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Walking in others' shoes

Stories from the early years of the new partner church movement.
By Gretchen Thomas
Fall 2010 9.1.10

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József Kázsoni and Gretchen Thomas (Christopher L. Walton)

The Rev. József Kázsoni, who is now minister of First Unitarian Church in Budapest, Hungary, and the Rev. Gretchen Thomas in Boston, June 2010. See additional photographs of Transylvanian Unitarians and their churches by Stephen Spinder. (Christopher L. Walton)

When communism collapsed in Eastern Europe twenty years ago, North American Unitarian Universalists reconnected with the Unitarians of Transylvania, in Romania, and began forming church partnerships across extraordinary differences of culture and theology. Gretchen Thomas shares two stories from the early years of the new partner church movement. —The editors

In March 1990 I read an editorial in this magazine that described Transyl­vanian Unitarians’ efforts to hold on to their hope and faith while enduring thirty-seven years of, first, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’s Soviet Proletarian Internationalism and then Nicolae Ceaușescu’s National Communism. UUA President William Schulz’s editorial ended: “[A concrete way to] help rebuild religious freedom in Transylvania . . . is by encouraging your congregation to become a ‘sister church’ with one of the 130 Unitarian congregations in Transylvania.”

It was the same year as Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa, and only a year since the Tiananmen Square protests in China—a time when hope for freedom, dignity, human worth, and human rights abounded, not only in the halls of government, but in countless people’s daily lives. I was not clear about exactly where Transylvania was, but as soon as I read this invitation to become a sister church I urged the First Unitarian Church of San José, California, where I was minister for religious education, to sign up and immediately made plans to visit the Transylvanian Unitarians.

In May 1990 I became one of a tiny number of North Americans who had ever visited our fellow Unitarians in Transylvania, the ethnically Hungarian part of Romania, where the first Unitarian congregations were established almost 450 years ago. Within a year, several hundred more UUs had visited Transylvania, motivated by the possibility of building congregation-to-congregation partnerships. Most of us knew very little of what we needed to know before we could understand Romania, Transylvania, and Transylvanian Unitarianism. I could not even find the village of our partner church on the map because it had not occurred to me that it would appear on a Romanian map as Mărtiniș, its Romanian name, rather than as Homoródszentmárton, the Hungarian name used by church members.

In the twenty years since the partner church movement began, more than 160 U.S. and Canadian congregations have formed partnerships with 144 churches in Transylvania, and 22 have formed partnerships with congregations in the Czech Republic, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Poland, and Uganda (see companion story). Thousands of North American UUs are developing personal and collegial relationships with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists in radically different cultures—relationships that have enabled us to confront how we have limited not only our understanding of global concerns, but our faith as well, through caution, complacency, ignorance, or arrogance. Partners on both sides have been stretched to a deeper appreciation of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, everywhere in the world. Knowing Unitarians in other lands has completely reframed our assumptions about economics, history, and the place North America occupies in the world. It has deepened our commitments to Unitarian Universalism and changed our understandings of ourselves, our fears, and our goals, so that we and our children can begin truly to think of ourselves as citizens of the world.

The two stories that follow show glimpses of how my relationships with Transylvanian Unitarians have changed me and them—a process of transformation through walking in others’ shoes that continues twenty years later.


Standing on holy ground

At my first worship service with Uni­tarians in Transylvania in May 1990, I felt I had stepped back into a childhood “Church Across the Street” Sunday school class visit to a neighboring, but very different, faith. I have always been grateful that growing up Unitarian instilled in me a sincere respect for religious beliefs and practices different from my own. But how true is that, really? I was acutely aware of the differences between our North American and Transylvanian worship practices. It took me much too long to accept, and be glad about, those differences.

I had not realized that my first visit in Transylvania was over Pentecost—one of the four Sundays each year when Unitarian churches in Transylvania serve communion. I knew I should feel honored when the Rev. József Kászoni, our partner church’s minister, invited me to serve communion with him. But the Unitarianism I had grown up in was stridently adopting a “beyond Christian” identity, and even in seminary I had never been asked to take communion. Of course I suffered a mixed reaction to József’s invitation—I felt more anxious than honored.

Astonished to learn that I had never taken, much less served, communion, József became my teacher: “Sharing communion affirms the strong roots of our faith—roots in our religious community and in its heritage. It is essentially about communion with God, as well as communion with our forebears and each other, and it gives us an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the religious life that Jesus taught.” I could certainly feel enthusiastic about that, and I was relieved to be assured that the bread and wine carried no “body and blood of Jesus” implications. He also told me, “Communion is the most important event of the church year for us.”

I shifted gears to a “take what you like and leave the rest” frame of mind and refocused on learning how to serve communion with understanding and grace. Explaining the choreography, József said that Homoródszentmárton’s practice—unusual even among the Transylvanian churches—was for the men to share communion and then leave the church. After the men left, the women would gather in their circle around the communion table. József registered my look of shocked dismay as I pictured that—to me—sexist practice, and he quickly added, “Of course I am eager to see reforms not only in the Romanian government and the Romanian economy, but also in some of our worship practices.”

József’s sermon that day was based on Exodus 3:5: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” “Communion,” he told the congregation that overflowed every pew in the large sanctuary, “is the moment of God’s nearness, of standing with God, of facing and grasping something from God’s very being.” Was I prepared to leap into the unknown of such an intense communion with God, especially since I had never believed in such a personal God?

The communion table, covered by the whitest cloth I had ever seen, with elaborate cutwork and scalloped edges, had been made to honor our fledgling partner church relationship. I wondered which of the black-clad women had donated their skill, imagination, and hundreds of hours to make the tablecloth.

As József lifted the ancient silver chalice for me to drink from, I suddenly remembered a Baptist seminary professor telling me the true work of ministry is to strive, by grace alone, to embody God. As I offered the bread to each of the men, our eyes locked. “You are looking deep into each other’s souls,” József had instructed me. At first I felt vulnerable and anxious about having these strangers look deep into my soul, but very soon it became a blessing.

When József finished the prayer that ended the men’s part of the service, he whispered to me in English, “Gretchen, I have an idea. Please be ready to pray.” Then he said in Hungarian to everyone else: “Our honored guest is going to say the prayer at the end of the women’s communion, and I am worried she might feel we are being disrespectful if the men leave and miss hearing her prayer. So perhaps the men should remain here during the women’s communion.” In the memory of anyone there, it was the first time the congregation’s men had sat respectfully in their seats while a circle of women shared communion. Those moments were a benchmark in the many new and challenging experiences their partnership has brought to the Unitarians in Homoródszentmárton and the Unitarian Universalists in San José.

It was my first communion, and it marked a crucial turning point in my personal faith development. I grew up in the Bible belt of East Tennessee, where I was the only Unitarian in every school I attended. Being constantly alone in my faith had made me defensive—eager to convince my friends that the Unitarians were as established as the Catholics, as organized as the Presbyterians, and as fervent as the Southern Baptists.

As I prayed my unexpected prayer in that sanctuary where Unitarians have gathered faithfully for 450 years, my defensiveness about being Unitarian dropped completely away. When I “removed my sandals” and stood on that sacred ground, I understood with my whole being that I am a living part of a very old and significant religious movement. In that moment I no longer felt I was a stranger in a foreign land; I could picture our two congregations walking a path together on common, holy ground.


Which of us is poor?

Generous social services, tolerance of eccentricity, and widespread liberal guilt have made Berkeley, California, an inviting place for poor and homeless people to settle. In 1992, every errand—to the grocery store, the library, or the bank—was punctuated by appeals from homeless people who struggled to eke out a marginal existence by begging. I never took up a seminary professor’s challenge to stand on a sidewalk and beg—to walk in a homeless person’s shoes: “How else can you understand the lives of the poor who show up on your church doorstep?” I hid behind my defensive, routine response to the constant appeals for spare change—a sympathetic but negative head shake, a silent thanksgiving that my church sponsored several programs for people who were homeless, followed by a quick dismissal of the encounter from my conscious thought.

Then József made his first partnership visit to Northern California. As we walked from the photo shop to the bookstore, József gave coins to every panhandler we passed. He found their plight confronting and upsetting. He asked me exactly where they were going to sleep that night, something I hadn’t seriously asked myself. When he engaged in conversations with the panhandlers (as I called them), he was curious, sincere, and compassionate.

I was surprised, and intrigued, because, at the time, five U.S. dollars spent in Romania would have paid for labor or supplies costing $100 in the United States. As a result of Ceaușescu’s failed efforts at industrial modernization and rape of Romania’s resources, the country was caught in a severe economic depression. Unitarian ministers’ families survived on a combination of barter and whatever small contributions their often impoverished congregation members could manage to pledge, season by season. So it amazed me that József parted with any of his precious coins. But he took for granted that he would give them away. He said, “When you are desperate, even a little can make a big difference, and I am better off than they are. I need to understand everything I can about the poor in the United States, so my villagers will not find themselves walking these poverty-stricken roads as Romania plunges into capitalism.”

József’s patterns of thinking had developed during a lifetime under Romanian communism, with its ideal of shared wealth, and from Transylvanian village life, with its assumption of limited resources. On Berkeley’s sidewalks, József’s worldview rubbed un­comfortably against my own ideals, which were rooted in American individualism, with its goal of increasing only your own family’s status and security.

This difference between us was deep, and led to many related discussions. Our Transylvanian partners major in community, while we major in individuality. The Unitarian Universalist Association is a loose association of separate congregations, while the Transylvanian Unitarian Church is one united church body. I viewed the San Jose congregation as a maverick collection of unique individuals loosely bound together by their love of protesting, singing, questioning, learning, and committing to our children. That is a world away from József’s seeing his Homoródszentmárton congregation as one important link in a solidly united church body. The Transylvanian Unitarians are focused on group justice for all Unitarians, and by extension for other religious and ethnic minorities. Many Unitarian Universalists work tirelessly to bring justice to our society, but it is a justice built to defend individual abilities, privileges, and rights.

Though József sincerely respects our social action efforts and community involvements, he still experiences Unitarian Universalists in the United States as weak in community responsibility. “You have too strong a sense of individual entitlement, and too little sense of obligation to your church and your country.” Perhaps American UUs have been more affected by living under capitalism and the Transylvanians have been more affected by communism than either of us would like to admit.

Every Transylvanian who visits North America is shocked by the excess—the overwhelming choice of food in supermarkets, the overflowing trash bins, the number of cars, televisions, and computers per household. Transylvanian visitors say, “No wonder you Americans have lost touch with the essentials of life, since you have to live in this materialistically driven and environmentally unconscious society.”

Another essential difference is my trust that, in the end, a government serves its people, while József holds a deep-seated conviction that the government is his personal enemy, and the enemy of every minority group.

We began talking about all these things during József’s visit with our congregation, and we have continued to talk about them for two decades, on some points changing our positions, but on others agreeing to disagree.

József left for home, and my Northern Californian life went on. For years, I had automatically adopted my numbed, routine response each time I passed the tired-looking woman with grey hair and missing teeth who panhandled most days in front of my bank. Sitting on a green plastic milk crate, she would shift her gaze meaningfully from the bills I had taken from the bank machine to the dilapidated tote bags around her feet. I would cast a half-sympathetic, half-rueful smile in her direction and walk swiftly past, focused on silencing my guilty conscience.

But József’s presence among us had opened doors into a lot of things I had never noticed, or ceased to question. The next time I went to the bank, I stopped and listened. In our conversation she bragged about her grandchildren, and I told her about my family’s new babies. We stumbled onto her Tibetan Buddhist connections and my Zen Buddhist meditation practice. I sympathized with her need for a car, and she understood my longing to untie my life from commuting. When we realized we were nearly the same age, she said, “We’re not old yet, but our youth has been over for a long time.”

She thought of herself and me as “we.” Could I?

I wanted to give her some money, but I had learned from our partnership work that money given impulsively can do more harm than good. So I asked her how it felt to be constantly given money by people like me. She said. “The truth of you and me is that you have too much money and I have too little. If you give me some of your money you are doing what you can to right an unbalance in the world, and you and I will both sleep better tonight—it has to be a good thing.” Our financial exchange was a dignified and realistic acknowledgement of our different life conditions—she with her spirit so clear and rich, though suffering from a lack of resources, and me with an ever-searching and ambivalent spirit, harmed by having so much. As I turned to leave, she pulled from one of her grubby bags a beautiful strip of rainbow-colored Tibetan prayer flags, each printed with a blessing for the earth. Giving it to me, she said, “Hang these in the wind. They’ll keep your soul spinning in the right direction.”


Adapted from Walking in Others’ Shoes: Stories from the Early Years of the Partner Church Movement, ©2010 by Gretchen Thomas (Roots and Wings Press). Available from the Partner Church Council; multiple copy discounts available from Roots and Wings Press.

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