We’re inviting you to take a spiritual journey with us … to eastern Europe.
Months ago, I received an email from Marcy Burns, a retired research psychologist. Marcy describes herself as “engaged in a spiritual journey as well as journeys around the world. I’m in good health and spirits. For me old age is turning out to be a rich and wonderful time of life.”
Marcy was responding to a request for readers to tell us about their travels. We often run that request in our Monday-morning Planner newsletter, which we end out free via Email. (If you’d like to get on that once-a-week list, email the word “subscribe” to us—you can cancel it at anytime.)
We invite your stories and letters from distant places, partly because we fondly recall the warm response we got to a little note we published last winter, called “A Letter from Germany.“
In her note, Mary explained that she and some other Unitarian Universalists from a California congregation were planning a pilgrimage to experience the roots of Unitarianism in the Transylvanian region of Romania.
That caught my attention, because I’ve worked in that region myself as a Religion Writer.
In fact, I was there shortly after the revolution that overthrew Communism in Romania in the closing days of 1989. Marcy and her friends were planning to visit an area just to the north of Timisoara, which is the unlikely town where the revolution that overthrew
the dictator Nicolai Ceausescu began. I made the arduous journey from Bucharest to Timisoara in the opening days of 1990 to find and interview Pastor László Tőkés, a previously unknown clergyman whose courage
toppled the tyrant’s regime.
In essence, what happened is that Tőkés bravely spoke out against the Communist regime. Armed forces were sent to stop the peaceful protest that formed around his church. Dozens were killed before it was over and the dictator himself was killed along with his wife—but the revolution overall is recorded as a surprisingly peaceful revolt. And that was largely because of the bravery and calm of religious people who began the revolt and shaped its tone in western Romania.
This mountainous region has been a remarkable religious center for many centuries.
In 1564, another brave clergyman named Frenec Dávid (sometimes written Francis David), was appointed the court preacher to the ruler of Transylvania and began a historic series of talks and dialogues that convinced the head of state to issue the Edict of Torda, declaring religious freedom.
Readers of today’s story may be fascinated to learn that Dávid’s opposition to “the Trinity”—and his message that God is a single being—may have been colored by a cultural mingling with Islam, which hovered on the eastern edge of Europe.
In any case, as Marcy wrote to me: “We were motivated to make this pilgrimage, because we wanted to understand our historical roots, which extend back to 16th-century Transylvania. It was there that Francis David, a theologian who was first Catholic, then Calvinist and then Unitarian, converted the king and many others to the Unitarian theology. Despite extremely difficult circumstances, Transylvanian Unitarians have kept the faith for more than four centuries. That was reason enough for us to go there, spend some time with them and worship with them.”
HERE is where her story truly connects with other voices we’ve heard in recent years. The best-selling author and evangelist Rob Bell teaches that we shouldn’t conceive of “mission trips” as taking God to the godless. We should think of these trips humbly as traveling to see what God already has to teach us in the lives of people living in distant lands.
That’s precisely what Marcy’s trip involved. So, I asked Marcy to write us a simple Letter from Transylvania about their journey. She warned me, in advance, that her years of writing have been highly technical in nature—but, in good spirit, she agreed to write us a letter. And she did. I received it a couple of months later — along with most of the photos here.
In my invitation to Marcy I did tell her that she was likely to find a very different kind of church in Transylvania than she might expect.
When the trip was over, here’s the letter Marcy wrote …
You noted in your earlier Email to me that we would find a very different church there, so you may not be surprised that I’m having some difficulty in framing this response. It is my sincere wish to be respectful and to honor their tradition as I describe our experiences.
On our first Sunday, we went to the First Unitarian Church of
Budapest. Keeping in mind that none of us speak Hungarian, the services seemed to
us very solemn and the hymns dirge-like. The regular minister was away, and a
young woman was in the pulpit (a high, wooden structure). We were not greeted
or welcomed. We sat in the front pew, but our presence was not acknowledged except
during a later meeting with the minister. She spoke English, and she was charming
and welcoming. She told us that a year she had spent in Berkeley, CA, had been a life-changing experience.
In Romania, we
stayed from Friday until Sunday afternoon in a village called Bethlenszentmiklos. We
were housed with members of the Unitarian church. We were greeted warmly and
although it is a poor village, they seemed genuinely pleased that we chose to visit
them. The minister, who speaks English, was hospitable and spent time talking
with us, openly answering all questions.
The villagers showed us their gardens,
vineyards, and orchards, as well as pigs and chickens, with considerable pride.
There were wonderful fruits and vegetables, so our meals were bountiful.
Visitors from Holland
were also in the village, and the church was filled on Sunday.
I was struck by
how work-worn many of the congregants appeared. Their economic outlook is not
good. Actually, none of Romania
appears to be prospering, many factories from the Communist era are empty, infrastructure
in disrepair. Of course, these Transylvanians do not feel that they are Romanian.
They still speak and feel Hungarian even though they have been part of Romania since
visited the church where the Edict of Torda was issued in 1568 and the
Headquarters of the Unitarian Church in Kolozsvar. We stayed in the dormitory
of the nearby Unitarian School. The churches are not autonomous as they are
here in the U.S., so there was a bishop and he graciously agreed to meet with us. He
candidly acknowledged that the church must change—as did all of the
ministers with whom we spoke.
Although it was not stated explicitly, I believe
a declining membership underlies the acknowledged need for change. The
congregations were comprised mostly of old people, and no one spoke of
Religious Education. They may be having difficulty attracting youth.
traveling group included four members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of
Ventura and the pastor of the Conejo Valley UU Church and her husband.
more clearly than ever before that I am blessed to be in community with UU
Ventura. In the happiest and in the saddest of circumstances, in celebration
and in mourning, the services bind us together.
As our song says, we “Enter,
rejoice, and come in” and our day is indeed a “joyful day.”
Today, I know that this is just one traveler’s story.
Just one pilgrimage.
Just a couple of dots on the globe connected by these pilgrims.
Just a few insights gained.
Just a bit more thankfulness and joy realized.
And yet, on this seventh anniversary of 9/11, may we reflect on the spirit of Marcy’s pilgrimage and her story—and take heart that she and her friends were on this journey. And many more travelers are as well. Each day, peaceful travelers are moving around the Earth in search of connection with others.
Passing along this story—that act alone—becomes a kind of 9/11 prayer for peace.
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