The Rev. Harold Babcock -First Religious Society (Unitarian Universalist)
“. . . do not throw your pearls before swine. . . .”
- Matthew 7: 6
Like Sheilah Kast and Jim Rosapepe, authors of the recently published Dracula is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy, I too have often been struck by the Romanian use of the phrase “we wait,” even among my Hungarian Romanian friends. Almost always, when I let our partner church minister Zsolt Jakab know that I am coming to visit, he writes or says to me, “We waiting,” or, simply, “We wait.”
It wasn’t until I read Kast and Rosapepe’s book that I realized this phrase isn’t just some endearing broken-English-ism, but that it is a common Romanian-ism, found throughout the country and in each of its different languages, and which as they suggested in the morning’s reading actually means something like, “We look forward to being together again. Things are better when you’re with us. It will be nice when we’re all together.” It’s a roundabout way of saying, “Life is brief: to enjoy it with our friends is the most important thing we can ever do. Nothing else really matters.”
It turns out, then, that “we wait” is a statement of radical hospitality, not unlike when my Transylvanian friends say to a visitor like myself, and actually mean it, “After three days, you are part of the family.” No need there to feel as if you are under foot or being a nuisance.
As most of you know, I have just returned from a visit with our Unitarian friends in the Transylvanian region of Romania, where as always I was greeted with open arms and hearts. This trip, my eleventh to that faraway and ever-intriguing country, was the first that I have taken in my new role as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “ambassador” to the Transylvanian Unitarian Church. During my brief stay I held meetings with the new Bishop of the Transylvanian Church, Ferenc Balint Benczedi, and his executive secretary or “Councilor,” David Gyero, as well as with faculty members of the Unitarian Seminary in Kolozsvar, the city which is known in Romanian as Cluj or Cluj Napoca.
You may be curious to know what the ambassador to the Transylvanian Unitarian Church does, and so I thought that I would spend just a few minutes telling you about the nature of my conversations in Kolozsvar, an ancient city famous for being the home of Unitarianism’s 16th century founder, David Ferenc, or Francis David as he is known in English (Hungarians put last names first). Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until shortly after World War I, when Transylvania was annexed to Romania as a spoil of war, this faded but still beautiful city, its streets lined with fine examples of baroque architecture, evokes bygone days of imperial splendor.
The Unitarian Church’s headquarters, located in the heart of the city on one of its busiest streets, is housed in a turn of the 20th century building which is shared by the Janos Zigmond Kollegium, one of two Unitarian high schools remaining in Transylvania. This excellent and respected school, which actually occupies most of the headquarters building, is shared by an elementary school and a state-run Hungarian language high school. (Hungarians in Romania stick together: ethnic identity and culture is far stronger than religious affiliation.)
High in the attic space of this building there is a recently completed dormitory for the Unitarian students, who come mostly from rural villages throughout Transylvania. It is difficult to be accepted by the high school, so students are willing to endure long periods of living far away from home in order to go there. There is a very nice guest room in the dormitory, where I was privileged to stay, though it is a long hike to the top of the building, which has no elevator. The headquarters building also provides dormitory space for the twenty or so currently enrolled Unitarian Seminary students. Needless to say, it is a lively place!
So what does the ambassador do? Mostly, my role is one of keeping the communications channels open between our two “judicatories,” or governing bodies, and being the familiar face, if you will, of North American Unitarian Universalism. Topics of conversation on this trip included relationships between the TUC and various UU organizations which have connections in Transylvania, such as the UU Partner Church Council, which until recently I chaired; Project Harvest Hope, a UU organization which does economic development work in Transylvania; and the UUA administration, at whose request I serve.
We also spent time planning the 20th anniversary celebration of the restart of what was known in the 1920’s as the “sister church” program, and after 1990 as “the partner church” movement, which will take place in Kolozsvar this coming summer.
Ostensibly an effort to replace church bells in Transylvanian Unitarian churches which had been melted for armaments during WWI, the “sister church” program was also a way to give support to the minority Hungarian Unitarian community following the implementation of the Treaty of Trianon, which as previously mentioned gave Transylvania to Romania as part of war reparations following the defeat of the Axis powers in 1918. It was restarted following the Romanian Revolution of 1989, which saw the fall of the communist government of dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu. There are now over 150 active partnerships between North American Unitarian Universalist and Transylvanian Unitarian congregations.
Also of interest is a proposed merger, or more precisely, re-merger, of the Romanian and Hungarian branches of the Unitarian Church, which have been separated since the aforementioned break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following WWI. Though still unresolved, there seems to be strong sentiment for merger on both sides of the border, and since most Hungarian Unitarians tend to be ex-patriot Transylvanians anyway, it makes perfect sense. The Hungarian Church is also small and struggling and could benefit from reconnection with the much larger and better organized Transylvanian branch of the church.
Perhaps the most sensitive and, to this outsider, fascinating, part of our conversations had to do with the Romanian government’s recent release of the formerly sealed records of the Securitatae, the fearsome and feared Romanian spy agency which victimized millions of Romanian citizens during forty years of communist rule. So effective was the terror spread by the Securitatae apparatus that it is estimated that at least one in four Romanians were enlisted as informers. It has long been tacitly understood that those numbers included many in the Unitarian Church membership and leadership, as every community, ethnic group, religious organization, and walk of life was affected. How the disclosures of informants will affect the life of the church and its morale is probably the most pressing and divisive question facing Transylvanian Unitarians today.
On a more poignant note, my colleague John Gibbons and I spent a lovely evening with the recently retired Unitarian Bishop, Arpad Szabo, who has been undergoing treatments for cancer, and his wife, Magda.
There were many other highlights during my brief visit in Transylvania, including a visit to the five-hundred-year-old library of the Protestant Seminary in Kolozsvar and socializing with friends and colleagues, but one event from this trip stands out as being a quintessentially Transylvanian experience.
After spending three days and nights in Kolozsvar, John and I headed southeast into the heart of Transylvania, or Erdely, as it is known in Hungarian, to visit with our respective partner churches for the remainder of our brief time in Romania. As always, it felt like coming home to be with our partner church family of Zsolt and Borika Jakab and their two boys, Abel and Bence. (During my visit I was also able to visit with Zsolt’s father Denes, whom some of you will remember from a visit here in 1999, and who is suffering from prostate cancer, and his mother Eva; and with Borika’s father and mother, all of whom have become like a second family to me.)
On the third day of my visit in our partner church village of Ujszekely, Zsolt informed me that he needed to go first thing in the morning to the nearby village of Nagygalambfalva (“big pigeon village”) for a competition. Here I must apologize to my more squeamish or vegetarian or animal rights activist friends, for it turns out that this was a pig slaughtering competition.
It’s not quite as gruesome as it sounds. In fact, it is a kind of “best practices” of pig slaughtering. You have to understand that Transylvania is a place where most rural and even many city folk still raise their own livestock for food. For poor people, it is a necessity. And pork, being economical to raise and producing large quantities of meat in return for the investment, is in all of its forms one of, if not the, most popular Transylvanian foods. It’s ubiquitous.
The competition is not just about how quickly and efficiently the pig is dispatched, though that is important, both to us observers and to the pig, but about the skills of butchering and the cooking of everything imaginable on the pig, and ultimately of the tasting. (While it may be true that one cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, you can make a Transylvanian delicacy: pig’s ear with salt. It’s definitely an acquired taste.) The killing of the pig in Eastern Europe is an almost sacred act.
The winner among the six teams competing (though as Zsolt said, “everybody wins something”) is the team which in the course of a day creates the most delicious sausage, soups, ribs, and tenderloins, to mention just a few of the pork delicacies. And, as always in Transylvania, there is plenty of strong drink available with which to wash it down.
This yearly event took place outdoor in the local schoolyard in Nagygalambfalva (unfortunately it was pouring rain all morning and part of the afternoon, but eventually it turned to snow), and it drew people and families of all ages from miles around. It even took place to the strolling accompaniment of one of Transylvania’s excellent “gypsy” bands (in this case, a band with dueling accordions!), and, of course, with passionate singing of Hungarian folk songs.
The day ended with a huge closing awards ceremony and feast in the local community hall, where we were entertained by a fabulous young people’s Hungarian folkdance group from the nearby city Szekelyudvarhely, as well as by a couple of Transylvanian stand-up comedians, who, even with my limited Hungarian, seemed pretty funny. We didn’t get to bed until 2:00 am. Only in Romania.
As always, it was good to come home. But the lesson that I continue to learn in Transylvania is that one about hospitality. I think I may even have passed a threshold in my familiarity with that far-off and exotic place, for I was actually mistaken for a Transylvanian by a gentleman standing next to me at the closing celebration. He was completely taken aback when I said to him in nearly flawless Hungarian, “En bezelek Angolul, nem Magyarul”—I speak English, not Hungarian. Go figure.
Already, though, I am looking forward to my next visit to that strange and tragic and wonderful county. This summer in addition to attending the 20th anniversary of partnership celebration in Kolozsvar, I will take part in the wedding in Erdely of Zsolt’s younger brother, Denes, to his fiancé, Annamaria Kollos, both of whom have spent time here with us in Newburyport. I am certain that it will be yet another unique and unforgettable experience in Transylvania, one to go along with all of my other precious memories of that beloved place. As Zsolt said when I told him of my plans to return, “We wait.”