The Formation of a Preacher's Kid
During my first visit to Ukraine in 1998, I met Daniel Szabo, a man who seemed to have endless and boundless energy. He traveled on behalf of the Christian schools just returning to life after the devastation of the communist years. One highlight of a later trip was an invitation to have lunch with him at the Pannonia Hotel, his place of employment during most of the previous era. It surprised me that this articulate, intelligent man had spent his life working at a hotel. It may have been a job, but it wasn’t his calling. I learned that he had made countless clandestine and dangerous forays into the Ukraine, Romania, and Slovakia during the dictatorship days. I was eager to hear the rest of his story.
Daniel was born around 1923, the time when most Hungarians were mourning the ravages of World War I and the treaty made at Trianon in 1920. His father was a Reformed pastor in the village where Daniel was born. His mother had left her work as a deaconess when she married, but both of his parents modeled a life of caring.
The Meaning of the Gospel
“My father was a pastor, and he was from a peasant family. I think it is important to mention that in the 20th century, many of Hungary’s clergy came from peasant families because seminary training offered the opportunity to climb in society. This, too, was a part of the heritage of the Reformed church. This heritage remained not only within the honorable Hungarian national tradition that emphasizes political freedom, but also contained – one could see and feel – the strength of the Gospel.
Wanting to expand his horizons, my father studied abroad, traveling to England where he encountered the Gospel's social implications. He brought a strong social conscience back to Hungary and began to assume responsibility for peripheral groups within society, demonstrating a strong sense of responsibility for the nation. For him, evangelization did not deal only with questions of personal faith; he searched for the benefits the Gospel brings to the whole of society. In my father’s view, evangelical service, preaching and spreading the gospel, were absolutely inseparable from the social part of his work. There was no separation between the two.
My mother’s calling was to heal and serve within her small, local community. As an orphan child, she had been sent to live at the Debrecen Diakonal Center where the director and his wife took her in and raised her together with their seven – or eight – children. Being an orphan helped her empathize with the troubles of others; she was called to help the helpless and often worked in the slums in Debrecen. Later she became the diakonal assistant of Imre Revesz who was the pastor in the big church in Debrecen at that time. It was a great thing for my father that he married my mother, a diakonisa who was working in the church outreach center in Debrecen.
I remember that our yard was transformed into a playground, and we welcomed anyone from the village. Whoever came had to play together with the others. Elite children played with working class kids, young proletarians from the cement factory, the whitewash factory, and from the slums surrounding these factories. The manse's yard became the home to a large and mixed community. Maybe I can mention here that there were years when my father turned over all the produce from his grandfather's farm in Nyekladhaza to use for our visitors and guests. During the years of the Great Depression, even through 1936 and 1937, more than a hundred people ate at the manse each day. I was young at that time, but I remember the whole garden filled up with children eating lunch together around rough board tables set up in the garden.
Our life during WWII was very similar to this. We were forced to move out of the manse, but still managed to help many escaped prisoners to stay alive. Some were members of the anti-Nazi resistance movement who had been rescued from prison and thus escaped death sentences. They were rescued through the back door of the prison with cooperation of a high level prison official, but because they often had no place to hide, they too joined our family. To escape detection, some of them sat in a corner in our home, disguised in clerical robes as needy old pastors studying the Bible.
I remember Gyorgy Schoenfeld, a young Jewish boy, the son of a diplomat, whose care was my responsibility. I had to bring him food and hide him. Though I was young at the time, I was proud that it was my personal responsibility. I had to keep the fire going in his room, and I made his bed. Although he spoke three languages and played the violin, he didn’t know how to do such menial things.
We always had a full house and it meant that we never alone at home with just the family; we were always with a crowd of people. We welcomed refugees, hid Jews, and later, as times changed, we hid members of the clergy class. A pastor’s home – really, every Christian’s home – always ought to be open. This is how I remember it; anyone could have some space in our home. It is a sacred heritage and vision for me. This is how our congregation became our family and how our family made a home for our congregation. It was how we endured during the hard times and how we passed the Gospel along to others.
I think that I have already told you more than a brief sketch would require. Because five of the six of us children chose the seminary in the face of the hard conditions and harsh opposition, many people thought that our family was a bit absent-minded or slow-witted. In spite of the difficulties, we all knew that God had shown us this path.”
The Renewal Movement
“I would like to mention here the important influence of the renewal movement in my family’s life. A revival movement took root between the two World Wars, and flourished, according to the will of God, during the many troubles after the Second World War. My father was a leader of this countrywide renewal movement, and his membership in Bethania, a Christian Endeavor branch in Hungary, caused problems for him later when Communist authorities wanted to defrock him. (To see more about CE in Hungary, check this out. http://www.worldsceunion.org/files/CE-Europe.pdf)
My father really had a charismatic talent to spread the Gospel and traveled widely during this interwar period. With others he organized renewal meetings and conferences for the participants. They were times of searching and delving deeply into the message of the Word of God. Lay volunteers held youth meetings and provided the best example I have ever seen of lay participation in the life of the church.
Later, as a teenager after WWII, I was part of the renewal mission work. We took packets to poor people in town, and in this way we regularly cared for more than 100 people. These people and renewal experiences were all part of my heritage. Our community’s life together originated from and through them, and we developed a sensitivity that can only result from the presence of God.
My parents did not form a closed circle within their church; their ecclesia existed in the broader Reformed church community. Though the members stood on different spiritual levels – some were praying, others breaking stones in a mine – this was one body whose different members formed a common spiritual community, and any one member could inspire the others. They were going in the same direction spiritually and with the same perspective.
You must know that at this time, religion instruction classes, both in public schools and church schools as well as within congregations, were full and overflowing. Even for a short period after the nationalization of church institutions in 1948, students sang psalms so loudly in the schools that you could hear them from outside.
In the 1950s it was hard for the ruling leadership to put my father aside and get rid of him. My parents’ work with the poor, along with the effective social work of our congregation, was one of main obstacles to defrocking my father. In the new system of violence, many of those kids who formerly were at the bottom of society now assumed new, low-level administrative positions within the party, within state offices and departments. They were not fanatic communists but simply found themselves in such positions and went along with the flow. However, when the high level officials wanted to get rid of my father, some of the young, low-level administrators who had eaten at my parents’ table now defended and protected him. The high leadership of the party could hardly tolerate this condition, and so expelled those mild and tolerant, lower level officials, the ones who were defending my father. They became the new outcasts and so again became frequent visitors in our home.
People like my father were all intolerable in the new system where there was no middle ground; you had to be for the party, all or nothing. The state officials tried to ignore our earlier efforts for the poor and concentrated more on our behavior toward the system’s new “reactionary” outcasts. It was not the case, though, that we were taking a political stand; we were standing on the ground of the Gospel. We were not thinking about political movements, but about communities, persecuted people, poor people, needy situations, and our commitment to the Gospel. Though we had our view on political issues, as did our parents, we saw that God is the one who can judge people and communities. We did not identify ourselves with the political views of the persecuted people we served, nor did we make judgments about their lives. We identified with their suffering.”