Having visited Romania a couple of times, and talked to a number of Romanians when in Hungary for the ELF, I had heard amazing stories of what Christians did during the dark days of the Ceauşescu regime. So I thought it was time to share a few.
Pastoral training … incognito in the shadows
I’m acutely aware of how great my privilege is to be able to travel and spend time with people in ministry across Eastern Europe – training, encouraging, getting alongside (quite apart from learning tons myself). And what’s more, it is all very straightforward and relatively stress-free. I hop on a plane, walk into these countries without a visa, and go about my business. But it wouldn’t have been like that 20 years ago. While in Hungary I had the joy of getting to know, and hear the story of, a Romanian American. He has lived in the US since 1982, when he managed to emigrate in his early 20s.
The eagle-eyed will have realised that this was of course 7 years before the end of Communism – things were bleak and very tough for Romanian Christians, not to mention everyone else. Because Romania needed trade with the USA, they agreed a quota of emigrants (in most eastern european, the thought of leaving was out of the question). My friend was one of the very fortunate few. But what is remarkable is that he was able to do this despite some of the things he was involved in. For he used to be an interpreter for english-speaking pastoral trainers who came to his town.
The circumstances of this training were remarkable, and exceptionally dangerous for everyone involved. Somehow, the handful of Christians in the town would be sent word that a trainer was coming. They were just told a time to meet him at the railway station. My friend would go and pick him up (you could tell a westerner a mile off in a crowd), take him to someone’s flat, where 3 or 4 Christian leaders would be waiting. The trainer would stay a couple of hours, train, and then leave. They never knew his name. They never knew where he lived. They never knew where he was going on. My friend only knew that there was a group of people like this (he thinks they were American and British) probably based out of Vienna. Every single person was taking immense risks just to be in the room. But such was the commitment of all of them to get training for ministry.
And Romania today has between half and a million evangelical protestants – out of a total population of 20 million. Extraordinary fruit from a very small, risky but hugely important work.
An irrational fear of the bible?
During the Hungary conference, we heard an address from a dynamic Romanian pastor who related some of his experiences as a young border / customs guard in the dying days of Ceaucescu’s regime. He had a Christian background, but wasn’t a believer at that stage. His colleagues would tell stories about the sorts of things they used to get up to, especially when it came to intimidating westerners trying to travel into the country. One thing they said hit home for him: they would talk about how they were mainly on the search for three things: GUNS, DRUGS & BIBLES.
Now, he could understand why guns were banned – their power was obvious. Drugs were obviously a very destructive and negative influence. But bibles? He’d been taught in school that God didn’t exist and the Bible was a collection of made up fairy-tales. If that was the case, then why make such a big deal of it? If it really was nonsense, surely people would read it and simply dismiss it for what it clearly was? But it was clear that the regime was very afraid of the threat posed by bibles. So they were banned.
And this was what, ironically enough, led to this speaker deciding there might be something to the Bible after all – he read one, and came to faith in God. So perhaps they were right to try to ban them after all…!
I’ve been to Romania a couple of times – and I well remember one friend who is now himself a pastor, describing what life was like for his father – he remained a pastor for many years under Communism. I was very surprised to hear it, because i assumed such jobs would have been practically impossible full-time, let alone legal – but it seems that the church was able to pay his salary. This friend’s comment was simply that there was so little in the shops for people to buy anyway, they were easily able to give their church enough to support a full-time minister.
But of course there were snags. For one, each Romanian worker needed papers to allow him or her to work in a particular town. If you moved town for whatever reason, you had to apply from the local council for new papers – or face a fine. or worse. But when this pastor was called by the church to lead them, it entailed moving away from his home area. But the new local council refused to give him the papers. Which resulted in trip to the council to pay the fine every Monday morning – for the next 20 years… The church gave him the funds to pay it each week, simply taking it on as one of the expenses of having him as their pastor.
What strikes me about this is the sheer maliciousness and petty mindedness of it. So pointless but still mildly intimidating – just a drip drip, wearing down of the marginalised. It could have been much worse of course. And no doubt there were other moments of genuine fear and cruelty. But this epitomised the absurdity of what they were trying to do.
All these people are an inspiration – because they illustrate how, in adverse circumstances, believers can survive… and even thrive.