Side by Side

I recently returned from a trip to Eastern Europe, where we laid the groundwork for Prison Fellowship in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Christians in those countries have a remarkably vibrant faith. What struck me most was their sense of Christian unity.Denominational differences don’t divide Christians in Eastern Europe the way they do here in America. As Aleksandr Solzenhitsyn says, for decades the church there stood united against a common enemy: atheism.

They had to. When your life itself is in danger, you don’t haggle over ecclesiastical differences.

The attitude was poignantly demonstrated this summer by the Pope in his trip to Hungary. He visited Debrecen, a place etched into the hearts of Hungarian Protestants ever since the Counter-Reformation, when large numbers of Protestants there were persecuted, and many killed, by the Catholic Church.

There, in Debrecen, the Pope laid flowers on a monument to the Protestant martyrs, and prayed for them.

The effect throughout Hungary was electrifying.

The same attitude of unity is everywhere. Let me describe a remarkable man I met, a Lutheran pastor named Gabor Roszik. He has curly black hair and a rumpled, unkempt look, as though he has too much on his mind to worry about details.

And indeed he does.

Gabor Roszik was the first freely elected, non-Communist Member of Parliament in all of Eastern Europe. It started when he heard a speech by the Member of Parliament from his district, extolling the benefits of 40 years of Soviet domination.

That did it. Roszik composed an open letter, saying the MP did not represent the view of the people and demanding that she step down. The public response was overwhelming. The MP was forced to resign, and Roszik himself was swept into office with 70 percent of the vote.

All this was in 1988, before the revolution. It was the first break in the Communist stranglehold on Eastern Europe.

Next, Roszik took aim at the Communist stranglehold on the Church. He wrote an open letter to his own Lutheran Bishop, charging him with accommodation to the Communists and demanding that he resign. But the bishop struck back. He convened an ecclesiastical court, where Roszik was defrocked and ordered not to preach.

It was an order he ignored.

In 1989, with the revolution in full swing, Roszik announced that on Christmas Eve he would preach in Budapest Square. People poured into the streets. Over 100,000 gathered to hear what the birth of Jesus means to an oppressed world.

Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Orthodox–all stood side by side in the streets listening to a Lutheran pastor.

What a spirit of unity.

Gabor Roszik himself, trained as a Lutheran and committed to Calvinist theology, fellowships with Catholics in his area. If you ask him why, he responds simply: “The Communists tried to divide us. We have to build the body of Christ.”

It was a refrain I was to hear again and again as I travelled through Eastern Europe.

It calls to mind Jesus’s high priestly prayer on the night before His crucifixion. Jesus prayed that all His followers would be unified. Why? “So the world may believe that the Father sent me.”

The world’s eyes are on the Church. When they see love and unity–the kind I saw among our brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe–that tells them, more than anything else, that the power of God in human hearts is real.


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