No one was at the airport at Bucharest to greet us when we landed. Pan Am had canceled the last leg of its flight from Washington to the Romanian capital for reasons related to the earthquake that had shaken the land one week earlier, on March 4. It was obvious that our hosts, the leaders of the Baptist Union, hadn’t received word that we would be on a later Lufthansa flight instead, and they had gone home.

My traveling companion and interpreter was George Crisan, a retired American government lawyer who edits the newspaper that serves Romanian Baptists in the United States. Crisan was born in western Romania, became a successful bank lawyer in his home town of Arad, and spent time in jail under the Communists in the late 1940s before escaping to the West. He is a teacher of the Sunday-school class that President Carter attends at First Baptist Church in Washington, and he is the deacon who serves Communion to the Carter family. In recent years he has had close dealings with the Romanian embassy regarding immigration cases, and these contacts helped to pave the way for our visit.

Our mission was to assess and report the extent of the losses suffered by the churches in the earthquake and to determine whether aid could be channeled directly to the churches (see the report of the disaster, April 1 issue, page 54). Also, we wanted to see up close the revival-like conditions we both had noted on separate visits to western Romania (Transylvania) earlier; the rate of growth among Baptists, Pentecostals, and Plymouth Brethren (known in Romania as Evangelical Christians) is higher in Romania than almost anywhere else in the world. Additionally, we wanted to analyze the changing state of religious freedom.

It was cold and dark when the airport bus deposited us at the edge of the devastated downtown area. Clean-up and rescue operations were still in progress, and some buildings were in danger of collapse, so vehicles were banned. We had to carry our luggage through the streets the last mile to our hotel. Along the way, a tall, husky man in a business suit and overcoat befriended us and lent a hand with our bags. At one point the stranger took us down a side street past a cordon of soldiers and police to where a large apartment house had collapsed, killing many. Under powerful lights, teams of men were working feverishly but gingerly atop the four-story-high pile of rubble, removing the debris piece by piece. Dust and the nauseous stench of death did not stop them from trying to save whoever might still be alive. Days earlier, someone had heard tapping noises from within the rubble. Heavy equipment was ruled out in the rescue effort. It had to be one piece at a time.

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I will never forget that scene and the spiritual parallels it suggested. Preachers all over Romania for weeks afterward used references to disaster work as illustrations in calling their people to a greater commitment to evangelism. (Incidentally, victims were still being dug out alive more than a week after the earthquake.)

Our hosts finally caught up with us after we reached the hotel, and we mapped out a preliminary itinerary for the next ten days.

We spent the first five days in eastern Romania, where the quake’s damage was worst. Here we interviewed denominational and government leaders, toured stricken areas, and listened to accounts of survivors. We visited churches and pastors in Bucharest, Ploesti, and Brasov, a large city in the Carpathian mountains not far from the epicenter of the earthquake. We also chatted over meals with seminarians and faculty members.

Thoroughly Biblical

On the day after our arrival, a Saturday, we attended a large funeral of a prominent Baptist family killed in the earthquake. Seven pastors preached, affording us a broad glimpse at the kind of preaching that has fueled the revival fires in Romania. The messages were thoroughly biblical, were preached with few or no notes, and were delivered with a simple but powerful eloquence that tugged at the hearts of the listeners. (My interpreter at the funeral and at most of the church services and official meetings we attended was Dorin “Doru” Motz, a gifted self-taught linguist who teaches part-time at the Baptist seminary in Bucharest and who helps to direct the Living Bible translation project in Romania.)

Among those who preached at the funeral were Cornell Mara, the newly elected president of the Baptist Union of Romania and pastor for thirty-three years of the Brasov church; Joachim Tunea, pastor of Golgotha Baptist Church (known as the “first” Baptist church) of Bucharest and former secretary general of the Baptist Union; and Josif Ton, pastor of a Baptist church in Ploesti.

Ton is the best-known, best-educated, and most controversial clergyman among the Baptists. In three widely circulated papers he has called on the churches to resist intrusion into their affairs by the state, he has called on the government to give the churches their full freedom and to consider giving up atheism as a component of socialist ideology, and he has called attention to many individual cases of alleged violations of rights of Christians by government authorities.

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An Arrest

We spent parts of two days with Ton, both in Ploesti and Bucharest. He gave us a copy of his latest paper. It had not yet been published in the West, but he had given copies to the authorities. As a result he was arrested on the night of April 3 as he was preaching at Iasi, a city near the Soviet border. Some of his colleagues were arrested that night also. (See News.)

Ton’s name figured heavily in many conversations with Baptist leaders and pastors, and he will be referred to later in this report. The believers are divided over him: some, especially the young, favor his no-compromise stands and confrontation tactics; others, especially the old, favor the middle way in church-state relations, and they warn that Ton and his colleagues may split the denomination. Many of the church leaders also fear that Ton’s actions may result in severe setbacks in a gradually improving climate of religious freedom. A number of leaders told us they now enjoy more religious freedom than ever before in their lifetimes.

More Than Journalists

We had intended to confine ourselves to the role of journalist during our visit, but that was impossible. When the leaders and pastors discovered that George Crisan has a Sunday relationship with Jimmy Carter, that I had been a Baptist pastor (for ten years in San Francisco), and that Billy Graham was one of the founders of Christianity Today, they insisted that we speak in their churches.

We spoke in two churches in Bucharest, including the main Baptist one (Golgotha), and at the church in Brasov where Union president Mara is pastor. We spent our final five days in Transylvania, the cradle of the Baptist movement in eastern Europe, where we spoke in eight churches. These included some of the largest in the country, in cities and villages alike. Among them were the 1,400-member Speranta (Hope) Baptist in Arad, a city of about 200,000, and the Baptist church in Curtici, a town north of Arad near the Hungarian border. The church in Curtici was one of the first Baptist churches organized in Romania. Its current membership is about 1,000. Speranta’s congregation has built with its own money and volunteer labor what will probably be Romania’s largest Baptist building for some years to come. Dedication is scheduled for this July. Meanwhile, throngs of more than 1,000 jam into the old building for services, and the church has organized several branches.

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In most of the churches where we spoke, the auditoriums were packed to overflowing. People stood in the aisle right down to the pulpit area, for hours at a time. At some places the crowd spilled into courtyards outside where they listened to loudspeakers. In every church there were large numbers of young people. No matter what day of the week services are held, we were told, the churches are always filled. We addressed well over 7,000 people in eleven churches.

A number of the services lasted two and even three hours. Meetings often begin with an hour of congregational prayer. Music is also a substantial part of Romanian Baptist services. Many of the churches feature several choral groups, string and brass bands, and soloists in a single service (up to an hour’s worth), and there is plenty of congregational singing. Few churches have modern electric organs (most are of the foot-pump variety that have a way of changing key in mid-song), there are few hymnals, and choral and instrumental music is often hand-copied. Yet the spirited music in the churches of Transylvania is the best I have heard anywhere in the world.

Our part of the program was about the same in each meeting. Crisan gave greetings on behalf of Romanian Christians in America and then told about President Carter and his faith. If the President ever visits Romania, and we hope he does, the Baptists will surely invite him to preach. They consider him a brother, and they hold lay preachers—upon whom their own churches rely heavily—in high esteem.

I followed Crisan’s remarks with expressions of sympathy and concern on behalf of American Christians aware of the suffering caused by the quake. The people generally knew little of the extent of the damage to the nation’s churches, so I reported to them what I knew. I told them how Christians from other countries had pitched in to help in times of disaster elsewhere and how Christians in the West wanted to help in the current crisis. “When one of us suffers, we all suffer,” I reminded them.

Then I took the audience on a quick global tour, pointing out how God is at work throughout the world and giving examples of the remarkable spread of Christianity in our time—including the example of Romania. The average Romanian gets relatively little news of the outside world and virtually no news of the spread of Christianity in other lands.

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In each message I told of recent spiritual developments in Washington and affirmed that the Gospel had spread right to the top in America. There was enthusiastic response when I added that my prayer is for the Gospel to spread right to the top in Romania.

University Students

On our last night in Romania, a Monday, Crisan stayed behind to visit relatives in Arad, and I traveled with local Baptist leaders and interpreter Motz to Timosoara, a university city of more than 200,000 about an hour’s drive south of Arad, near the Yugoslavian border. I had wanted to slip in and merely observe a meeting of Christian university students at First Baptist that I had heard about in Bucharest. The church fathers, however, on hearing that we were in the area, put together a full-scale church service and asked that I speak. Nearly 1,000 crowded inside, and hundreds stood in the courtyard outside. I apologized to the students for having preempted their meeting, and I told them it had been my wish only to visit it.

There were some quick huddles, and as a result the students—about 300 of them—remained after the main service was concluded. For the next hour and a half I stood at a microphone in their midst and answered questions. They wanted to know about church life in America, about personal devotional practices of American Christians, about dress styles (and codes), about Billy Graham and his crusades (fully a third of the questions were about the evangelist and his methods—he is loved and wanted throughout Romania even though he has never been there). I told them about such ministries as Campus Crusade for Christ, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Navigators, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The idea of assertive witness and organized fellowship on campus was a foreign but appealing concept to them. They also seemed fascinated when in response to a question I informed them that a number of scientists with advanced degrees are Christians.

A show of hands revealed that nearly half of the students had become Christians at an early age, having been raised in Christian homes. Few had received Christ during elementary and secondary school years. Nearly one-half were recent converts, having accepted Christ as Saviour at age twenty or later—a significant indication of what has been happening in Romania lately.

The leader of this group is Doru Matei, 35, an engineer who has been working with young people for fifteen years. He has been conducting the Monday-night meeting for the past two years. A number of churches, I was told, now have youth meetings, and some young people have organized their own informal Bible-study fellowships.

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Matei brought the meeting to a halt sometime after 10:30 P.M. with prayer and the singing of “Alleluia,” a popular chorus brought back by the five Romanians who attended the 1974 Lausanne evangelization congress. They sang the final verse, “Jesus loves you,” in English, with their hands joined and uplifted.

On the drive back to Arad, one of my pastoral hosts remarked: “You are the first American who has ever addressed a meeting of Christian university students in our land.”

Two years ago, they added, I would not have been permitted to preach in their churches.

Why the Growth?

We met with no restrictions on our journey. We traveled freely, spoke with whomever we wished, and said what was on our minds. The officials of the Department of Cults (President John Rosianu, Vice-President George Nenciu, and Director Julian Sorin), the state body in charge of religious affairs, received us graciously and with respect, and we engaged in a frank exchange of viewpoints. A Romanian radio and TV reporter interviewed us; he was especially interested in what George Crisan had to say about Jimmy Carter’s faith.

Our hosts—pastors and lay leaders alike—were hospitable to the point of sacrifice (average worker’s pay: $125 a month), accepting us warmly into their hearts and homes and busy schedules. After evening church services we gathered in homes for sumptuous banquetsize meals, and long into the night we swapped stories, sang hymns and choruses with family members and local church officers who dropped by, and conversed about serious matters of faith and church life. The church leaders did not evade our most candid questions.

We held private conferences with groups of pastors, discussing their needs, problems, and challenges in light of present-day trends. These were chaired by our main host in Transylvania, Pastor Trajan Grec of the Curtici church, president of the 120-church Arad Baptist association and vice-president of the Union.

“Why do you think our churches are growing?” asked Pastor John Trutza of Speranta Baptist in one such conference. (Trutza and Grec were among the five Romanian delegates at Lausanne.)

I replied that I had come to find out why from them. However, I offered some observations: (1) the Baptists and other evangelical denominations in Romania have their roots in persecution, and suffering somehow has a purifying, strengthening effect in the life of the Church; (2) the pulpit ministry is rooted solidly in the Word of God, and the pastors are persons who walk with God; (3) there is a strong and dedicated lay leadership (the Baptists have more than 800 lay preachers, and a number of the deacons I met have the spiritual qualifications of a pastor); (4) prayer has a central place in the life of the churches and in members’ family life; and (5) an increasing number of people are sharing their faith with others.

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The Baptists have more than 1,000 congregations with approximately 200,000 members, and they have been baptizing 20,000 persons a year since 1972. The Pentecostals have between 150,000 and 200,000 members in nearly 1,000 congregations; they have more than doubled in size in the past fifteen years. The Evangelical Christians, an amalgamation of several Brethren bodies, are thought to have about 120,000 members in nearly 400 recognized congregations (many other congregations meet without benefit of government approval). The Seventh-day Adventists have more than 50,000 members, and they are growing rapidly too.

In a country of 21.5 million, though, the total free-church population is small. The Romanian Orthodox Church claims the nominal allegiance of up to 85 per cent of the population. Jews (100,000), Uniate Catholics, Roman Catholics (1.5 million), German-speaking Lutherans 200,000), Unitarians (80,000), and Hungarian-speaking Reformed members (700,000) account for much of the remainder. (We were told by various spokemen of stirrings of spiritual renewal in the mainline denominations, especially among the Reformed and Orthodox.)

Freedom the Issue

As indicated earlier, the Baptists—and to a certain extent the other free churches—are confronted by some serious problems. Many of them are related to religious freedom. The issue of religious freedom in Romania is a complicated one whose roots are jumbled in history, ideology, and personalities.

Moldavia and Walachia united in 1861 to form Romania after hundreds of years of indirect rule by the Turks. Romania seized Transylvania, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and other chunks of land after World War I. Until that time the Romanian Orthodox Church was virtually the only church in Romania, and it therefore had considerable political clout (all archbishops and bishops were automatically members of Parliament, for example). Discrimination against the religious minorities by the Orthodox soon turned into outright repression and persecution. Baptists were virtually outlawed in the 1930s and their property confiscated. (The Baptists have been harassed ever since German Baptist pioneer Johann Gerhard Oncken and his followers spread the movement to Transylvania in the late 1800s. Their Anabaptist forbears suffered persecution as early as the middle 1500s.)

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After World War II the Communists came to power and began addressing the country’s many grievous social ills. The regime stripped the Orthodox Church of its special privileges and political power, closed many of its institutions, and decreed that all religions were now equal before the law. Yet because of its official atheist position, the government ended up enacting repressive measures against the churches. Persecution and control became so bad during the Stalin-Krushchev era that it seemed the gates of hell were prevailing against the Church after all. A thaw began about 1962, and the level of religious freedom has risen remarkably in the past five years.

The German- and Hungarian-speaking congregations seem to have a greater degree of freedom than Romanian-speaking ones. Some leaders believe this is because many local authorities are Orthodox loyalists at heart bent on protecting their church from evangelicals. According to this theory, the authorities would view evangelical church growth among Romanian-speaking people as being at the expense of the Orthodox Church. It is a fact that the German-speaking Baptists seem to have ample supplies of Bibles and Christian literature while the Romanian-speaking churches have severe shortages. (Emigration, however, is high among the Germanic people.)

I hasten to add that we had a pleasant and informative visit with Orthodox officials, and that they are ecumenically inclined. They, like the Baptists and others, sometimes have “problems at the local level” that do not reflect headquarters thinking and policy.

How much freedom the churches will have in the future remains uncertain. Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu is apparently committed to keeping his country independent from the Soviet Union in many spheres. At the same time he seems intent on assuring the Soviets they need not fear ideological lapses on his part. In 1975 he launched a “cultural revolution” aimed at instilling Communist ideology and building national unity. (We saw the equivalent of Marxist soap operas on TV. Very funny.) If there is any opposition to the ideological offensive by the churches, trouble can be expected.

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This is why most of the Baptist leaders want Josif Ton and his colleagues to cool it. Baptist Union secretary general Paul Barbatei, a lawyer from Cluj, acknowledges that “the noise” surrounding Ton’s earlier papers resulted in some good for the churches. But he feels it is time now to consolidate the gains and to negotiate quietly regarding other grievances. Among his priorities are problems of discrimination against believers in higher-education and employment opportunities.

I know that such discrimination exists. We were approached at various places by young people who were being hindered in their pursuit of an education or career simply because they were believers. We also met several gifted adults who because of their faith were fired from responsible positions. Some were given menial work instead, and some are being denied any further employment at all.

Many of the younger believers sympathize with Ton and are getting impatient with the state. They want full religious freedom, and they want it now. If the clamor keeps up, the state may be forced to make a hard choice between ideology and human rights.

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