Finding Christmas peace in a once-troubled corner of the world
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA – In the sinister days of the Cold War and before the fall of the Berlin Wall, an uneasy, foreboding air of intrigue enveloped visitors whenever they ventured into Eastern Europe. A dark realm of mystery residied behind the Iron Curtain. Devoid of joy and color, paranoia still prevailed over this living, black and white “film noir” world. The West’s treasured annual experience of Christmas peace seemed nowhere to be found.
Behind the Iron Curtain, Christmas and Christmas peace did not exist
During that time in recent history, I traveled to that Romania just three days after Christmas with a group of students from Wingate College. Those still memorable, shadowy and ominous feelings were then very much a reality in what was at that time the most heavily government-surveilled region in Eastern Europe. The purpose of our visit was to get a better understanding of the struggles of organized religion under the influence of Communism.
I remember that the sky was overcast with a slate gray ceiling. The government did not acknowledge Christmas. And Christmas peace was nowhere to be found. But the decorated New Year’s trees shone brightly in the gloom. They provided rare but welcome bursts of color in those otherwise bleak surroundings.
A welcome to Romania by Reverend Ilie Oinescu
We were welcomed by Reverend Ilie Ionescu, the pastor at a small Baptist church in the eastern part of Bucharest, Romania, welcomed our group. In his opening remarks, he noted the following.
“You must know that my members will appreciate your visit very much. For them you represent hope. Freedom. They know very little about your country, but they know enough.
“We have more than 400 members. For most it is quite difficult to get here so we have three services each Sunday. There are no young people in our congregation. Everyone is elderly. When we go to church, we must register with the government, and they do not like it. They make it very hard for young people to get decent jobs if they worship. For older people it does not matter so much. They come, and they pass along the messages to their families.
“Only in the choir will you see young people. Singing is considered a cultural program, so some young people sing because this is not counted against them.
“This is a place of hope. Sometimes there is no heat in the church or we have no light. There are brownouts, you see. But we do our best. We try very hard.”
There was sadness in the reverend’s voice, though he had long ago accepted the reality of life in Bucharest. Still, he was as open as he could be under the circumstances.
After the brief introduction, we were led into the church. Once inside, we turned to the right and walked up the stairs to the balcony where we could have a better view. We found the sanctuary filled with seniors. Just as Reverend Ionescu had told us, only the choir showed any sign of youth involvement.
By American standards the service that followed proved a lengthy one. Since the people necessarily endures extreme hardships to attend, their church made every effort to minister to the congregation in an open, inclusive and personal manner.
In this congregation, the women sat on the left side of the center aisle, the men to the right. Congregants did not remove their coats, despite the length of the program. Aside from a small stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary, the only visible color throughout danced about in the bright babushkas the ladies wore on their heads in the old style.
Throughout the service members of the congregation were constantly turning to look up toward the balcony. It was unusual for them to have visitors of any sort, especially so many and so young. Americans too. Rarely did they see Americans.
For the next couple of hours, the Romanians continuously turned and stared curiously toward the visitors in the balcony. They communicated to us only with their eyes while subliminally reaching out to touch the Wingate students with their hearts. Perhaps it was there quiet expression of Christmas peace and joy in a country where such expression had long been forbidden.
A new but familiar word
When the service concluded, the Wingate students walked downstairs to the vestibule to greet the Romanians as they were leaving the church. Spontaneously, and without instructions, the students formed a semicircle from the door through the narthex. They politely shook hands with the people and smiled as the worshipers departed. The Romanians looked tired. Yet they were deeply appreciative of the American students’ presence. Somehow, the mixture of languages was comprehended by all, though neither group spoke the other’s tongue.
As one old woman passed our interpreter, she caught the eye of a student and approached her. Softly she uttered the word, “Pace.”
Bewildered, the Wingate girl looked quizzically the interpreter. The interpreter smiled and said, “’Pace.’ In Romanian it means ‘Peace.’”
The girl turned back to the Romanian woman and repeated the word, “Pace.”
A classmate standing to the left of the girl overheard the exchange and immediately spoke to another woman in front of him. “Pace,” he said.
A broad smile spread across the woman’s face as she returned the wish saying, “Pace.”
Soon the vestibule was filled with the gentle sounds of Romanian and American voices, all echoing the same simple word, “Pace.” No other word was necessary.
They repeated it over and over again, “Pace. Pace. Pace.”
A small miracle
Then in the dim light of the room, the Wingate student reached into her purse and removed a small bible she had brought from home. She placed it in the palm of the old woman’s hand, covering it with her own. The woman gazed intently at the girl for a long moment before looking down at the treasure she gripped within her gnarled fingers. And then she began to cry.
As the tears made silent trails down her cheeks, the Romanian woman looked at the interpreter and said something in her native language. He listened carefully to be sure he understood precisely what the woman was saying.
When she finished, he translated her words.
She says, “All of my life I have dreamed of having a bible written in English. For me it is a symbol. Today, you have answered my prayers.”
A hush fell over the room. Everyone stopped, spellbound by the words of a woman who had but one simple wish; to possess a book written in a language she could neither read nor understand. Yet it was a book that symbolized all the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a life she would never know. A book that was her bridge to a world she would never see.
The true meaning of Christmas peace in a faraway land
But the old Romanian woman wasn’t finished. The interpreter cast his eyes toward the young girl as the old woman slowly uttered her message.
“She says, ‘I only know three words in English.’”
Then the Romanian woman moved forward and hugged the student. When she pulled away, she smiled gently and whispered into the young girl’s ear the words, “I love you.”
Her voice was not loud, but it was enough to be heard by those close to her. When the Romanian woman spoke, everyone nearby was overcome with emotion.
Three words. Simple words. The only English words the old Romanian woman knew. “I love you.” The message was universal for even in that bleak corner of the world there was indeed hope, there was faith, and yes, there was love.
Warmth and Christmas peace still lives, even in the coldest of places and the darkest of times
In the span of a few spontaneous moments, we came to realize that those Romanian people possessed warmth enough for everyone, nestled deep within their hearts. There would always be candles in the church to brighten the darkness, flickering with their silent flames of hope. Because those elderly Romanians still believed in miracles.
And now the Wingate students truly understood how the Romanian people had persevered for so long under such impossible conditions. Through it all their faith had kept them going because better than anyone else, they knew the true meaning of the word, “Pace.”
Revised and updated from an original December 20, 2014 CDN feature article.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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