- Beth Lantinga
Honored Preacher - Country Parson
In this final chapter of Jozsef Berenyi’s story, he tells of the move to the little village of Bojt and its impact on his family. Obviously, he did not suffer the fate of pastors in Romania, but his story reflects the relentless pressure on the Christian church during communist days. As he concluded his story in our 2003 interview, Berenyi expressed hope that the movement of the Spirit would restore the church. Given our world today, I wonder whether he would express the same optimism.
I suppose it was possible to appeal against the judgment sending me out of the city, but I did not see much sense in doing that. Besides, I was also getting weary of the whole thing, and it was not only me but also our elders who were being interrogated by the police. Sometimes the police came to my home at night to threaten me. Once a policeman’s fist stopped only millimeters from my nose, but he didn’t touch me. He must have had good practice with the technique.
The experiences of others made it obvious that appealing against the judgment would have been futile. A friend of mine was removed from a church in another village because he invited the whole village, including the Party secretary, the president of the council, and the head of the Popular Front to attend the baptism of his fifth child. He was dismissed from his position, and his appeal to the Synod Court was unsuccessful. I knew that appealing my sentence made no sense, and I would have been lying if I had said that the relentless interrogation had not been hard on my nerves. It was then that my heart problems started. At first I did not understand why the physician called it “Leningrad hypertension.” Later I understood.
Together my wife and I decided now that we had an official decree, we were to obey the authorities and comply with the order to go to Bojt. However, it was God’s miracle that no matter how isolated the village, and no matter how hard the circumstances, the congregation got to love us from the very first day and not just the congregation, the whole village welcomed us.
It was hard, though, to move with five little children from a seven-room urban Debrecen parsonage to a three-room mouse-nest in Bojt. It was a tumble-down 200 year-old adobe house, and I’m not exaggerating. There really were hundreds of mice waiting for us. This was in 1958. There was no electricity and no water. With a herniated disk in my back, I carried water from a 150-200-meter distance. Later on, for almost two decades, I provided for our daily bread with heavy work from spring to autumn in the church garden. My predecessor had six children, and he, too, ran the small farm; he ploughed and sowed. But his career led upwards after 1956. My family’s path took the opposite direction.
The reach of the secret police extended into the small village of Bojt. Like local thieves and prostitutes, I was required to register each week with the police authority, and our family was not allowed to have guests in our home. Each night we went to bed not knowing whether there would be midnight visits by the secret police, terrifying the children with the sound of their heavy boots, loud, harsh voices, and their implacable blinding lights. Even though I suffered long-term physical effects from the hard days in Bojt, the interrogation in Debrecen was more terrifying.
The Decline of the Reformed Churches
The end of the 1950s brought a change in church life as well as in our family life. During the early 1950s, the churches were full in the in spite of the repression. It was a miracle of the Holy Spirit. But between 1957 and 1965, Prime Minister Kadar used his power to terrorize the whole country. That is why the Hungarian peasants, like sheep, entered the cooperatives even in a small village like Bojt where even I, the minister, was beaten until I was covered with blood – not to mention what happened to those peasants who were members of the Revolution Commission in 1956. Thus within a few years people were overcome with such fear that they became afraid, and distant from each other, and church attendance began to decline.
In most of the Reformed congregations, members who truly understood the Word of God stopped attending. Many said that they didn’t go to church to hear the same things from their so-called pastors that they heard in party meetings and read in official church newspapers. So why go to church? So, many Reformed members who were touched by the revival movement left for smaller denominations. Baptist, Methodist, and Free Christian communities multiplied. People joined these communities because they were hated in their own Reformed churches, and often subjected to political rants from Sunday to Sunday. Thus, touched by the revival movement there was no time for them for being strengthened in the Reformed faith; the time of teaching that should have followed the revival was missing for them. So after a while, the Reformed churches emptied out. There was an enormous decline from which the church still has not recovered. I am not saying that nothing is happening today; I think that now the hearts of the children and the young are being moved by the Spirit. There are some signs of hope.”
From his story it was clear that Berenyi’s pastoral work and family life had been diminished by the Soviet style Hungarian regime. But it was harder for me to hear of the collaboration of Reformed church leaders with the communist party and their betrayal of him and others. In the next post his daughter, Ilona Racsok, reflects on her life in Bojt.