Chair, Partner Church Committee
When I first began attending The Unitarian Church in Summit in 2001, I found out the congregation had a Partner Unitarian Church in Barót, Transylvania. A trip was being organized for the next summer, and right away I wanted to go along.
It was about connections. I saw the 2002 trip as a way to connect with a group of Unitarians in a far-away small town, with members of my own new congregation and with our minister Rev. Vanessa Southern, who went along.
But truth be told, I had no idea where Transylvania was or how Unitarians got there. I soon learned that Transylvania is in the northern section of the nation of Romania, nestled in a beautiful landscape of rolling hills and surrounded by the Carpathian Alps. The area was part of Hungary until 1920, when it was annexed to Romania after World War I. I also found out that members of our partner church spoke Hungarian, a very difficult language to learn.
The Unitarian church in Transylvania dates back to the Protestant Reformation in 1568, when court preacher Francis David rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus because he could find no Scriptural basis for those ideas. Francis David’s sermons converted Transylvania’s king and many regular citizens to the Unitarian viewpoint. The Transylvanian Unitarian Church got its start then and has survived ever since as a small but well-recognized religion.
The UU Partner Church movement in North America started in the early 1990s shortly after the fall of the Communism. Under Communism, all churches in Romania were persecuted and had their property confiscated, but the Unitarians struggled more than others because they were a minority religion within the minority Hungarian national group. Learning this, UUs in North America wanted to help their brother and sister Unitarians.
Ruth Vogler, a former UCS member, was determined that Summit would be one of the earliest American congregations to partner with a Transylvanian church. And in 1992, 23 years ago, we were matched with the Unitarian church in Barót, a former coal-mining town of about 8,500, set in the middle of beautiful green hills and farms. The Unitarian church, with 500 members, is the third largest congregation in town, after the Calvinists (the Reformed church) and the Roman Catholics, each with about 2,500 members.
Ruth Vogler and her husband John traveled to Romania to visit Barót. They met Rev. Alpár Kiss, the minister then and now, and his wife, Aranka, who teaches French in Barót’s high school. Alpár speaks fluent English, and how lucky we are that he does. Without his language skill, it would have been very hard to get the partnership going.
Ironically, up until the early ‘90s, Barót’s Unitarians had no church of their own. They had been worshipping in a room of their minister’s house. In 1992, North American UUs provided money to build three new churches in Transylvania, one of them in Barót. Back in Summit, Ruth Vogler shared her enthusiasm about the new building, and the Summit congregation raised money for the heating system, the chairs and then for the steeple bell. As a result of Summit’s help, the Barót church was completed in 1995.
“I would like to thank all of you for your good understanding and generosity for everything you have done for us in the last 22 years,” Rev. Kiss wrote recently, adding that many partnerships have lapsed over the years. “Ours is working perfectly and looks to be getting even stronger…This common work and the mutual visits are strengthening our relationship and gives us more reason to be proud that we are brothers and sisters- we all are liberal Unitarians.”
Early in the partnership, the UCS board committed to helping the Barót church financially on a regular basis. So ever since, part of our budget has gone to help support the salaries of Barót’s minister and music director and help with office expenses.
In addition, the UCS Partner Church Committee provides scholarships to university students from Barót, helps hire unemployed people for church maintenance and supports a UU-style Coffee Hour, an innovation in Transylvania. To pay for these programs, the committee holds our annual Partner Church Pancake Breakfast in October and our Springtime Collection near the end of the church year.
But it is travel between the two congregations that has helped the partnership blossom. Alpar and Aranka visited us several times over the years as did a few youth, including their daughter Abigel. After my husband Bob and I visited in 2002, I became chair of the Partner Church Committee and visited several more times with Summit groups. Summit’s choir under the leadership of music director Mitchell Vines made a pilgrimage in 2008.
But not until 2012 did the youth of the two communities get a chance to bond. This finally occurred during a wonderful multi-generational visit to Barót, led by Rev. Emilie Boggis. Finally the Hungarian-English language barrier began to break down, with the Transylvanian youth learning English in school and on TV and with our teens studying Hungarian on Pimsleur tapes. Tears were shed in both languages as we left Barót for home.
Since then, the youth (and some adults) have stayed in close touch, posting frequently to a Facebook group and getting together for monthly face-to-face sessions on Skype.
In 2013, we invited 11 youth and 6 adults from Barót to visit the Summit area, staying with families of the congregation for two weeks. And in the summer of 2014, the Barót Youth Group reciprocated, hosting 19 UCS youth and adults for an amazing ten days of fun and fellowship in Transylvania.
Thanks to the interest, enthusiasm and generosity of the entire UCS congregation, plans call for the trips to continue. Our partnership with Barót is strong, and our members feel more connected than ever.