catholic saint! But there were also times when Gabie wasn’t around, when the Torda minister Fazakas Ferenc and I and maybe another were sipping wine late at night and comparing notes, that language did not seem to be an issue at all, that we felt like brothers in a common endeavor.

I believe that, like Pentecost, we are all inspired by the same Spirit, the Holy Spirit which transcends nationality and time, the Spirit which makes brothers and sisters in the strangest places.

God, my friends, knows these people in Transylvania. And I suggest that, as we continue to get to know them, they may teach us about God.

It was a grand trip. Next time, to quote Robert Frost, "you come too"!


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Created: Sep 2, 2000   |   Modified: Mon, Dec 11, 2006