Monday, October 28, 2013

Facetime at 94!

Today I got to facetime with my Grandma and wish her a happy 94th birthday!  Life is pretty good to her at 94, and good to life and everyone around her.  Cheers to another trip around the sun!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Meet Misi (pronounced Me-she)

Every journey has characters, and this is an important one.  Meet Misi.  Of course, this is only a nickname, which every good Hungarian has.  Györfi Mihály (surname, then given name) is the pastor of the Filidelfia Lutheran Church in Nyirtelek, and is also my site supervisor for the year.  Most people attach the suffix "bacsi" to his name which is a sign of respect.
breakfast before church with Misi and his grandson

His mind is a steal trap and he can recall stories from his own past for any given scenario.  One of these stories is of a young Misi and his sister and parents biking 12km each way to the thermal bath near their house every Sunday afternoon.  Bath houses are still extremely popular in Hungary and are a regular part of many people's exercise routine.  So for a few hours last Sunday our crew went to a large bath house with hot mineral water and Misi told stories about life under Communism.  I also heard great stories about how a nice girl helped him tie his shoe when he was in kindergarten, and he married her 18 years later.  

Misi's daughter, Judit, tells me that after 25 years of knowing him she's still astounded by the new stories she hears.  I'm trying to get the most out of one year of his stories, and maybe make some new stories along the way.

the stearn look is just a fascade - Misi guiding us through the streets of Piran, Slovenia


A week ago Friday I left my YAGM colleagues and joined a group from the Nyirtelek church on their roadtrip to Slovenia.  The purpose of the trip was to perform a short drama in the church were Misi's daughter, Judit, works.  We also did some sightseeing along the way, and ate extremely good food i.e. reindeer.  
approaching the Adriatic Sea

part of the crew at the boardwalk in Piran, Slovenia

Misi and Judit trying to make a Coke ad

Lake Bled, Slovenia

the island in the middle of Lake Bled

Sitting around the kitchen table

One of the things we take for granted in our mother tongue is the power of good conversation.  Almost two weeks ago, our group of 5 gathered in Budapest to listen and share stories.  We also spent time with people who work closely with Roma issues in a variety of capacities in Hungary and around Europe.

Our first stop in Budapest was the home and office of Tamas Fabiny, Bishop of the Northeast Diocese for the Hungarian Lutheran Church.  His work also focuses on the social outreach programs of the church and its international and ecumenical relations.  Needless to say, he's a busy guy.  So when most of our afternoon with him was devoted to him listening to our individual backgrounds and stories and reflections on our work and host families we were all pleasantly surprised.   

I've written previously about the many ways that identity issues manifest themselves in present day Central Europe.  Similarly, churches in Hungary are still dealing with what Fabiny calls the church's "forty years of wandering" under Communism.  He shared how the Lutheran church, and others, were actually allowed to continue their outreach ministries to the disabled and elderly offering assistance and care where Communism did not.

 Meredith, Thad, Bishop Fabiny, Chelsea, Mari, Ole, Miriam

After our meeting with the Bishop we spent some much needed time catching with each other and our supervisors, Miriam and Jeremy, and playing with their kids.  The natural gathering place for our group of American and Canadian Lutherans (and a Methodist, and a Baptist) who live in Slovakia and Hungary was at a Mexican restaurant in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest.  From the moment we all met that afternoon we started exchanging stories of our placement sites and our host families and all of the complexities of entering a new place in a new language.  At times it seems like we're living in entirely different countries, but having five different perspectives on the same place and the same church proved extremely useful when it came to addressing Roma conditions in Hungary.

Jeremy and Esme and a glimpse of fall in Budapest

On Wednesday and Thursday we met at the home of Dick and Carolyn Otterness.  Dick and Carolyn have lived in Budapest for 7 years where Dick carries out his call through the Reformed Church as a pastor and missionary, and Carolyn, a retired nurse, works alongside her husband on Roma dialogue.  

They told us that part of their ministry is hospitality, which for us meant getting to have American bacon, and drip coffee, and oatmeal, and all sorts of other food that tastes like home.  But their hospitality also meant having a kitchen table where we could sit for hours and speak among friends about challenges we face in our sites.  It was humbling to consider what a luxury and freedom and was to even to be able to leave our communities for a few days and sit and talk about issues that have no clear resolution, but are still worthy of discussion.  

 a rainy walk through Varosliget (City Park), Budapest

While this was more of a narrative of what happened, maybe later there will be some reflection about Roma stereotypes and their relationship with other ethnic groups.  I'll also have more to say soon about all of the negative press Roma have been getting lately with stories in France, Greece, and Ireland creating a snowball effect of Roma people in the international spotlight. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Stuck in Traffic

Here's a picture of my bike ride from Nyirtelek to Gorogszallas.  It takes about 30 minutes and has great scenery along the way.  Last Friday, however, the scenery was a little different than usual.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nobel Week!

For a few moments each day this week, the world will turn its attention to Scandinavian for the announcements of the 2013 Nobel Awards.  The Swedes have already announced the award for medicine, with literature, economics, physics, and chemistry remaining. 

I'm sure each of these awards attract fair attention and disagreement in their respective fields.  But the Peace Prize, announced by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, typically receives the most scrutiny across the globe.  Jay Nordlinger writes a powerful book, Peace, They Say, which is both a study of the subjective nature of the prize, and a chronicle of every Peace Prize given and some of the politics and other contenders surrounding each decision.  

The will of Alfred Nobel gives pretty narrow parameters for who should receive the prize.  These have arguably been broadened with some of the more recent prizes.  

I've read that Vladmir Putin has been nominated this year.  Maybe it will be another celebrity victory.  Maybe it will be an entirely new name and face who is recognized for their impact in a neglected part of the world.  

This is worth paying attention to because it highlights different types of conflicts and different types of real action that can be taken.  Hopefully it inspires more people to act.  

Getting Settled

Life here in the village of Gorogszallas has not been especially easy, but I can say that things are starting to feel more "normal."  Here's a very scattered update on a variety of topics:
  • I have a bike!  Hungarians bike everywhere and I'm trying to fit in.  A bike is especially liberating in a village that has infrequent bus service and very few people with cars to offer you a ride.  The short cut road between Gorogszallas and Nyirtelek is a dirt path that has finally shown me some of the birch trees I wrote about earlier, as well as other great views of nearby villages, corn fields, and small wooded areas.  (Incidentally, I think the common use of bicycles here is an interesting commentary on the pace of life here and also on their consumer culture.  But that is for another post.) 
  • My work at the Children's House each morning has been a challenge for someone who doesn't do well with unconstructed time.  But I'm beginning to get to know the kids better and am trying to acquire the right Hungarian vocabulary for that context: "play nicely" "share the toy" "wash your hands" "throw the ball!"  
My new friend, working and playing hard
  • A few times a week I get to come to the nearby town of Nyirtelek where I help with English classes in the high school.  It's a nice arrangement where I get to be the good cop and work on their English conversation, and the teacher sits in the room and gets to do most of the classroom management.  She tells me that the students are better when I'm there.  I'm not quite sure what that means for when I'm not there.
  • On the backside of one of my bedroom walls is where my family's pigs live.  Yesterday, I went with my host dad and brother to load and exchange 6 of their smaller pigs for one large pig.  Most of the night I could hear it on the other side of the wall.  I couldn't help but think about it's first night there and how I felt similarly out of place and uncomfortable on my first night.  But then life got better, and life is taking on a new routine.  I'm quite sure that life will not turn out quite as well for the pig and that's probably as far as I should the metaphor, but we shared a common bond of newness for a short time last night.  
  • I traveled with the Nyirtelek church to a small conference of Lutheran churches in the village of Lucfalva.  The speakers were all very good, and a Hungarian women was fluent English was kind enough to translate for me.  She spent some of her growing up years in Sweden and we had a long talk over lunch about Swedish society.  For those who don't know, this was the subject of my honors thesis this spring and was happy to get some first person perspective on the modern welfare state.
A glimpse of the lush village of Lucfalva
  • This last Friday and Saturday the Gorogszallas and Nyirtelek church sent three vans to a weekend retreat of competitions/games between different churches - soccer, ping pong, foosball, chess.  My foray back into the worlds of soccer and chess came with limited success, but not as much embarassment as I anticipated.  The main speaker was an member of the Hungarian Paralympic Swim Team in 2012.  She had qualified for the Olympic games in London, but was passed over by the Hungarian Olympic Committee when it came to final selections of athletes.  Her new dream is to go to America.  She has a friend in LA and told me that she hopes to go next summer.  On behalf of the whole country, I told her I hope she does.  

The Gorogszallas crew 

 My host dad (center) and host brother (left) in the team huddle

 Borno (center) and other Gorogszallas fans.  My supervisor, Mishi, is on the far right.

Meeting Bishop Ough

Yes, here I am after what has been a two week hiatus from writing.  A lot has happened in those two weeks, including feeling somewhat settled in this new place. 

Good morning, Budapest!

I took a day trip a week ago and traveled to Budapest where I met my United Methodist Bishop, Bruce Ough.  He was attending a Council of Bishop's meeting at St. Stephen's University just outside of the city and I was glad to meet with him and learn more about the work of the Methodist Church in the area.  One of the things that I mentioned to him was that people here always say, "yes, [Thad]'s working with our church but he grew up in the  Methodist church."  I always add that I went to a Lutheran college to show my ecumenical stripes I suppose.  But I have to say that I don't consider myself to be well versed in the theological differences between the two, so I therefore don't feel the need to make Methodist or Lutheran important in my identity, especially when I introduce myself.  In any case, Bishop Ough made the very good point that identity is very precious thing in this part of Europe.  Today's adult generation in Hungary still remembers when identities were suppressed under communism, giving identity an even greater value today, whether that is expressed by language, religion, nationality, or citizenship.  

We also talked about the language of "conversion" that is used quite a bit in the Lutheran Church of Hungary, or at least in the area I live.  This past weekend, I met a Lutheran pastor who studied for a year in America; his plain spoken comments on this culture of conversion are very insightful.  In America, he says, Christianity is a very natural thing.  Here, people look at you and wonder why you think the way you do and why you do things like go to church.  His comment may not be representative of all of Hungary, but it makes a good point.  The work of the church is not a natural part of communities in many parts of the world.  

Bishop Ough was able to meet with a Gypsy congregation in Budapest and see how the church is making a difference in their lives.  In a country of small villages and few skyscrapers, churches are usually the tallest buildings on the horizon.  Some are old and neglected, others are old but alive and flourishing.  There are exciting things happening in churches across Hungary and I'm glad to have a few glimpses at this work so far.

St. Stephen's University in Godollo, outside of Budapest