I had the special opportunity to participate with members of my church in a Work and Witness trip to Kisvarda, Hungary. This was my first trip to Eastern Europe and it was overwhelming to meet brothers and sisters in Christ who are working to help a nation with such a rich heritage in both Catholic and Reformed Christianity emerge after several decades of dark struggle during the Nazi and Communist occupations.
In a way, the work of the church leaders in the former Eastern Bloc is like trying to rebuild a house shattered by a tornado, decades after the destruction took place. Certain parts of the house can be salvaged. Other parts must be discarded. New materials will have to be brought in for the rebuilding project, but thankfully the foundation of faith in Christ remains.
One unique privilege of this trip was the opportunity to spend time with Hungarians Imre and Maria Gusztin. This couple has been very significant in the founding of the work of the Church of the Nazarene in Hungary and they are currently serving as special assistants on the Hungary District.
Maria was raised in a parsonage with 11 brothers and sisters. Her father was a pastor in the Pentecostal Church and struggled to raise a family during the Communist era. Under Communism, believers were permitted to worship within the four walls of a church but they were not allowed to evangelize others. Strategically, political leaders attempted to choke Christianity's influence in the nation through intimidation and sanction.Maria's family faced several forms of persecution. Her father started a number of home groups in the northeast corridor of Hungary, which was a very dangerous thing to do. He was arrested several times but, by the grace of God, was never kept in jail longer than four days. An older sister was removed from her dormitory because she had shared her faith with a university friend. At the end of the semester when she went in for her oral examinations, several professors intimidated and belittled her in hopes that she would drop out of the university altogether.
Maria was a very gifted student, especially in languages. She speaks Hungarian, Russian, and English fluently, and reads New Testament Greek very well. In high school she won her school's Russian language award, which included the opportunity to represent the school in a Russian studies competition in St. Petersburg. The headmaster refused to allow her to represent the school because of her Christian faith. Her language teacher, a high ranking member in the communist party, came to her defense and urged the headmaster to reconsider because Maria had worked so hard to earn this honor. The headmaster refused and fired the teacher for defending her.
When she applied for university studies the application asked if she was a member of the Communist party. She checked "no" realizing that although many Christians and others opposed to Communist rule compromised in order to avoid persecution and trouble, she could not. To her surprise, the university accepted her. However, during her first semester when she went to get the necessary signatures from her professors stating that she had completed all the work required to sit for her final exams, one professor refused to sign because of Maria's Christian faith. She was forced to withdraw from school.
Maria and Imre met in the youth group at church and were married in 1988. They both experienced a call to ministry before being married. Communism ended in Hungary on October 23, 1989-the day that their only child, Rudolf, was born. Their first visitor at the hospital rushed in to tell them that the Hungarian system of government had officially changed. Imre and Maria consider Rudolf, now a budding concert violinist, their freedom child.
They held secular jobs for a time and began applying to theological seminaries and Bible colleges. Because they now were a family of three, they needed a school to offer them a full scholarship. Every school to which they applied denied their applications except one, European Nazarene College (EuNC). They attended EuNC from 1992 to 1996.This was their introduction to Wesleyan theology. They found themselves thirsting for a Christian tradition that believed in the development of the whole person, especially one that sought the shaping of a person's character in holiness. Quickly, they were drawn to this way of understanding the gospel and found the organization and support of the denomination encouraging.
Returning to Budapest, they took civil jobs again and with the assistance of a Nazarene volunteer couple, they began a Bible study there. The couple returned to the U.S. after a year. The Gusztins asked the denomination for another couple to help them in the work. That couple finally arrived this year-10 years later!
The Nazarene church in Hungary was essentially birthed when Imre and Maria's home Bible study group asked if it would be possible to visit a Nazarene church sometime. The Gusztins looked around and said, "Sure, you can visit one next week. We'll become one."The last 10 years have brought both high and low times in the development of the church in Hungary. Three of Maria's siblings are now sharing in the Nazarene ministry there. Our Work and Witness team helped construct a parsonage for her brother, Miklos Tulipan, and his family at the Kisvarda church.
The Hungary District was able to register with the state and hold its first official district assembly in 2000. Currently, there are four organized churches in Hungary and three preaching points. As in all new movements, they face the continual challenge of training leaders, calling ministers, and confronting a very secular culture that is being rapidly influenced by other religions.
While in Budapest, our team had the opportunity to visit the House of Terror, a museum built in the heart of the capital city in a building once set aside to interrogate those held in suspicion first by the Nazi party and then by the Communist party. In the basement, the cells and gallows have been left in tact with pictures on the walls of those who died there, many as a result of their faith in Christ. Those who stood strong in the House of Terror will be considered heroes for generations to come. But those who are now helping to rebuild the houses of worship-like Imre and Maria-are also heroes as they work to bring the Spirit's transformation in a land that was once the heart of Western Christianity.
T. Scott Daniels is pastor of First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena, California.