Ever since his release from prison in 1964, Denes had been bombarding the bishop with his desire to be a pastor again. In spite of the stigma of being labeled an enemy of the state,Denes was finally offered a position in the small village of Geges. Here is the story that Ilona Fulop told me.
The Reformed church in Geges had been torn by a conflict that began when a previous pastor had angered some of his parishioners. Denes knew that it would be a challenge, but was surprised by conditions in the village. The church building was neglected, the garden overgrown, and he had to share the manse with the mice still feasting on the kernels remaining from the days when it was used for grain storage.
The people from both sides watched and waited, eager to hear this latest lamb preach to determine whether, like the string of previous pastors, he was ready for slaughter. His first sermon surprised and confused them. Denes noted that the garden was filled with weeds and thorns, the gate broken, and the church building neglected. He invited anyone who wished to help repair the church and clean the garden to join him the next day. And with that invitation, the sermon was over. Evidently it was the right thing to say. Along with several others, Ilona took up the challenge and appeared the next day to help. It was the beginning of a long partnership.
When Fulop Denes came to Geges, he was already 35 years old. So, the whole village was scandalized when they realized that their young Ilona and the pastor were falling in love. The wise ones in the village warned her that a marriage to a pastor, especially a former political prisoner, would be a social and economic catastrophe. It meant that she could look forward to constant surveillance and harassment. Love won, and they formed a team that continued strong until Denes died in 2005.
Its strength was soon to be tested, because within hours of their wedding, Ilona was informed that she was no longer a suitable teacher or role model for the village children. She was brokenhearted over the loss of a job that she loved, so Denes promised to bring the children to her. On the very next Saturday, the young children came to the church. When Ilona asked them if they knew about Jesus, they answered as if they were a choir, “No, we don’t know anything!”
The congregation was preparing for a special celebration, so Ilona taught the children poems, songs, and Genevan psalms. Their favorites were 23 and 42. The children invited their parents to the program, and eventually into the church. Whenever Ilona goes back to the village, many of the now adults remind her of the days when she was their first church-school teacher.
Geges was an isolated village far from any main road and had few resources: no library and no doctor. Soon the villagers began to come to the manse for advice for minor medical problems or trouble with the state security forces. One day the problem was not minor. A cry from the field told all. Erzsebet, the wife of one of the communist functionaries, had fallen into a grain cutter and it had sheared off her legs nearly to her hips. When Ilona arrived, blood was spurting nearly two meters, and there was no rope or twine around. So Ilona quickly twisted some tall grasses, improvising a makeshift tourniquet. The bleeding stopped and Erzebet survived. She lived for 20 more years. Some of the villagers asked why Ilona and Denes bothered to save the wife of the communist official they all despised. For Ilona there was no question.
It seems that Erzebet’s husband was the main actor in the destruction of the village’s only library, the private and precious collection of an elderly retired teacher. Zealous in the pursuit of party rules and eager to please the securitate officers, her husband had obediently complied with the edict to burn the books. He carried all the teacher’s books out to the garden, poured oil all over them, and set them on fire. Made of fine materials, the books resisted. It took two weeks for him to finish the job. A few of the books were rescued in late-night sorties by courageous book lovers, but most perished. This event remained in the collective memory of the villagers.
Life was difficult for everyone including a pastor’s family; everyone was poor and pastors received little or no salaries. Every summer her family planted a large garden with many vegetables, and the fruit trees produced enough for canning and for jam. God made provision for them, she said, even in this difficult setting. Ilona put her educational goals on hold when their children came along: Zsuzsa in 1967, Denes in 1968, Andras in 1971, and Miklos in 1973. Although Ilona never received a degree in medicine, she continued to be available for village medical needs and along the way learned many folk remedies for common village ailments.