Budapest, 1990

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The author’s “day job” as a political consultant took him behind the Iron Curtain during the eventful days preceding the fall of Soviet communism. The following article, in which he met Károly Dobos, was written on the plane returning from one such trip in 1990, and appeared in longer form in the April 6, 1990 issue of the Christian Observer.

It didn’t take long for the casual observer to realize that elections were only days away. As we travelled from the Budapest Airport, every lamppost was festooned with banners. Virtually every building was plastered with an unending variety of posters and hand-painted slogans. Hungary’s 54 political parties were intently focused on the March 25, 1990, free elections which would not only signal the end of Communism, but an end to most of these fledgling parties, as well. Any thought of the bleak and austere Eastern bloc which may have lingered in my mind were swept away as I walked out of the Hyatt overlooking the Danube, down the streets crowded with busy and, seemingly, prosperous Hungarians. The shops were full of food and Western consumer goods,
with lines conspicuous by their absence. The following day, I was scheduled to conduct several political strategy, and tactics seminars at soon-to-be renamed Karl Marx University. In attendance would be activists from Hungary’s anti-Communist opposition parties. My immediate thoughts, however, were to find a telephone and follow up on my admittedly sketchy Reformed Church contacts. Failing to reach the bishop’s office (their ecclesiastical structure did not change with their doctrine during the Reformation), I finally picked up a name I had written late the night before departing the United States. The name had been given to me by a Hungarian Pentecostal friend who knew of my desire to meet genuine Christian brethren of the Reformed faith on my trip. The phone rang and Gal Feri answered. He did not seem eager to meet, but after several minutes of conversational assurances, he gave me the address of a small church on the outskirts of Budapest and told me that “prayer meeting is at 7 PM, so please come at 8 PM.” I didn’t object, but did manage to arrive a little early. I descended the steps after entering a small courtyard. Down the hall I heard the strains of an old hymn I recognized from the Strasburg Psalter. Inside were about a dozen people of various ages. When the meeting adjourned, only those to whom I spoke acknowledged my presence, the legacy of 40 years of persecution, perhaps. I had questioned whether my search for a living Reformed community was merely Romanticism. I was soon to be disabused of this concern. The pastor was a young, slight, fair-complected man in his thirties. He invited me to view the worship area and we recorded a few greetings on my video- camera. Still, my reluctant hosts seemed to be going through the motions, as might a tour guide. Finally, I bluntly interrupted, “I’m not particularly interested in your building, I’m interested in the church. What is the spiritual condition of the Reformed Church in Hungary?” The young pastor shrugged his shoulders slightly and invited me upstairs to the few small rooms which he shares with his lovely wife and cherubic children. In as direct terms as I could, I unburdened my almost obsessive desire to re-establish contact with the believing Reformed Church in Hungary, if it still existed. What followed was an incredible story of faith, persecution, perseverance, and reformation to rival that of the reforming times of previous centuries. Names, dates, churches, incidents flowed at me, each more important than the last. I discovered a church of highly educated ministers who, unlike their brethren in the West, chose to maintain their episcopal and united ecclesiastical structure within which flourished a vibrant and exciting renewal movement. My host spoke freely of Calvin’s Institutes and the other great works of classical Reformed theology. More surprising was his thorough familiarity and positive reaction to such men as Cornelius Van Til. Existing within a hierarchical church structure which has been, to a greater or lesser extent, compromised by its coexistence with Communism, is no easy task for those truly committed to the Reformed faith. Istan Szebo, the young minister seated before me, was assigned to this small congregation which, at the time, two years previous, had only 18 members. With such a small flock, he could not have survived, but the Lord quickly added another 100 to the body. I was also to learn that this soft-spoken minister was a brilliant Shakespearean scholar, whose English writings have been published by Oxford University. Despite the difficulties to which he has been subjected, his voice is un-silenced. He works and prays for reawakening of the faith among Hungary’s 1,400 Reformed churches which remain nominally Reformed, but lack zeal to match their historic faith. The description stung me sharply as I reflected upon the spiritual health of our own conservative Reformed denominations in the United States. As we parted company late in the evening, I reflected upon the magnificent providence of God which had put me face to face, in a small out-of-the-way neighborhood on the outskirts of Budapest, with the man who I am convinced God plans to use in a powerful way in the new Reformation which, I was to discover, was taking hold in Eastern [Central] Europe. I told him that it was clear God had prepared him to play a leading role in this new Reformation. He seemed horrified at the idea, yet, Calvin was equally horrified at a similar assessment delivered to him by Farel at Geneva. I am no Farel, but I may well have met our Calvin. I retired that evening thinking that nothing could surpass my first full day in Budapest. The morning sun would prove me wrong. I spotted him immediately. I was several minutes late returning from my morning seminar with representatives of Hungary’s opposition political parties. His wrinkled face spoke volumes of his nearly 88 years of service to God’s Kingdom through the persecution of the Nazi occupation, as well as the forty years of numbing Communist oppression. Rev. Károly Dobos. I had secured his name through a friend of Bemie Woudenberg of the Protestant Reformed Church. We had exchanged letters, each hoping against hope that God would cut through the layers of ecclesiastical bureaucracy and pseudo-ecumenical committees and bring together Reformed brethren with a burden for the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour. Károly had already been busy that morning. On the phone, his wife explained that he was “going, going, going all day, every day” from one ministry to the next. I was to learn that his particular burden was for God’s covenant children, who had been neglected as a matter of state policy for three generations. I told him that many years ago, the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) had a “Hungarian Classis,” but that these churches had been swallowed up in the merger with the Evangelical Church in the 1930’s. “This I know,” he said. “It was your dear brethren who brought me to study at Central Seminary in Ohio in 1923. When I was removed from my large church in Budapest by the Communists in 1954, I wrote to some of these churches. I told them I could buy 1,000 bricks for $18.00. “Soon, churches across America sent me enough to buy the bricks to build the first Reformed church in the tiny village to which I had been exiled. The Communists didn’t want the church, but they coveted the hard currency more. And so, to God be the glory, the church was built.” We had expected to meet only briefly, but we both realized that only the providence of God could have brought us together over so many miles and so many years. “Come,” he said. “We go to Calvin Square.” It was only when the underground lurched to a stop and I saw the “Kalvin” sign that I began to realize how deeply Reformed culture had permeated Hungary. We walked into the square which, in bygone times had been a hay market. “This was the edge of town,” explained Károly. “Reformed people were not allowed to live in the city limits at that time, so,” he said flatly, “we build our church here.” The centuries which had passed didn’t seem to affect either the person or the tense of his statement. As we approached the church, Károly was already several stops ahead of me. He seemed energized with each new stop. “See here,” he pointed to the list of activities posted on the front of the church. “Before, we were permitted only one service-on Sunday. Now, you see.” I looked down the lists containing literally dozens of services, Bible studies, youth meetings, catechism classes, etc. The church was open constantly. I asked about catechism. He seemed dismayed when I expressed surprise that the children memorize the entire Heidelberg Catechism. “Do you not do this in your church?” I was truly relieved to be able to answer affirmatively, yet pangs of guilt accompanied my temporary relief at the evident pridefulness of myself and my stateside brethren, who consider remarkable what I was learning to be commonplace. “Come,” he said and quickly disappeared around the corner. A few paces later, we stood in front of a wellstocked Reformed bookstore which, incredibly, had remained open since 1949. A block later and we entered the courtyard of the Reformed Seminary of Budapest. “We will visit my two grandsons.” But first we passed through the library. The first room was stacked with volumes of books and magazines. Students were quietly writing and studying. As we entered the next room, I was to shed the remaining underpinnings of my ecclesiastical chauvinism. A gift of a Reformed nobleman, the thousands of books lined shelf after shelf. The Count believed Reformed ministers of the Gospel needed access to the best. Consequently, this great saint of a by-gone era had brought together books of every description, covering the breadth and depth of classical literature and Reformed theology. I perused several volumes. To my amazement, I found myself peering down at the cover page of Calvin’s Institutes, in a French edition published in 1545. As I looked around, I spotted numerous first editions of works by such Reformed luminaries as Martin Luther, available to the students as part of their working library. I was utterly dumb-founded. We visited the room of Károly’s younger grandson. The elder brother was spending the weekend on a missionary journey to Timisoara, Romania. The young man was cordial, but seemed nonplussed to find an American in his room. I looked over his bookshelf and was once again surprised to find modern editions of Puritan classics, in English, reprinted by Banner of Truth. I was still recovering from his reaction to my invitation to the young student to come study in the United States. He had explained his desire to complete his five years of seminary in Budapest before considering such a step. We walked back to Calvin Square, stopped and shared a meal of goulash and bread. Károly spoke of the need to train young men for the ministry. “Men who are evangelical and love the Gospel, men who are driven by God’s Holy Spirit. You must take many such men to the United States.” A few minutes before, he had stopped me on the walkway of the second floor balcony. “Here it was that I paced and paced, teaching myself English. Then one day, a man named Rev. Goode comes from America and says he has theological scholarships to come to America for any students who spoke English.” He paused. “I was the only one [at the Budapest seminary]. And now I will be 88.” We prayed as we sat at the table and then this great lion of the faith looked at me and said, “Instead of answering my letter, you have come.” His voice trailed off, “You have come.” I thought he was going to thank me, but he looked out across Calvin Square and said, softly, “To God be the glory.”


Postscript: Fifteen Years Later

The young pastor Istvan Szabo has, indeed, played a prominent role in reviving the Protestant cause in Hungary. Today, he serves as the Reformed bishop of Budapest, carrying on the legacy of his uncle, Károly Dobos. That legacy includes a passion for the historic Protestant faith and a desire to see God’s covenant children raised up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Brother Dobos went home to be with his Lord at the age of 102, having fought the good fight of faith through war and occupation, tragedy and triumph. When I left him that day, I asked what one thing his brethren in America could do for him. I assumed that a church under communist occupation for generations would have many urgent needs. “Please,” he said. “If you could tell them about our mission to the lepers in Africa….”