A New Direction
Each encounter and each new image of communism’s grinding reality in Ukraine resurrected memories of my father’s belief that for social/economic management, communism was disastrous. As our time there was coming to an end, I wondered what had led to the conditions we were seeing. What was I missing? I was ready to go home and had no idea what was next in store for me. Then the way to the airport, Janos asked whether I would consider acting as Ars Longa’s representative in North America. Moved by the faith of Daniel Szabo, swayed by Ars Longa’s vision of rebuilding their broken society, and touched by their gentle way with gypsy children, I was drawn to their offer. I wondered at times why I was asked and speculated as to how many others had turned them down. Nonetheless, after discussing the possibilities when I got home, I joined the Ars Longa efforts on behalf of the Reformed high schools and the Roma children in sub-Carpathia, Ukraine.
Seeing but not understanding
The following fall I accompanied a mission group from Michigan who wanted to visit the schools and other church-related projects that Ars Longa supported. It was assumed, I think, that I was to smooth communication between the Hungarians and the Americans. Only later did I realize that the trip served to continue my education. It didn’t take long for us to discover that American directness didn’t go very far. This group, too, was shocked by the conditions in the Ukraine and Romania and genuinely wanted to know more. In typical American style, they asked direct questions, fully expecting to hear straight answers. Instead, they were introduced to a style of discourse rooted in years of Communist control. I call it evasion conversation.
Church leaders and ordinary farmers dodged commonplace questions that at home would have been candidly asked and answered. People were afraid to say what they thought. It was both puzzling and disconcerting. I wondered where this dialog style had come from and heard this from Janos. “During the days of the dictatorship, the truth was only told between four ears,” meaning that after 40 or more years of surveillance and oppression, fear trumped truth-telling. Later, Istvan Gyori, a dean of the Sarospatak Reformed Seminary, would tell me that it would surely take at least forty more years to erase such embedded patterns. Freedom of thought and freedom of expression are fragile and once broken are not easily repaired.
For the next three years, as an American contact for the Ars Longa Foundation, I traveled to Romania, Ukraine, and Croatia as well as to Hungary. I participated as an English teacher and part-time cook in summer camps held for gypsy children and young people in Baranya County, Hungary. I also visited weavers in sub-Carpathia, Ukraine and tried, unsuccessfully, to find a market in Michigan for their woven rugs. And I worshipped in Hungarian Reformed churches throughout the region. I recognized some similarities, noted differences, and wondered how much I shared with these Reformed Christians.
Who and What is the Ars Longa Foundation?
The Ars Longa Foundation was established in 1992 to identify issues and needs in the Christian churches and communities of East Central Europe and to address these concerns from a Reformed perspective. In visits to fringe Reformed communities in Ukraine, Romania and Croatia, the founders of Ars Longa recognized that a spiritual poverty underscored the other problems they had uncovered. Through the foundation’s work they joined other Reformed Christians working to alleviate the conditions among the people living at the margins. Janos Erdos and David Pandy-szekeres continue to direct and coordinate this foundation's work.