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Celebration marks 20th anniversary of partner church movement

Transylvanian and North American Unitarian Universalists have formed deep ties since fall of Communism.
By Jane Greer
8.23.10

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Former UUA President William F. Schulz, who traveled to Romania shortly after the fall of Communism in 1990, addresses guests at a celebration in Transylvania marking the 20th anniversary of the partner church movement. (Lehel Molnar)

The Unitarian Universalist partner church movement marked its twentieth anniversary July 23 and 24 in Kolozsvár, Transylvania. The event honored the relationship, begun in 1990, between the Unitarian Universalist Association in the United States and Canada and the Unitarian Church of Transylvania. The UU Partner Church Council, which facilitates relationships between North American UU congregations and Transylvanian Unitarian churches, began three years later, in 1993.

More than 75 people, including 40 Americans, gathered in the Transylvanian Unitarian Church headquarters in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), Romania’s fourth largest city, to review partnership history, hear reports on the status of current partnership activities, discuss possibilities for the future, and worship together.

The partner church movement began in 1990 when UUA President William F. Schulz and UUA Moderator Natalie Gulbrandsen led a delegation to Romania that included members of the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament. It was Schulz’s intent to confront the Ceaușescu regime about a plan to destroy thousands of Romanian villages. “We did not imagine that our small voices could convince the dictator to abandon his scheme,” he said in a sermon at the anniversary worship service July 24. “But we also knew that if we failed to do what little we could to stop this outrage and offer our support to you, we could never have forgiven ourselves.”

A month before Schulz and his party left for Romania, however, Ceaușescu was overthrown and executed. The trip went on as planned and at its conclusion, the bishop of the Transylvanian Unitarians encouraged Schulz and Gulbrandsen to form a “sister church” movement connecting Transylvanian Unitarian churches with North American UU congregations. Transylvanian Unitarian Judit Gellérd was instrumental in doing much of the organizational work that brought Transylvanian churches together with their North American partners.

The Rev. Dr. Leon Hopper, then minister of the East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Wash., recalled receiving a description of what that early partnership was to look like: “The two congregations will exchange greetings, pictures, letters, children’s creations, etc. The specific needs of [the] Transylvanian church will be made known to the UUA ‘sister.’ Perhaps eventually there can even be exchanges between ministers or laity,” he wrote in a message sent to the anniversary gathering, which he was unable to attend.

The UU Partner Church Council, a formal organization supporting partner church relationships, evolved from this movement and was founded in 1993. UUPCC now supports approximately 150 partnerships between North American congregations and Unitarian congregations, mostly in Transylvania, the Khasi Hills of India, and the Philippines. New partnerships are being formed with Unitarian Universalist groups in Africa and other parts of Eastern Europe.

Unitarianism has historic roots in Transylvania, a 39,000-square-mile area in the northwest quadrant of Romania. The Unitarian Church was first recognized there by the Edict of Torda, also known as the Patent of Toleration, in 1568 and has remained a strong presence ever since. Today, there are 120 Unitarian churches and approximately 60,000 Hungarian-speaking Unitarians in the area.

Some of the current projects resulting from the partner church movement include educational initiatives with the two American UU seminaries, Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif. Meadville Lombard offers English language instruction to Transylvanian Unitarian seminarians through the John Howland Lathrop Endowed Fund. Starr King brings a Transylvanian Unitarian minister to its campus each year as a resident scholar through the Francis Balázs Scholars Program.

Several American and Transylvanian congregations have worked together to establish community organizing initiatives. First Unitarian Church in Oakland, Calif., and its partner church in Oklánd, Romania, launched Project Harvest Hope. A partnership between the UU Congregation of Fairfax, Va., its Unitarian partner church in Szentgerice, a Reformed church in Szentgerice, and the Reformed church’s Dutch partner church has funded a medical clinic.

In addition to providing material improvements, the partnership movement has enriched its participants in innumerable intangible ways.

“The movement was the main opening in the channel towards freedom for Transylvanian Unitarians,” said the Rev. Dávid Gyerő, counselor to the bishop of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church. “It was the movement through which our first contacts with the free world became possible. Transylvanian Unitarians were given the chance to become open to freedom of thought and spirit. To put it more poetically, our religion got wings.”

The relationship has given American UUs roots, Gyerő added. “What American UUs have received is a sense of history, of being connected to the past and a greater understanding of how our religious and spiritual values are the product of very rich and diverse historic traditions.”

Barbara Kres Beach, one of UUPCC’s founders and former chair, agreed. “There’s more recognition that the roots of Unitarianism do stem from Transylvania,” she said. “That’s an essential connection for us.”

Relationships between partner churches have not always gone smoothly. “When we started out we certainly didn’t know one another,” said the Rev. Harold Babcock, former UUPCC chair and current UUA ambassador to Transylvania. “There were language barriers to overcome and the cultural differences were significant. For those of us who have stuck with those partnerships and have worked to make them grow, however, it’s like having a second family in Transylvania. It certainly has deepened my understanding of what Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism is and it’s really broadened my perspective on our faith and on the world.”

“Even when facing differences, we were able to overcome them by our readiness to learn from one another,” Gyerő said.

Cathy Cordes, executive director of the Partner Church Council, said, “In the beginning there was a real insecurity on both sides about whether this would be a long-term relationship. I think we’ve answered that question. These are long-term relationships that have developed over years and will continue.”


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