When I was awarded the Bates College Otis Fellowship, I used the money to live for one summer in Transylvania under the guidance of Rev. Szekely Kinga Reka. Kinga was the first women ordained in Transylvanian Unitarianism and has served as mentor for many young women ministerial hopefuls. I continued my connection to Transylvania during seminary by cross-registering at Columbia in Hungarian classes. It is my hope that any congregation I serve will be open to this unique opportunity in global ministry and partnership.
Excerpts from Rose’s Keynote Speaker Address at the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis Partner Church Dinner, 2015
An excerpt from my journal from the first days of my visit.
“This village, SzentPeter, has 170 people in it and 130 cows. There are about 130 people who are 40 years old and up, 29 people who are 15 years and younger, and one person between the ages of 16 and 25: ME! The village is situated in the Homorod valley on the one windy road that goes from village to village.”
I lived there for three months and apprenticed the minister in everything she did, which was very interesting because she was a fierce and powerful woman. Her vestments were a long, black, velvet cape with decorative tassels at the chest that said to the world in a serious tone, “Yes, I am, truly, a vampire.” She also could rip an apple in half with her bare hands, and did so daily. But really it was her perseverance and will that were so impressive. She was the first woman to be ordained in Transylvanian Unitarianism. It was only the power of her calling, and her own refusal to be shut down that got her through her ordination process.
This journal entry from a few weeks in:
“I am living with the six month pregnant village Minister, Kinga Reka Szekely in the Parsonage with her husband, Csabi (pronounced ‘Chubby’), her one year old, kici Kinga, her two year old, Csabika, and her 5 year old, Kende, who is named after the religious leader of the Huns, (the Hungarians). I am in charge of the children a lot while Kinga works. It is not easy to look after three screaming and CRAZY toddlers when all you can say is, ‘God Bless You,’ and ‘I’d like ten eggs please.'”
And that brings me to my next point: my trip to Transylvania was important to me because I hadn’t ever engaged in deep relationships with anyone outside of the US. It was very different than being a tourist. I was brethren, after all, living in people’s homes, caring for children, going to church, watching and engaging in all of life. I feel that it is especially important to engage in relationships with people who are different than you. I believe that it is a religious imperative. Because it’s important to get outside of what you know. And to meet someone half-way between what they know and what you know. It should be a pleasure to be different from one another, and to yet be in a mutual partnership. And, let’s be honest, it’s humbling.
Here is another journal entry.
“I am pretty much the funniest thing anyone has ever seen here. I have funny shoes, funny pants, funny shirts, funny glasses, funny haircut, funny habits…the list goes on. I do lots of silly things, too. For example, I was going around saying what I thought was ‘how are you’ to every one, but really I was saying, ‘Nylon sack.’ (Example of my morning greeting: ‘And a hearty Nylon Saaa-aaack! to you, too, Mrs. Mate!’)”
But I was not just uncomfortable and awkward. I also felt a deep peace and connection. I felt such a sense of community and order to the world, perhaps because the society was smaller, and functioned so smoothly, or because of how simple and non-verbal my communication was.
It was amazing to go into the Unitarian Church and feel that it was a safe space for me. It was like going on a trip in the US and stopping by the local UU church: it’s not your church, but it is a familiar space – a space that was created by people who are your people. People who believe in the things you believe in, people who are living their lives according to values that you share.
But it is a messy business, this “being an American traveling abroad to a bucolic subsistence farming village in rural eastern Europe.” I’m afraid we Americans have a propensity to romanticize other cultures, especially when they seem to be from a time gone past. But the truth is, we’re all in this together. It would easy to go to the village and see such beauty and crafts and community and hospitality, and think, “this is such a picturesque way of life, I’m just here for a vacation.” But we are all struggling to adjust to the 21st century, dealing with the problems of our societies, and trying to live deeper into our religious values.
These are entries from the latter part of my stay.
“I’ve been learning more about this places’ history. Mostly incredible amounts about the communist dictatorship and what their lives were like. I am very affected by their stories: the fear of being imprisoned, the distrust of spying neighbors, starving, the plans for this village to be turned into a concentration camp or flooded without warning, parents teaching their children Unitarian hymns in secret whispers at night….
“And, there are nomadic gypsies, called Cigan (tz-ee-gone), that travel through the town. Everyone is terrorized by them, running around and screaming. I’m told that they smell, and steal and bully the people in the fields. I am not sure how to take this information.
“The sugar coated Transylvania is disappearing from my mind. That is not to say that I don’t love it here: there are many beautiful things…but along with them there is poverty, alcoholism, incredibly hard lives for women (who are discouraged from independence and social leadership), pathologies in the Unitarius hierarchy and sexism in the seminary, and not to mention that if there WERE drinking fountains, there’d be separate ones marked, ‘Gypsies only’…”
But this is normal stuff. So often when we think of our partner churches, we think of something that is simple and pure, when really, no culture is free of oppression. Our partner churches are trying to live into their religious values, too…trying to deal with their histories and current predicaments, just like us. It was actually helpful for me see another culture struggle to change with the times, and struggle to figure out how to do the right thing. It was good for me to see how another group of people keeps themselves tied to hope and love and faith, despite this giant mess of a world we live in. It was good to think about the phenomenon of poverty on a global scale, good to think about how our religions can transform with the times, good to understand just how linked our economic systems are, across the globe.
I believe that this cross-cultural social analysis and theological reflection is one of the most powerful and concrete things about this partnership relationship.
I so often and happily reflect on the many places, moments, and relationships that provided me with beauty in Transylvania. One of my most precious moments came from an unlikely source: from an 8 year old girl. Her name is Bogi, short for Boglarka, and, interestingly, she was actually my closest relationship there. I think my friendship with her was possible because she had the patience to communicate with me in a real way. Not that I didn’t connect and appreciate the time I spent with others, but Bogi, I think, is a very special person, and I saw how intelligent and thoughtful she was, even as a child. Plus, she was basically the closest person to me in age!
This from my journal:
“I spent all day yesterday picking wildflowers with Bogi, my favorite 8 year old playmate. There are none of those ‘pick only if there are nine left in a square foot’ laws like I grew up with, obviously, so we pick whatever we can find…which includes people’s flowers from their gardens, which are up for grabs apparently. Maybe just for Bogi and me…who knows. We brought them to the graveyard for Bogi’s grandpa’s grave and sat there quietly, the gulf of language between us, as she played with the grass near his marker. We sat there for a long while, both of us looking at the sky, at the over-grown stones, and finally we got up and picked more flowers on the way back. There must have been 25 different types of flowers just between the house and the cemetery.”
In closing, I will say that my time in Transylvania can be summed up by this one afternoon of homage. This grave site visit was a true learning experience that profoundly changed me. I learned from this small child about how to care for a grave – how to honor our ancestors, how to take the time to just go, perform a ritual, make beauty, incorporate play, and spend time. I am not sure that my culture would have ever taught me how to spend lovely and comfortable time at a grave. In other words: In Transylvania I learned how to think globally, how to live a slower life, how to love across difference, how to live through awkwardness, and, most importantly, how to be a more integrious religious person.