I suppose that we can never say we truly know another person; sometimes it’s hard to understand ourselves much less the heart and mind of someone else. In a way, I cannot say that I knew Denes Fulop. But I would like to introduce the man I met in 2003, embedded in his family, community, and culture.
When I first met Denes Fulop he was ending his career as a Reformed pastor in the Reformed church in Marosvasarhely/Targu Mures, Romania. He was born in 1931 in Alsofalva, a Hungarian village in Transylvania. His was a peasant family that worked hard from dawn to dusk every week, but honored the Sunday rhythms of rest and worship. Not long after Denes had begun his work as a pastor, innocent, though perhaps naïve student activities from years before came back to haunt him and resulted in his arrest, interrogation and trial. Labeled an enemy of the state, he was sentenced to ten years in a Soviet style labor camp. Denes died in 2005, just two years after we interviewed him.
One of the first qualities I noticed was an absence of the smug, self-importance that seems to define some pastors even today. How could I know it so quickly? When the June interview was over, Denes organized lunch for the crew and made sure the table was ready. It was clear that he did not view his wife as household help.
Also apparent was Denes’s love for language and literature. The book, Crime and Punishment, shaped his early thinking about life and the human condition. He understood Raskolnikov’s stubborn pride and recognized Sonya’s redemptive love. Here’s how he described its effect:
“It (Crime and Punishment) made me wonder about the world we were living in. Maybe for a year after this, or more, I couldn’t read any other book. It encompassed the world of human characters and emotions both good and bad. I could read all of human experience within that story, its suffering and trials. And most important for me, in spite of all their sins and crimes, they could stand and beg for mercy. Raskolnikov finally arrived at a point where he confessed and could start something new – on the basis of forgiveness.
By these actions Sonya and Raskolnikov show humankind the genuinely good path to follow. This is true for everyone, because human nature is very much filled with errors, faults, and sin, around us and within us. From these we should step back and start over, make a new beginning. It’s important for me personally to confess my sins and beg for mercy. We are not without sin; we are not perfect. All the forgiveness and all the healing, a new beginning, are possible because of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.
After Pentecost, the disciples, moved by the Holy, spread out, lacking confidence, hesitant, and unsure of the future. When through the power of the Holy Spirit emotion, rational understanding, and will come together, rebirth and change happen. Everyone may be reborn. I believe that this Latin saying, semper reformari debit (always reforming), is true for the church and also for individuals. The reformation is not just a historical event, but a continuous act. This is the essence of my theological understanding of life.
Some years later when I was a prisoner, I walked on Raskolnikov’s path. I didn’t kill anyone, but in prison, my spirit followed the path of doubt, and I had to restart my life.”
Denes gave other clues to his character, but I didn’t always catch them right away. As he was introducing himself, he mentioned that only one of his relatives, Sandor Biro, had made a name for himself in academia. Biro had written a well-known book describing relations between Romanians and Hungarians. At first, I wondered why Denes had offered this bit of apparently extraneous information. Later I learned that Professor Biro had suggested that problems between the two opposing groups could only be settled by understanding and honest talk. What has this to do with Denes? After the collapse of the communist regime, Denes put Biro’s words into action when he helped calm a violent confrontation between Hungarians and Romanians.
I think that Denes didn’t want us to idealize him and his literary tendencies because near the end of the interview, he said he needed to revisit the Crime and Punishment story and had a confession. “It happened,” he said, “that in the high school dormitory we had breakfast with the students of the teacher training school, a place well-populated with young women. Of course, we watched them, and once I saw a round-faced girl with a nice ponytail and rosy cheeks – very good looking. I asked who she was and learned that she worked in the library. So, of course, I visited the library. It was busy; lots of students were returning books. I stood there looking, and she brusquely asked what I wanted. Feeling a bit awkward, I mumbled that I wanted a book. Crime and Punishment was just lying there and she shoved it toward me. I took it. So really, I did not choose that book.” Coming stories reveal an honest, humane, and humble man of God.