Monthly Archives: November 2011

on the move again…

on the 14:53 to Szeged from Budapest and then in the morning on the 08:00 to Subotica, Serbia to serve with a group of three Bible studies. Then Sat on the 07:00 back to Szeged to meet with some hurting leaders and then a bus all the way over to Pecs where one of my guys will pick me up to take me to Orahovica, Croatia to preach Sunday morning, and then over to Slatina to preach Sunday afternoon. Monday I will head to Zagreb and get a drop of rest in a place new to me. Then pick up a new couple and take them to Osijek as they will join the faculty at ETS. Whew.

Still hopeful about voting… you know how, you might try again



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today I was sitting in a cafe doing some prep for what’s coming up, including a talk to a group of undergraduates from the USA who are doing a study abroad… as I was thinking about what we do and the lessons I’ve learned, I began writing about one adventure… I kinda went crazy… here it is…

This took place in  1999. NATO had bombed Serbia into pulling out of and ceasing hostilities with its province of Kosovo.

We arrived at the camp in Bicske, a town west of Budapest in June. We had heard of the camp and the influx of refugees from Kosovo from a missionary who was collecting children’s summer clothes. Covenant had collected several bags of flip-flops, t-shirts and athletic shorts for the effort. The missionary met us at the Budapest Christian school and took us to the camp in a van. When we arrived, we were ushered into a room for a briefing on what was being done for the people. They were a UN funded Hungarian agency. There were, it seemed, several – perhaps a dozen – of these camps around the country. I assumed that they were, like this one, on now abandoned Soviet or Hungarian military bases. Hungary, in 1999, was a country undergoing a re-awakening after communism, this camp was being used as a place for entry into Europe for refugees from many places including the Middle East and Africa. But this place was different from the prison I had visited in the south where illegals serve a sentence for entering the country illegally before being released or deported, depending on their circumstance.  But in Bicske, these were people who were hoping to be legally entered into European countries. The authorities took all the bags for distribution. They feared that if we handed the goodies out and some received and others didn’t it could create a problem. We of course, complied.

One of our girls had actually learned enough French in school so as to have a rudimentary conversation with an African. We learned that these folks, when they got their papers in order were allowed to work, if they could find it, outside the camp. We learned how overwhelmed the workers were with the training needs of these people, especially considering the complexity of the Hungarian language, which they must learn if they were to work in neighboring Budapest.

We had a chance to speak to the people and it became clear to me that there were more needs. Kosovar men gathered around me and one of them spoke enough English as to become our translator. From them, I learned about their journey as they traveled north through Serbia and across the Hungarian frontier, walking all the way, seeking safety more than freedom. But freedom, I guess, would have been nice too. I also learned that the food provided was barely enough sustenance, let alone be enough for growing children. I asked them what they needed. They asked for fresh fruit and milk for the kids. After the taking of some photos we said our goodbyes and departed for our planned work in Szeged, which was another world from this experience.

I had acquired the contact information of the social worker who had given us our briefing and, after ascertaining the desire of our team to help these folks further, arranged to travel to Bicske and bring the milk and fruit that the men had asked for. This would prove to be quite the adventure.

After our last classes on the following Friday, we went to the big box store in Szeged and bought boxed milk (the kind that did not need refrigeration) and oranges, I felt that oranges would make the trip better than either apples or bananas. The girls on the team decided that the children needed toys too, so they went to the toy aisle and began to figure out what toys made sense for this excursion. I don’t remember much about the toys or the fruit, sense I was carrying milk.

The next day, a warm Saturday morning, we boarded an early train from Szeged to Budapest. Upon arrival at Nyugati Terminal (Nyugati means western), we walked out of the station and made our way to a trolley bus (the difference between a trolley bus and a regular bus is a pair of bars that connect the trolley to overhead wires that supply electricity to the motors that power the bus) that would take us to Keleti (eastern) railway station. The riding of this trolley proved to be no mean feet as trolley drivers often seem bent on sending unprepared passengers swinging wildly as the flew around corners as they hurtle their way through the streets. We, being rookies still, were flung about more than a normal Hungarian passenger would be, all this either to the amusement or the disdain of native onlookers. I continue to be amazed at the ability of young mothers with children and the elderly with their carts of groceries for the day to negotiate these hurtling buses. But, we arrived unscathed at our next stop, Keleti train station.

Whenever I arrive at Keleti with a group, I am always on guard, for this train station may be the single most problematic station or even single place in Budapest. For this is where most of the international trains arrive and depart. Thus, the number of tourists and travelers is much higher than the the other stations. There are always plenty of men saying “taxi” to all the foreign looking folks, true this happens in all train stations in many cities, but at Keleti they seem to be double in number. There are also middle aged women who want to offer you a room in their nearby apartment. These folks are making extra income by renting a clean (usually) bed to brave travelers. Keleti is a big terminal and in 1999 it was undergoing an interior sandblasting. The train traffic is usually so brisk that scores of people are standing in a crowd under the status board which, back then, was still the old type that was constantly flipping a row at a time to show that a certain train wasm say, departing from track 12 and that another train was arriving at track 8. The clickety-clack of the status board was seemingly non-stop. Scores of people would crowd around and stare up seeking to determine the platform they should go to to meet their loved one or carry their baggage to so that they can get a seat. It was busy, noisy, crowded and thus, a pick-pocket’s heaven. Into this we walked with our bags of gifts for the people in the camp.

Because of the aforementioned bedlam, I organized our group of eight or nine in a fairly safe corner and then tried to ascertain the platform we would need. There were, of course the necessary trips to the rest room, the purchase of drinks and snacks, and perhaps even hamburgers at the nearby Burger King, I don’t actually remember. Nonetheless, our train was finally called and we made our way to the southern part of the station and looked for our train. Keleti is notorious for announcing a train a twenty minutes before it actually gets there, but in ’99, I didn’t know that handy bit of information and so we hustled as best as we could with all our bags to the platform and eventually boarded the train and waited for its departure. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get settled on a train, but not today.

I was yet unfamiliar with the distance, the sights, the language and had to figure out where to get off or else we could wind up on the Austrian border. That idea on my mind prevented the great sigh of relief once seated. From Keleti west the train makes a long arc from central Budapest clockwise and then straightens out to cross the Danube near the southern edge of the city center. Once across the river, all trains stop at one of the city’s minor stations. For fast or express trains, this will be the last stop for a while, but we were on a local train that would make quite a few stops before we arrived at what I thought was the right station.

In Hungarian, the word ‘also’, when attached to the name of a city or, more likely, a town, means ‘lower’, thus Bicske Also would mean “lower Bicske” and would not be the main station. In 1999, I was oblivious to this fact. So when the train rumbled up to a station with Bicske on the sign, we got off the train, not wanting to wind up in Austria. Thanks to the help of some local folks we figured out which way to go to get to the camp. My fellow leaders took the lead and the group followed them, I was carrying the milk and began to lag behind. All along the way for a couple of miles, our leaders would ask directions and would be assured that we were going then right direction. These stops to ask a local if we were on the right path using a piece of paper with the address of the refugee camp and facial expressions and gestures gave me time to catch up to the group.

Eventually, we arrived at the camp and were again ushered into a conference room to be briefed. We explained our purpose and then were able to see the take the goods we had brought to the people we wanted to serve. It was pointed out to us that, even though our intentions were kind and our actions were good, that what we brought would serve only a few, and that many others would receive nothing. As I reflect, it made sense and the administration took charge of the goods except for the toys.

Once we were out of the clutches of the camp administration, we went to visit with our acquaintances from a couple of weeks earlier. A couple of us were invited to the ‘home’ of a family. We were taken on a tour of the building which was a military barracks. The building was a single story building divided in half by a hallway that ran the length of the structure. In the middle were toilets on one side and showers and sinks on the other. It was like a million other buildings of its type on military bases, camps, even school dormitories. The rooms were large, to hold bunks and lockers for, perhaps, 10 soldiers, students or whomever. In this case two families shared a room and had moved lockers so as to divide the room into their own spaces. I remember in my own military days in Okinawa doing much the same thing with furniture to separate our bunks from a sitting area. But in the space where four of us were, there were two families in close quarters. They had found two folding chairs and had scrounged up a table about the size of a card table. On this table they put cookies and cups and their son came into the room with a 2 liter Coke that he had been sent for. I felt bad that they had spent money on me, but as I would learn over the years, this hospitality is deeply ingrained in the culture of this part of the world. I would learn in the following years that Ukrainians would actually borrow money to put together a meal for a guest. To be a good host or hostess in this region is essential to life well lived. So my Kosovar acquaintances and I told stories through a translator until our whole team had gathered and it was time to make our way back.

This time, we learned how to get to the main train station which was much closer than the one we had come for, we made our way back without event. It had been a long eventful day. We would never see these people again. I only have this memory, now written down, and a very few photographs of that day. My hope is that since we told them we were people of Jesus, that we were there to show them his love for them, because he loves them, that Jesus himself would plant a seed in their hearts.

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