In August 2010, four young adults participated a mission trip to Romania to work at a summer camp as part of Lehigh Presbytery’s ongoing partnership with the Hungarian Reformed Church in Romania. Read all of their entries.
Worldwide Ministries of Lehigh Presbytery sent a leader and three young adults on a two week mission trip to Romania. Many of you know that Lehigh Presbytery has a long-time friendship and partnership with the Hungarian Reformed Church in Romania. Part of this partnership is striving to learn more about each other and about how we are connected in Christ, how we are all part of Christ’s family.
One way we try to learn more about each other is by traveling and visiting and working together. For many years, young adults from Romania have come and spent their summer in Lehigh Presbytery, working and volunteering at our Camp Brainerd and living with various host families throughout the region. Worldwide Ministries of Lehigh Presbytery has also sent over groups of young adults for short-term mission experiences, learning more about the country and culture as we visit old friends and as we work along in partnership with some of their camping programs.
This summer was the third young adult group to go to Romania through Worldwide Ministries of Lehigh Presbytery. The group consisted of myself (Kim Ward), a member of the Olivet United Presbyterian Church who served as leader for this trip. We also had Dalton McGary, a member of Olivet United Presbyterian Church of Easton, who is transferring to Kutztown University this year for college; Amanda Hebard, from East Stroudsburg Presbyterian Church. Amanda goes to college down in Georgia, and had to return there 5 days after we got back from Romania; and Brandon Semerod, from United Presbyterian Church of Pottsville. Brandon recently graduated with his master’s degree in Special Education and 10 days after we returned from Romania, left to teach English in China for a whole year.
Each time a group has gone to Romania it has been a little different. Mostly, that is because we work in partnership with our friends in the Hungarian Reformed Church. These trips aren’t us saying, “We want to come on July 15th. Come pick us up at the airport.” Or us saying, “we’re coming to build you a school.” Instead, through partnership, we try our best to make sure that it is a trip that both sides want; that the entire experience is mutual.
This year, we had been invited by my friend Tibor Nagy, a Hungarian Reformed Church minister in Romania, to come and work in partnership with a camp that a friend of his was organizing. So, for the majority of our trip, we worked with a church camp for teenagers. This camp was located in the town of Rupea, in the southeast corner of Transylvania, quite near the edge of the beautiful Carpathian Mountains. The camp was organized by the Dean of the region (he oversees about 35 churches in the region, similar to Steve Shussett’s role in Lehigh Presbytery). He opened his church property (about 2 acres) to teenagers from the surrounding area to come to the camp. We also had about 20 children and adult leaders from Hungary, whose own village had flooded earlier in the summer and who were spending the summer away from home while their families and friends worked to rebuild their village at home. And the remarkable thing about the camp is that it was completely free for all of the children – all in exchange for food from their home churches and families. So we ate – wonderful food – fresh food straight from family gardens and small farms, milk pretty much straight from the cow, and home-baked bread all week long! And the kids got a wonderful week of camp without their families worrying about the cost!
The rest of our time in Romania was spent learning about the country, the culture, the history, and the struggles of being a minority culture and religion in a post-Communist state. My friend Tibor unselfishly gave us four days of his time to give us the grand tour of Eastern Hungary and Transylvania. He drove us everywhere, from the northern reaches of Hungary, with ancient castles overlooking the majestic Danube River, to the breath-taking Carpathian Mountains that make up the southern border of Transylvania. Without too much of a geography and history lesson, people of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Romania live in Transylvania (yes, many castles are advertised as ‘Dracula’s Castle;’ no, we didn’t go there). Transylvania is a beautiful agricultural region that was part of Hungary for over 1000 years. After WWI, the Allies divided up Hungary and gave Transylvania over to Romania. It would be like the United Nations coming into the United States and dividing us up, making the northeast part of French-speaking Canada. The national language was suddenly changed from Hungarian to Romanian, towns and cities were given new Romanian names, and street signs changed into Romania. The national church suddenly became Orthodox, and Reformed religions were placed in the minority. Soon afterwards, Romania became a Communist state, and conditions and freedoms under Communism were very different from anything we in the US can relate to.
So needless to say, it is very important to try to have an understanding of some of the history of the land and how that impacts the people of the Hungarian Reformed Church today. Thankfully, Tibor did a wonderful job, and we all learned a tremendous amount from him.
One thing that was consistent throughout our trip was a daily devotional booklet that each of us had. The devotionals were written by individuals involved with missions or youth ministry throughout Lehigh Presbytery – ministers, youth leaders, past young adult Romania participants, members of the Worldwide Ministries Care Team, many people. We tried, some days more successfully than others, to gather to read and reflect together, as a means of remaining centered, of remembering that we were there for Christ, to lead or serve as Christ himself led us. And each day, as I read (okay . . . as I read on most days) I was usually struck by how God’s words and the reflection that the contributor had written really fit with what we were experiencing. (One writer even wrote about eating Kentucky Fried Chicken during an international mission trip . . . we had just eaten McDonald’s the day before for our first meal in Hungary!).
Psalm 19 reads, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” In the Carpathian Mountains, over 6,000 feet up, it was impossible to not be struck with the beauty of God’s earthly creation. The brilliant blue skies offset with lofty, soft clouds made you feel that God was right there, painting it all for you, to open up the majesty of his heavens. And many, countless times, I heard threats from, mostly from Brandon, that he was going to leave and run away to the Carpathian Mountains, to live in the breathtaking beauty that is God’s creation. (I had to remind him and Amanda and Dalton that I promised their mothers that I would bring them back to the US . . . if you can’t find them around, I’d check the Carpathians first).
And being in a new country, it was easy to get swept up in the beauty of a new and different land, people and culture. But the scary and sometimes intimidating part of that is that things are different in a different country. And probably the biggest struggle is that we don’t speak Hungarian (I speak . . . probably about 5 words [embarrassing after having been there 4 times] and we jokingly deemed Amanda as being fluent on Tuesdays [though she tried pretty hard and actually was quite helpful at translating for the rest of us]).
But if you continue to read in Psalm 19, “Day after day [the heavens] pour forth speech . . . Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” And although we didn’t have the words we might have felt we needed, somehow I think we all felt that we could move and love without words. God supplied language and understanding and conveyed friendship through His love. It’s amazing how, with God’s love, simple smiles, simple words, and simple charades can work together to build friendships, family, and lasting memories. One time during lunch, I was sitting across the table from an 8 year-old girl who wasn’t eating anything. I think we were having left over liver with pasta. She knew just a few words of English, so I asked her, “You like?” and pointed to my plate, piled high with my unappetizing meal. She responded, “no.” And refused to eat. I asked her, “Will I like?” She gave me a silly but decided, “no.” I decided that, even if this was the best meal I had ever eaten (I didn’t have high hopes), that I was going to make her laugh to feel better. So I hesitantly took a bite, closed one eye, and made the worst yuck-face I could muster. And I took a second bite, ate it quickly, and discretely looked around the room before giving her another yuck face. Quickly, within just a few bites of not-my-favorite lunch, we were both giggling and cracking up, she coming out of her sadness of not liking lunch, and me finally working my way through what won my prize for the worst lunch all week (most were wonderful, and I loved the cooks and everyone who gave of their time in the kitchen . . . if they ever see this, I’d love some more bread and homemade jam, please!). But with only a few words and a few silly faces, we both had a great lunch, and she did eventually eat.
And all of us who were on the trip could tell you countless story upon story of great moments when we didn’t need words – English or Hungarian – to feel God’s love. Maybe it was getting a hug from someone when we felt homesick, or sharing a cry as a woman from Hungary told – all in Hungarian – of how her house was destroyed in the recent floods, or kicking a soccer ball into our own team’s goal (Brandon was the star . . . for the other team that day) or the simple joy and giggles of exchanging nametags with a little girl and pretending to trade places for the day; whatever it was, I’m sure it was God reaching down and helping us communicate without speech or language.
God’s love also unites us into one family. A favorite quote of mine, roughly paraphrased is, “Wherever you go, God has already been there.” A lot of people, when I tell them that I went on a mission trip this summer, assume that I went somewhere to preach the Gospel like you might see on some street corners or in movies. But the joy of partnership-based missions is realizing just how true it is that God has already been here and that he continues to be here. God is everywhere and his love unites us together as friends, as neighbors, and as His family. And just as Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. . . . Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” With partnership-based missions, it is important to remember that we are all members of one body; all are members of Christ’s family. Just as we go to help and serve, we also go to learn and grow.
I think probably the most difficult part of experiencing and living in a new culture is to remember just that, that we are all members of one body, all are members of Christ’s family. It is easy to assume that we know best – to put on the attitude that the United States is the best country, that our ways are the right ways, even that our way of setting the table is better than theirs (after 6 days of shaking out tablecloths, it was easy to start thinking that it is easier to wipe down tables after each meal, though not nearly as pretty), or even that our way of cutting the grass is better than theirs (I did learn how to cut the grass using a 6-foot tall sickle, with an 18” blade; no limbs, fingers, nor toes were lost in the process!). But God calls us to be, in Ephesians, “humble and gentle [and] patient.” And in the scripture from Micah it’s even more direct: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
So God is there, God has been there, and God will continue to be there, no matter where “there” is. We go into missions, hopefully not to carryout our own motives, not to relish in our accomplishments in our own plans. But hopefully, with God’s guidance, we go as partners in mission, to walk humbly, to learn what justice and mercy is and how it is needed for all in the world, to be patient and understanding towards each other (especially when you’re traveling together for two straight weeks) and to allow God to guide us. We pray that we have learned and grown. We pray that others have learned and grown likewise. We pray that God was in this journey and that he will continue to bless this partnership. Amen.