Thank you for visiting this blog that began as a way to share stories from one year of service in Hungary through the ELCA's Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program. I have since returned to the U.S. with a wealth of stories from this incredible experience of walking side-by-side with Hungarians of all walks of life. I hope to continue to share these stories, reflections, and lessons as well as those that arise out of the new places that I will call home. I look forward to future encounters with vibrant and unique communities of many shapes and sizes!


Evangélikus Élet Article

April 13, 2014

Last fall there was an excellent article in Evangélikus Élet, the Hungarian Lutheran newspaper, featuring an interview with one of the Roma College students. To view the article in English, click here. For the original in Hungarian go to: http://www.evangelikuselet.hu/lapozgato/2013-41.

On Education

April 5, 2014

It was the BBC headline, “Hungary Court Orders School Closure Over Roma Segregation,” that caught my attention (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26390357). With a quick glance at the photo and caption I suddenly realized that the story was all too familiar; it described the pursuit of access to education for the often highly impoverished Roma children who live in the city that I too called home last year. The Huszar district, which is quite literally and figuratively “on the other side of the tracks,” was once the site of barracks and stables for Hungary’s 19th and early-20th century cavalry. With changing political systems following World War II the Huszar district became a public housing project with sub-standard living conditions for its largely Roma inhabitants. The neighborhood elementary school was closed in 2007 due to concerns about segregated schools and students were bused to other elementary schools throughout the city. In 2011 the Greek Catholic Church was allowed to reopen the neighborhood school but another segregation-related court ruling handed down in late February will force it to close once again at the end of this school year.

Conversations with a variety of community leaders last year opened my eyes to the complexity of the issue where the news article barely scratches the surface. Yes, segregating schools is bad. Denying children access to a particular school because of the way they look, think, or act is unacceptable. Diverse classrooms allow children to learn from the life experiences of their peers that might be vastly different from their own and discover on a deeper level the common humanity that they share. Children have the incredible ability to befriend and play with anyone, regardless of the labels society has placed on the “other.”

However, the realities of our communities where housing patterns are already often split along social, cultural, and economic lines (intentionally or not) should also be taken into consideration. Long bus rides across town when there are empty classrooms across the street is certainly not ideal, especially when seeking to involve parents who have limited means of transportation. Teachers who agreed to work in the Huszar school could focus more energy on getting to know the social, cultural, and economic context of their students and plan lessons appropriately. And though the vast majority of the student body is Roma, this is not to say that non-Roma students would be refused enrollment.

Yet the problem remains that students on both sides of the tracks grow up with few encounters with their neighbors who look different than they do, neighbors who are also the fellow citizens who will be tasked with leading an increasingly diverse nation in the coming decades. This idea led me to reflect on my current context of another year of voluntary service, this time in the region and culture where I grew up. While the diversity of this area is still much less than that of other parts of the U.S., my daily walk is with the growing Latino population in a rural Midwestern town. Some similarly frustrating patterns of separation can also be seen here. Most of my Latina youth group participants live in the same neighborhood or apartment building. I was disappointed when visiting school lunches to find that most students sit in largely ethnically homogeneous groups. The local Catholic parish provides the space for a Spanish mass each week but it is several hours after the English language masses and few families participate comfortably in both ethnic communities.

On a more encouraging note, consolidated rural school districts have an advantage in that nearly all students drive or ride the bus a number of miles to school and students of all ethnic groups have little practical choice but to study side-by-side when the next district is dozens of miles away. I was also impressed to learn that students who speak a language other than English at home continue to receive support from ELL professionals well into middle school, even if they have attended English-language schools since Kindergarten. There are many benefits to growing up bilingual but additional support is needed to achieve high-level proficiency in both languages.

The parallels between the two situations are striking, despite the great distance that seems to separate them in historical context, socio-political environment, and geographic space. The desire to act should be great as we see on-going ethnic conflict unfold in Ukraine, Syria, North and South Sudan, and many other places. I wish that I could write that these observations have produced stunning insights or revelations, but if anything they have only resulted in more questions. Many Hungarians look to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s for answers, but we know that these ethnic and racial divisions are far from being fully reconciled as well. However, this lack of a perfect answer cannot paralyze us for inaction. The Greek Catholic Church in eastern Hungary should be commended for its efforts to reach and teach children growing up in very difficult circumstances. If the school is forced to close, new possibilities will have to be explored. Organizations such as ours in the U.S. Midwest should not only serve Latino families in need but we must also create spaces for Latino and non-Latino neighbors to come together as one community. This essential task will not be easy but it will begin with the way we teach all of our children to read and write, add and subtract, and love our neighbor—no matter their color or language.

Remarkable Women

March 23, 2014

In mid-March I had the privilege of attending the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women through the ELCA and the Lutheran World Federation. I participated with a group of 11 ELCA young adults, about 200 members of the Ecumenical Women coalition, and about 6000 total representatives of non-governmental organizations. The week was full of informative panel presentations, enriching conversations, and meaningful reflections. The many lessons of the week deserve another post in itself, but I would like to begin by sharing with you some of the stories of remarkable women that I carried with me to the event.

The priority theme for this year’s Commission on the Status of Women was “Challenges and Achievements in the Implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls.” I have first included a quick listing of the Millennium Development Goals, followed by four stories that stand independently and do not necessarily flow from one to the next. The stories are united in the concrete expressions and faces that bring the successes and failures of the Millennium Development Goals to life. I encourage you, the reader, to reflect on the women in your life who have also embodied the struggle for a more just world.

Millennium Development Goals: 1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. 2) Achieve universal primary education. 3) Promote gender equality and empower women. 4) Reduce child mortality. 5) Improve maternal health. 6) Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. 7) Ensure environmental sustainability. 8) Global partnership for development.

 The face of human trafficking for me sat across the table at a center for people with addictions adjoining a homeless shelter in eastern Hungary. As a volunteer at the shelter I tried to make conversation as best I could with my limited knowledge of the Hungarian language. Our conversations often involved travel since I was the odd foreigner they couldn’t quite figure out and one morning this woman, who I will call Maria, mentioned that she had previously lived in Amsterdam. Both naively and excitedly I latched on to this thread of conversation and asked her a dozen more questions, thinking that we might have something in common in having traveled abroad for work. She revealed few details other than the work that she had done was “very bad work.” Later I learned that there is a street in the red light district of Amsterdam named after the city in eastern Hungary that I too called home because so many women and girls were taken from that city. The tragic social and ethnic backdrop to this story is that most of the exploited women and girls are Roma. As members of an ethnic minority, most Roma women and girls face bleak prospects due to low primary school completion rates, employment discrimination, and high rates of pregnancy among teenagers. Driving west along a rural highway in central Hungary, I also saw several women standing alone on the edge of the road. I will never know where they were and are going, but I can only hope that they too were not setting out on a journey like Maria’s. I do not know how she was able to return home to eastern Hungary nor do I know for sure if she is still safe today, but I do know that universal primary education, health education for women, and equal access to employment in Maria’s neighborhood and many other just like it are essential to ensuring that more of her friends and neighbors do not suffer as she did. “Developed countries” as much as any other must to do more to protect and empower ethnic minorities who are all too often forgotten.

Universal primary education is a goal that is still unmet in the rural villages of Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras. I know this not from ever being there, but from helping first-generation immigrants to the U.S. Midwest complete job applications available only in English. Most of the clients requesting this service are men and rarely do they list more than a few years of schooling in the education portion of the application. Witnessing the social structures of this particular immigrant community, where girls as young as middle school are expected to care for their younger siblings while their parents are away at work, would lead me to guess that girls in these remote villages receive the same if not less education. I also see this reality as we work to tailor adult English language courses to the needs of the women who attend every session but cannot read or write in their native Spanish. The evidence of the empowering effects of education is clear. Improving school retention rates in rural areas must be a priority for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

Education rates among ethnic minorities such as the Roma in Europe, who are often subject to multiple discrimination, must also be closely monitored. In rural eastern Hungary most villages are largely homogenous, with either Roma or non-Roma residents but rarely both. The living conditions in the Roma villages are almost always worse and shockingly few children complete primary school. Without equal access and attainment at this early age, Roma young people will never catch up with their non-Roma peers and ethnic tensions over jobs, demographics, and social services will only worsen. I had the privilege of working with 20 Roma students through a program that supported their university education. Sadly they are the exception, not the norm, but their stories demonstrate that small steps, one student at a time, can make an enormous difference that could one day transform the country in which they too are citizens. When I asked one student how she had come to the university to study, she explained that like many of her peers living in a small village she had little intention of continuing her studies. However, a kind neighbor invited her to attend a visit day at a high school in a neighboring city that prepares students for university. That day she was welcomed so warmly she decided to attend. Four years later seeing her friends apply to local universities she couldn’t help but do the same. Concrete actions such as this simple invitation on the local, national, and international levels are essential to reaching many more students like her, especially those living with the labels of ethnic minorities and growing up in tiny rural villages, so that they too can study beyond the primary level.

One of the women I most look up to lives in eastern Hungary. While the economy values her work as a pastor at a humble salary in forints, it does not recognize her contribution to society as a single mom and primary caretaker for her aging mother who still lives in her rural home with a large garden. “Developed countries” as much as any other must rethink the way that we honor and value caregivers.

Find this post and many other reflections from the ELCA Young Adult delegation at: http://elcauncsw.blogspot.com/.

Walking in Solidarity

January 31, 2014

“It must be nice to live in a country where no one is homeless,” mused a fellow musician and client at the homeless shelter where I worked in Hungary last year. I’m not sure that my clumsy attempt at a counter-argument in Hungarian convinced him otherwise. Fortunately or unfortunately, from this side of the Atlantic the realities of homelessness in the United States are pretty clear, even as most often we would rather look the other way. On December 19, FCV volunteers and staff took part in the Homeless Memorial March in downtown Minneapolis. The event served as a memorial for over 150 people who were either homeless, formerly-homeless, or advocates for the homeless across Minnesota and died in the past year. Sadly there are probably many more individuals who never received a funeral whose names were not recorded at this event.

The march followed a route that would almost certainly be familiar to someone experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis, beginning at the government center and continuing down Nicolett Avenue all the way to Simpson Housing and United Methodist Church. The contrasts were stark as we passed towering skyscrapers, corporate and executive headquarters, festively decorated shopping centers, and the well-illuminated route of the weekend Hollidazzle parades, all the while feeling very small. Each participant carried a sign with the name of an individual being remembered and that individual’s hometown.

We were asked to process in respectful silence. It was almost eerie at first as we waited to cross the street, hearing only the clanging of flags against their flagpoles in the wind. Silence allowed us to notice these things as well as hear the voices of those who have actually experienced homelessness along the route. Some were understandably angry at our pretending that only lasted a couple of hours, dressed up in layers upon layers of high quality clothing that is cost prohibitive for many. Others smiled and said simple “thank you”s, while still others pronounced blessings. The voice that struck me the most, though, was the first to punctuate our silent march. In a loud voice he cried out, “You need to make your voices heard loud and clear! Too many children are homeless! Too many immigrants are homeless!” Not knowing how far his voice would carry, this man boldly witnessed to the social injustice he saw.

The reasons for the existence of homelessness in our society are many and complex. Good choices are not always made at the many liquor stores we passed along the route but unjust systems in which we all play a role, if only passively, are also to blame. It was telling that the vast majority of the marchers were white while homelessness in Minnesota disproportionately affects people of color. Historical and present racial prejudices have an impact. Broken family systems, domestic violence, stigma and untreated mental illness, insufficient educational attainment, expensive health care, unfair wages, and many other manifestations of systematic injustice are also involved.

We, like Isaiah, are called to “Cry out!” and to “Lift up [our] voices with strength” (Isaiah 40:6, 9). We must put words to the injustices we see, words that might influence those in power to enact change, and we must pronounce messages of encouragement and hope to those searching for a God who “gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (Isaiah 40:29). May our hearts be opened to seeing injustice in our world, our minds strengthened to discern wise courses of action, and our feet emboldened to walk in the ways of solidarity and peace.

The Lord Will Watch Over Your Coming and Going

July 12, 2013

(Psalm 121:8)

Saying good-bye is hard. And perhaps harder to prepare for than to actually carry out. Filling suitcases, emptying rooms, final occasions, returning keys, and writing thank you notes for which there just aren’t enough words. How to say thanks for a year of helping hands and heartfelt hospitality? How to explain the excitement of returning to loves ones while at the same time struggling to part with those who much more recently became deeply beloved? How to faithfully tell the stories and convey the breadth of all that has transpired? What to say, how to speak, what message to convey, these are the questions that punctuate this leg of the journey. But maybe, in reality, these questions are not so new at all. Language barriers alone have taught us so much in this year about how much meaning can be conveyed in the absence of precisely the right words. Accompanying one another can be about speaking words of gratitude, faith, and hope, but it can also be as unembellished as walking together, catching a meaning-filled glimpse in the other’s eye, sharing a meal or even more simply a smile.

And then as our two paths diverge all too soon, how can we remember to also rejoice? In addition to the happy reunions and new adventures that lie ahead, we must remember how deeply we have been blessed by this year’s encounters. My supervising pastor articulated this idea saying that we can think of these beautiful encounters with our neighbors, no matter how brief or unrepeatable they may be, as small miracles. After thinking about these words for a bit I am convinced that she is right. These relationships are miracles in the sense that they are perceptible expressions of God doing some incredible work in our midst. We don’t quite understand them; we certainly can’t find the words to explain them, but we find hope in the knowledge that it is God at work among us. So whether we will meet in a few weeks’ time or are uncertain as to whether we will ever meet again, we rejoice that Jesus also walks the road alongside us as we arise to meet the new day and open our hearts to our neighbor.

A Word of Thanks

June 26, 2013

Owing to a number of special events and camps in the coming weeks, this past Sunday marked my last opportunity to attend worship in the sanctuary of my local congregation. As such I was asked to prepare a brief reflection on my experiences with the congregation, which I would also like to share with you here. The message first appears in the original Hungarian, followed by an English translation.

Nagyon szépen köszönöm hogy itt lehettem nálatok ebben az évben. Nagyon sokat tanultam tőletek és emiatt hálás vagyok. Köszönöm hogy az első nap óta olyan kedvesek voltatok velem. Volt aki üdvözölt mosolyogva minden vasárnap; volt aki türelmesen magyarázta a munkáját és adott nekem munkát; volt aki angolul beszélt és sokat lefordított; volt aki lassan és világosan beszélt magyarul velem és olyankor megtanította a nyelvet; volt aki meghívott engem egy ebédre; volt aki mindenhova vitt nekem a hétköznapi ebédet; volt aki játszott zenét; volt aki focizott; volt aki imádkozott. Az egészet köszönöm szépen. Ide jöttem hát ha tudnék segíteni valahogyan, de többször éreztem hogy „éheztem és ennem adtatok, szomjaztam és innom adtatok, jövevény voltam és befogadtatok” (Máté 25:35).

Ügy latom hogy ebben a gyülekezetben és a hozzá kapcsolódó intézményekben él a hit. A „mezteleneknek adtok ruhát, a betegeket gondoskodtok, és a fogolyokhoz elmentek látogatni” (Máté 25:36). Ez a hit a hétköznapokban. De nem csak aki mosogat a népkonyhán vagy gondoskodik az időseket él a hit, hanem aki rendesen tanul, tanít, felnevel gyerekeket, befejezi mérnők vagy adminisztratív munkát, stb.

Ebben az évben láttam is milyen fontos nektek az Evangélikus hagyományok és sokat tanultam belőle. Erőteljes élmény volt a Reformáció ünnepe itt Közep Europában és minden héten évszázados hagyományokat láttam a liturgiában.  Csodálom a tudásukat és a büszkeségüket a Tirpákszármazásaban. Csak javasolnám hogy többet kellene tanítani ezeket a hagyományokat az ismeretleneknek. Ősszel nekem nem volt könnyű követni az istentiszteletet. Ismertem a részeket, csak nem tudtam rakni sorban. Minden héten meg kell mutatni hól vannak az énekek, az imádságok, és a hitvallás.

A másik javaslatom egyszerűen azt hogy ne féljetek tőlünk. Amikor megérkezik a következő önkéntes, beszélj vele aki tud angolul. Tényleg semmit nem értetem magyarul az elején és bennünket nem érdekel ha néha probléma van a nyelvtannal. És aki nem tud angolul az sem probléma, mert mi nagyon értékeljük aki türelmesen gyakorolja a magyar nyelvet velünk. A következő önkéntes teljesen különbözni fog mint én és örülök nekik hogy van ez a lehetőség megismerni különböző amerikait.

Még egyszer köszönöm szépen ez a lehetőséget veletek lenni. Ez egy nagyszerű dolog hogy ilyen az otthonos érzem itt, tudok mondani hogy egy par hét mulva itthonról indulok haza. Most és a jövőben Isten áldjon benneteket!


Thank you so much for the opportunity to be with you this year. I have learned so much from you and for that I am deeply thankful. Thank you that from the first day you have been so kind to me. There were those who greeted me with a smile every Sunday, those who patiently explained their work to me and gave me projects to complete, those who spoke English with me and translated a lot, those who slowly and clearly spoke Hungarian with me and in doing so taught me the language, those who invited me over to share a meal, those who delivered lunch all over town to me on weekdays, those who played music, those who played soccer, those who prayed. For all of this I am very grateful. I came to this place with the hope that I might be able to help in some way, but more often I felt like “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35).

It is clear that this congregation and related social outreach ministries live the faith. The naked are clothed, the sick are cared for, and the imprisoned are visited (Matthew 25:36). This is the meaning of faith in everyday life. But not only those who daily wash dishes in the soup kitchen or deliver home-based care to the elderly live their faith, rather also those who teach, learn, raise children, or work as engineers and administrators to the best of their abilities.

This year I also saw how important Lutheran traditions are to this congregation and I learned a lot from them. It was a powerful experience to celebrate the Reformation here in Central Europe and every week I witnessed hundreds of years of tradition in the liturgy. I really admire your knowledge and pride in your Tirpak heritage. I would only suggest that you do more to teach these traditions to newcomers. In the fall it was not easy for me to follow the worship service. I recognized each of the components but was unable to put them in order. Every week you must show visitors and guests where the hymns, prayers, and creed can be found.

My second suggestion is simply: don’t be afraid of us. When the next volunteer arrives, speak English with her if you can. During the first few months I didn’t understand a thing in Hungarian and we don’t care if you make an occasional mistake in English grammar. And for those who don’t speak English, that’s not a problem either, as we truly appreciate those who patiently practice the language with us. The next volunteer will be completely different from me and I am glad that you have this opportunity to get to know different kinds of U.S. Americans.

One more time thank you for this opportunity to be with you. It’s a wonderful thing to feel so at home here, I can say that I will soon depart this home for another. May God bless you now and in the future! 

Cooking Out, Hungarian Style

June 26, 2013

The May 1st Labor Day holiday marked the opening of cook-out season here in northeast Hungary. Typically it is possible to get started earlier in the spring, but the combination of Easter in March and unusually cool weather prevented it this year. Almost every week in May a pair of these gatherings took place, ranging in scale from two families in the backyard to all four Lutheran institutions with whom I work in the church courtyard.

The event begins with everyone taking part in meal preparation: defrosting meat, peeling potatoes, and slicing whichever vegetables are appropriate for the dish and cooking method. On one occasion we grilled skewered meat and vegetables in a way that is similar to grilling in the U.S. Midwest. In a second method, a gently sloped, round pan about three feet in diameter is placed over the fire and filled with oil.  Potato wedges are then fried in the bubbling oil in the center while something like pork chops sizzle along the edges, adding flavor to the frying potatoes. A third style requires a large kettle, known as a bogrács, hanging from a metal tripod over a fire or gas flame. Something like stew then simmers over the course of several hours. Possible types of stew include páprikas krumpli (potato cubes in a red pepper soup base with slices of sausage) and babgulyás (another red pepper stew featuring black or white beans, shredded pork, carrots and perhaps other vegetables). One key ingredient that was completely new to me is piros paprikakrém, or quite literally “red pepper cream” (red peppers somehow boiled down to a paste something like mayonnaise and packaged in a tube much like toothpaste). This pepper cream and other spices are generously added to the mix.

In the meantime, the cooking process is a highly social activity. There’s no better time for conversation than while peeling mountains of potatoes together! The air is filled with the sounds of laughter, singing birds, and the shouts of children playing in the yard. The children are more than happy to run around together, investigate new plants and bugs, scoot up and down the pavement on plastic strider bikes, color or paint ceramic crafts projects, and at times organize games of soccer or tag. For those who are already hungry from all of this activity, plates of zsíros kenyér (bread with lard and radishes, onions, or garlic) are passed around and all of the adults not driving are invited to taste the házi bor and pálinka (homemade wine and Hungarian brandy). These Hungarian specialties point to the considerable cultural importance of the responsibility and opportunity to serve as host. There is great honor in being able to give of homemade pickles, preserves, and beverages to beloved neighbors and friends.

When the main dish is deemed ready, everyone is invited to take a place at the table. The guests and hosts alike enthusiastically declare the meal finom!, or delicious, and encourage one another to eat more from the abundance of food that has blessed the gathering. The conversation continues at times for hours over eating and drinking, including plans for the possibility of another cook-out a few weekends later. Mindful of the days not so long ago when such abundance was far from guaranteed and of those who go hungry even today, we give thanks for these wonderful opportunities for food, fun, and fellowship.

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