Reflections from Transylvania

In early July, eight members of our youth group and two adult mentors spent 10 days in Transylvania, Romania. They learned about the Unitarian heritage of that Hungarian-speaking area of the country, and spent time in the village of Homoródkarácsonyfalva, where our partner church is located.  On July 27, a service was led by the youth where three reflections on their experience was shared (click here to see those).  Here are three more reflections from today's service:

 

From Elizabeth Cappello:

It was raining. A lot. The streets of Deva, Transylvania were quiet and empty but for a few stray dogs and teenagers. We were walking in the middle of a long, cobbled road, soaked to the skin. Slipping on the wet stones, smiling at nothing. And everything.

We were on our way to Deva Center to see a musical fountain, built by an unsuccessful mayoral candidate in the hopes of securing votes for his campaign. He didn't win, but the fountain is still a pretty cool legacy. It's lit by hundreds of tiny lights, blinking on and off in a rainbow of colors, accompanied by a musical soundtrack. The combination of twinkling lights, outdated American pop music, the serpentine flux and spray of water, and plentiful rain made for a magic show for the senses.

The fountain competes for attention with the Casa de Cultura at whose feet it sits. This imposing building was erected under the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. The modern fountain and the Casa de Cultura are in clear opposition with one another. But this kind of juxtaposition is everywhere in Romania, where the physical remnants of the country's 40+ years under Communist rule are inescapable. Huge apartment buildings meant to house factory workers brought in from area villages surround cities like Deva, like formidable sentries. They cast long shadows on 11th-century cathedrals, sitting next to memorials for children killed during the rebellion in 1989. It's a land of contrast--old and new, oppression and rebellion, hope and despair.

Standing in the fountain that night, I was cloaked by a veil of water and tears. I was more content than I can ever remember being, acutely aware of every step of the journey which had led to this one shimmering moment. This trip was my first time leaving the country, and every day was proving to be an adventure in itself. On this one magical night, my past, present and future all came together like never before. Pure emotion shook my entire body like lightning, conducted by the fountain's baptismal water. Younger and older versions of myself danced in the fountain, while the present me stood perfectly still, a great calm rushing through my veins.

Apart from Karacsonyfalva, I felt closest to our Unitarian roots in Deva. Up above the city lights, nestled in the ruins of a 13th century medieval fortress that sits atop a volcanic hill, lies the Francis David Memorial. As the founder of the Unitarian Church of Transylvania, he's a very physical representation of everything spiritual that I've come to identify with. I grew up in a Methodist church, and felt very much at home being surrounded by Christian Unitarianism. I sort of found what I've been looking for these past few years, and our system of faith suddenly felt larger than life. I loved every second of it. This trip was the most eye opening experience of my life so far.

Transylvania. I wasn't really prepared for how it would make me feel. Like anyone embarking on their first journey away from all that is familiar, I couldn't have known that I would be jolted into such awareness. Sitting on the bus for hours as we toured the country, I watched as we passed hundreds of empty and abandoned houses--evidence of a country where young people are leaving in droves for better opportunities elsewhere. Another paradox. The novel experiences that drew me outside of myself for the first time, are the same ones motivating youth to leave this beautiful, imperfect country.

For me, this was the beginning of something very important. I found serenity amidst a culture I was just beginning to understand. In that wet and glistening moment standing in Deva's fountain, I became sure of one thing--I want to spend the rest of my life searching out the human experiences that draw us together, so that I might bridge the distances--physical, historical, and cultural--that keep us apart. If I believe in anything, it's the power of travel and, my favorite Unitarian principle, respect for the interconnected web of existence of which we are a part.

From Grace Findlen-Golden:

Francis David/ Deva Fortress
During the group's second day in Deva, we took a (tele-gondola) ride to a fortress up in the mountains. In a small cell within the timeworn walls, a stone memorial read, "The founder and first bishop of the Unitarian church was martyred in the prison of this castle," underneath the name David Ferenc, or the English: Francis David.

In the 16th century, Francis David worked as a preacher and an advisor to the Hungarian king during a time of great debate about Christian doctrine. He believed in the "unity of God" as opposed to the Holy Trinity and questioned other popular understandings of the church's creed. When David preached these ideas, he was ordered to stop under the rule of a new king, but he refused and was arrested for being an "innovator." He then passed away in the fortress at Deva.

Before we entered the cell, our guide, Csilla, took a moment to explain the beliefs of Unitarians in Transylvania—the ideas that this man had stood by through his death. She said that they believe that the Bible is a book written by people, that it contains important lessons but is not the word of God. They believe that Jesus was a man in history who had great wisdom and teachings, but he was simply a person. They believe that God is one entity, but that each person finds God in their own way and on their own path.

In this congregation alone, we have a multitude of perspectives and understandings of what is true. But I think that the things we do agree on, and the fact that we are each able to figure out our own beliefs within this one community, resonate with the ideas of Transylvanian Unitarianism and with that which Francis David fought for.

I have been a part of Unitarian Universalist communities throughout my entire life. I have been encouraged to explore my own beliefs and I have learned to honor the truths of others. I think it becomes easy to take that for granted sometimes. Before that day at the fortress, I had never heard of a Unitarian "martyr," and I had not personally encountered many UU's who had to fight to practice their faith or defend their right to have their own beliefs. I feel very fortunate because of that. Reflecting upon the history of Unitarians in Transylvania and the persecution that they have faced gave me a stronger appreciation for the freedom I have had to go on an individual spiritual journey and the support I have had in doing so throughout my life.

That day, I gained a greater understanding of what Unitarianism means to many of those in our partner as well as what it means to me as an individual, and I am incredibly grateful for that experience.

From Sarah Bloomgarden:

For eleven days this past August, eight members of our Youth Group, the fantastic and fun-loving Kate Kruckemeyer, and the incredible and insightful Laurel Foster-Moore travelled to our sister church in Homorodkaracsonyfalva, Transylvania, which as you know is part of current day Romania. We shared an amazing journey together, for each of us it shared a special meaning, which we would like to share with you today.

For me the first barrier was language. We wouldn't be able to even understand each other, so I thought we were different. How could we even learn about each other without common words? I immediately downloaded my Hungarian language app to try to learn enough for small conversations, but I wasn't sure how far "Egesegedre", which means Cheers! would get me as a 16-year-old well-chaperoned church traveller.

The second barrier to finding common ground was distance. It isn't possible, I thought, that anyone 4,500 miles away could be anything like me. To be honest, I imagined a village of poor farmers with little access to electronics. The third barrier was culture. With such a different lifestyle and way of things, I thought I wouldn't see one familiar thing once the plane left ground from New York.

I have not travelled outside of North America since I was five. Of course, my preconceptions were absurd and they almost stood in the way of me taking this experience as an opportunity to truly understand what it is to be human.

When I first arrived in Transylvania, there were many differences I noticed. While we might go to the movies and eat fistfuls of popcorn and candy bars, our Transylvanian friends go on tractor rides to picnic next to bat caves. While we wait twenty minutes for pizza or chinese food to arrive at our doorstep, they spend a whole day baking seven loaves of bread for the week. While we have cats, dogs, and hamsters, they have cows, horses, and chickens.

And yet their small village is brimming with the similarities that all humans share.

One of our days in the village was spent visiting all of the children's homes and seeing their farm animals. At one of the homes there was a little toddler sitting on a tractor honking the horn and laughing. His laugh was contagious, and the scene reminded me of when I play with the children downstairs during childcare; children's inherent fascination with the littlest joys.

Another example of where I felt common ground happened on our last day. As we bid our farewells and prepared for our departure from Homorodkaracsonyfalva, our Transylvanian friend Agnes shared some unfortunate news. She received that day in the mail results of her exam grades, and was devastated about one of her grades. Any college-bound student at Hamp High could relate to that feeling and we all felt very empathetic with our new friend at that moment. Fortunately, later on we discovered it had been a mistake, and Agnes actually had passed all of her exams. She began University this fall. Nevertheless on that day we were worried for our friend's future, and perhaps for our own. Here we were, leaving a village on a dirt road, and Agnes was going through the exact same distress so familiar to my fellow travellers and me.

So as we traveled that dirt road with its potholes and bumps scattered throughout, (which is yet another similarity Northampton shares with Transylvania) I began to reflect on all that I had learned.

Their Unitarian church has a steeple and a bell, while we have marble columns. We have 19th century Tiffany stained glass, while they have 14th and 15th century frescoes. Both churches have organs (although we have Greg!) They have blue pews, and we have white.

But as I listened to their minister, Mihaly's sermon, I could have been sitting down there with you on any given Sunday. Our message is so akin, so unified. Mihaly spoke about the universal language of love, and about the apprehensive yet earnest nature of the relationship between our two churches. He told a story about a bunny and a squirrel. It was the squirrel's first winter, so when it saw the snow, it was scared. The bunny kept telling it to come, so finally the squirrel came, and it turned out just fine. The hospitality we experienced from Homorodkaracsonyfalva was just as genuine as that bunny helping the squirrel step onto the foreign land of snow.

The cultures in our world are innumerable; each and every one should be celebrated for their worth. Yet we must also celebrate the similarity of all people; the culture of humans.

We are different, but we are also the same. As I stand here on the pulpit now speaking, I see in your faces, in your lives, the faces and the lives of friends from our sister church. Because that is who they are; our sisters and our brothers.

 

Poem by David Banta-Garcia:

The Fountain of the Youth

The lord, the teachings and the book are a given, but the answers are not
The belief in faith and hope is prominent, but seldom followed
Life as precious as the stray animal serves a purpose greater than all
Yet the young is weak and the old lost
The meaning of life and purpose of living only exists in ourselves
And discovered through others like us and places of our own regard
It flows, it rises, it falls, like an active fountain
It repeats day and night, and never lets down, sitting upon social grounds
Touched by its waters, we all smiled, the songs it sang, we all danced,
and it brightened up the world on such a rainy, yet silent night.
To say it found light in the dark and knew its place, sharing its compelling nature to us all
Yet its signs are unclearly visible to the eyes, like the world among us
For a moment, it felt like great power and then it was all gone
Yet a night like this is to remember by new songs and new people
We met two new youth and shared many interests, they were just like us
Wisdom comes to us in many forms and reflect upon the created past of happiness
All we learned and how we achieved it and what remains all summed up in a simple foundation
A glowing show, a free song of life, an alternate fountain of youth