Images of Hope from a Church set free

A recent mission study trip to the northeastern part of Hungary and Ukraine -- with 10 persons from Missouri Union and Peaks presbyteries -- left me with three distinct images, all relating in some way to our old friend, Daniel Szabo, head curator of the Cistibiscan Church District.

The first image is of the little village of Onod, near the city of Miskolc. It is a small community with a fairly impressive Reformed church building. In 1944, Daniel Szabo’s father was pastor of the church. That was the year Adolph Eichmann was hunting down and trying to eradicate the Jewish population of Hungary.

Pastor Szabo and his wife sheltered many Jews and sent them on toward safety. The Nazi authorities pressured the church’s session to remove Szabo. So they met one night, dismissed him from the pastorate and, that very night, threw all of the family’s furniture out of the manse and into the churchyard.

In 1988 I was privileged to be present at the installation of Anna Victor, Szabo’s granddaughter and Daniel’s niece, as pastor of the same church. For more than 40 years after Szabo was removed from the pulpit, the oppressive Communist government that followed the Nazis restricted the Hungarian Reformed Church from reaching out in evangelism or church growth. All the church could do was hold worship services within the confines of the church building. Those restrictions were lifted the year after Anna became pastor of the congregation.

In addition to being a good pastor to the Onod congregation, Anna teaches Bible in schools in the surrounding area. Several years ago she discovered a village that had no Reformed congregation. She gathered a small group of interested people and began to preach there on Sunday afternoons. That group has grown. They have purchased a house and renovated it to be a lovely chapel. This second congregation is now larger than the one in Onod. And she has found yet another village without a church and has started holding services there.

So, from the sour soil of that dreadful night in 1944, and from the darkness of the Communist oppression, now flourishes new response to the gospel and new growth for the church. The experience of Onod is a microcosm of the new growth and new opportunity for the church in Hungary.

The second image is of a group of Americans standing outside a grand old church in Miskolc, waiting for Daniel Szabo, who was to be our host for lunch. A very poor woman dressed in several layers of clothing and sitting in a wheelchair was also waiting outside the church. She tried to tell us what she needed, but we could not understand her. She became quite agitated, and we stood in uncomfortable little groups, trying to ignore her.

When Daniel came out of the church, his eyes focused immediately on the woman in need. He went to her, listened to her and answered softly to calm her. Then Daniel told us to follow him and we walked in an impromptu parade to the center of the city, surrounding Daniel who pushed the woman in her wheelchair to her desired destination.

This unselfconscious compassion symbolized for me the activities of the church in Hungary since it has been released from the Communist bondage. For more than 40 years the church was not allowed to carry on any organized activities of caring. The church was alive, but confined to the church building and to Sunday worship. In a little more than a decade since freedom came, the compassion of the church has blossomed.

We visited a day care center, an orphanage, a home for the mentally handicapped, a home for the elderly, a ministry to the Roma or gypsies, a youth center under construction and schools from kindergarten through university and professional training. It is an explosion of pent-up compassion.

The third image is set within a large Reformed church building. The Cistibiscan Church District met to ordain 20 young seminary graduates who are called to service within the church district. We were invited to attend and share in the service, which began at noon and lasted almost two and a half hours.

It was full of solemn pomp, with the bishop and his assistant, the senior minister of the district and others participating. We sat facing the 20 ordinands. I was deeply grateful to know that 18 of them were graduates of Saraspatak, the seminary Missouri Union Presbytery has supported for a decade. They represent the potential of 900 years of ministry.

Daniel Szabo gave them their charge. We could not understand what he said, but could not mistake his intensity and passion. I believe that what he said to those young people beginning their ministry was reflective of the new church growth coming out of the dark history of his family in Onod and the present ministry of his niece there; and of the compassion he demonstrated as he pushed the wheelchair-bound woman down the street in Miskolc surrounded by his international guests.

My heart welled up with new hope.

Posted Nov. 22, 2001


Cecil Culverhouse lives in Fulton, Mo., and is a parish associate at First church, Jefferson City.