My story grows out of a period of dramatic change in Eastern Europe.
At the time, it had become fashionable to call every change, no matter how insignificant, a paradigm shift. But in Eastern Europe, the changes that took place in the last half of the 1980s were truly and exactly that. It was Winston Churchill in 1946 who first defined the demarcations of not just Europe but, in a sense, the whole world when he intoned that an iron curtain had descended across Europe from the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic.
Churchill made that famous speech in Fulton, Missouri standing next to President Harry Truman, in which he popularized the phrase Iron Curtain. This speech set forth the basic Western ideology of the coming East-West struggle that came to be called the Cold War.
My husband Joe and I accepted a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) assignment to be a Christian presence behind the Iron Curtain and to be its eyes and ears in Eastern Europe. MCC is a global service and relief organization that is committed to peace, justice and understanding between different peoples and cultures. Our assignment was to establish a presence in communist Hungary and build bridges across Cold War divides in a time period when tensions between NATO and the Soviet Union had again turned frosty. In an era when our government considered Soviet communism to be their enemy, a handful of us serving with MCC embodied an effort to respond to enemies by living among them.
Because of restrictive visa regulations, we eased our way in — first under a tourist visa, then when that expired we petitioned the police for a student visa. As university students, we could quietly participate in low-key church activity. All the while we were keenly aware that NATO’s nuclear missiles were now aimed at us.
So where does a family committed to understanding and bridge-building begin such a process? We’d been encouraged by MCC to go slowly. To do lots of listening and learning. To wait for Hungarians to invite us to be part of their lives. That’s hard work for Americans conditioned to assuming we have all the answers. MCC had provided a week-long orientation for us as overseas workers, and we had already begun Hungarian language study with a native speaker who lived near us. We felt inspired and ready for this unknown adventure, consistent with the confidence of twenty-somethings sensing a call to serve long-term in Europe.
During our years of living in the capital city, we attended the József utca (Joseph Street) Baptist Church, where we assisted church members in transporting material aid and medicine to politically persecuted Hungarians living in Transylvania, Romania. I graduated from the Nemzetközi Előkészitő Intézet language institute and matriculated into the Liszt Academy of Music for graduate studies focused on music before 1800. In addition to music studies, I was invited to teach English language courses at the Baptist Church Headquarters and the Baptist Theological Seminary.
Joe eventually became the first Westerner to be accepted as a student at the Baptista Teológiai Akadémia (Baptist Theological Seminary.) During the final year, Joe wrote articles for North American newspapers and journals that attempted to describe what daily life was actually like in Eastern Europe. These articles included a regular series entitled “Letter from Budapest,” inspired by Alistair Cooke’s weekly BBC radio segment, “Letter from America.”
I invite you to read the chapters of our book chronologically beginning with our move to Europe by clicking on this link Journey From West to East and continuing down the list at the right.