A Refugee Story of Our Own

60 years ago this week, the Hungarian people rose up against the Stalinist government of Hungary and the Soviet occupation.

3dfd560222c03cb9179a1e3b159afcd2
Toppled Statue of Stalin in Budapest

The revolution ultimately failed, and in the wake of it, my wife’s father, Ferenc, fled Hungary along with some 200,000 people, and became a refugee. Ferenc was able to escape across the border into Austria along with a friend thanks to the help of a local villager who helped them navigate the minefield at the border. Unfortunately they later received news that this man had been caught and executed.

1101570107_400

Those who fought and those who fled were known as 56-ers (Ötvenhatosok).

Time magazine named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter the Man of the Year in 1956.

The revolution began on October 23, 1956 with rallies and protests. When the  ÁVH (Hungarian secret police) fired into the crowd of protesters in front of the parliament building, people formed militias, armed only with rocks and molotov cocktails, but were later able to break into military weapon storage and get guns. The revolution spread throughout the country, and on Oct 28, 1956 Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest. The Hungarians thought they were free, and began to establish a new government, but on Nov 4, in the middle of the night, the Soviet army rolled into Budapest and crushed the revolution completely and finally.

One of the saddest parts of the story of the revolution, was that the United States had been broadcasting into the Eastern Block via Radio Free Europe, telling people there that if they were to rise up against the Soviets, the US would support them. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, because at the exact time when the Hungarians did rise up, the US was in the middle of negotiations about the Suez Canal and needed the support of the Soviet Union, and they weren’t prepared to turn the Cold War into World War III.

My father-in-law, Ferenc, was able to get refugee status in Austria and petitioned for asylum in the United States, and was among those who were accepted. The United States said they would accept 100 young men who were willing to work. They took them on a B-52 Liberator, and after a stop-over somewhere in Africa, they were brought to a military base in New Jersey. Asked where they wanted to live in the United States, they chose Chicago, because it was the only American city they had heard of.

maxwell_b-24
B-52 Liberator, the plane Ferenc and other refugees were brought to the US in

Ferenc later gained US citizenship, got married and had 2 kids. He went to college and worked in the tech industry. He loved Hungary, but understood he couldn’t go back. He also loved America, because of the opportunities and the freedoms he enjoyed here.

It was also in the United States that Ferenc heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and became a Christian. He was born in Hungary during World War II and raised in the Stalinist era of communist Hungary, which meant that although he identified as Roman Catholic, he never practiced it. Upon coming to the US, Ferenc began attending Catholic mass, but the real turning point in his life came when his son, my brother-in-law, was invited as a teenager to a church by some friends. My wife and her brother had gone to Catholic church growing up with their parents, but as they got older they had stopped attending. Tony, my brother in law embraced the gospel message of who Jesus was and what he did: the Divine Son, dying in our place, for our sins, so we could be forgiven, justified and redeemed; rising from the dead that we might have eternal life through him.

Tony invited Rosemary, my wife, to come to church with him, and she did. He also invited his mom and dad, who were much more hesitant to come because of the charismatic nature of this particular church.

Ferenc, however, listened to what Tony said about Jesus, and so Ferenc looked for a church where he felt comfortable going and learning more. He ended up finding Calvary Chapel in Vista, CA – and Rosemary began attending with him.

Rosemary remembers the time when her dad really understood the gospel for the first time. She says that he was emotional, having been touched deeply by the love and the grace of God towards him, and at the same time somewhat angry, saying: “I went to church for years…but I never heard the gospel!   Why did they never tell me that I needed to repent of my sins and put my faith in Jesus, and that God extends grace and mercy and eternal life to those who will receive it?” 

I went to church for years…but I never heard the gospel!   Why did they never tell me…? – Ferenc Kovács

Ferenc attended Calvary Chapel in Vista for years. While he attended there he met another man, István, who was also a 56-er. About this time, the great changes were taking place in Eastern Europe which led to the end of Communism in those countries. Calvary Vista led the way in sending teams to preach the gospel and to plant churches, first in Yugoslavia and then in Hungary.

Ferenc was so excited to see what God was doing, and he wanted so badly to go to Hungary and tell his fellow countrymen the good news of the gospel, and the message that God loved them and that Jesus had died for them. Unfortunately, he never got that opportunity. Ferenc suffered from Juvenile Parkinson’s Disease, a devastating condition for a man who had formerly been an avid athlete and soccer player. Ferenc died from complications from Parkinson’s in 1996, at the age of 59, but not before seeing his daughter go on mission trips to Hungary. His friend István did go to Hungary and spent years working with Calvary Chapel in Budapest.

We ended up working together in, of all places, a refugee camp

In 1998, Rosemary moved to Hungary to work with Calvary Chapel, spreading the gospel and planting churches. It was there that I met Rosemary in 2001. We ended up working together in, of all places, a refugee camp, in Debrecen, Hungary where we ministered several times a week to people mostly from muslim countries, who had never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. We provided for them materially through donations, and we also offered them Bibles and held Bible studies, translated into several languages. Over this period of time, we saw people from Kosovo, Iran, Afghanistan and several African countries become Christians after hearing the gospel clearly presented for the first time in their lives and having the opportunity to read the Scriptures for themselves.

Today, we have a modern-day refugee crisis. We’ve been told that they are a “Trojan Horse” – and maybe some of that rhetoric has some truth to it, but I also know that people were sceptical of people like Ferenc, my father-in-law, who came from a Communist country – and guess what: during the Cold War, some spies and people with bad intentions against America did come to the US pretending to be refugees. It doesn’t change the fact of Ferenc and many other refugees’ stories of escaping oppressive regimes and not only finding freedom, but also having the opportunity for the first time in their lives to hear the life-transforming message of the gospel.

I see the current refugee situation through this lens: the lens of my wife, her brother and my late father-in-law. I see it through the lens of the many people who became Christians in the refugee camp I worked in, who had never had the opportunity to hear the gospel or the freedom to become Christians in their home countries. I see it through the lens of the Iranian refugees I met in Budapest last year, whom White Fields church bought Bibles for, because they were hearing about Jesus and getting baptized, changing their names and evangelising other refugees.

I’m not afraid of refugees – my father-in-law was one. The mass exodus of people from Syria is a difficult and messy situation, but here’s what I’m going to do if Syrian refugees move into my neighborhood: I’m going to befriend them, love them, show them kindness and seek to share with them the life-changing message of the gospel, a message which they likely have never heard before. I hope you’ll do the same.

 

Follow-up on Bibles for Refugees

A few months ago, when the refugee crisis was at its peak in Europe, White Fields Church collected money to purchase Bibles for refugees, mostly from Iran and Syria, who had come to Hungary and had either become Christians or were interested in Christianity.

Bibles, especially Farsi (Persian) Bibles are expensive and hard to come by, but we were able to send 50 Bibles in various languages to those working on the ground with these refugees. Last summer, my wife Rosemary was able to meet with some of them in Debrecen, before the refugee camp there was closed this November. Since then most of the refugees have been moved to Bicske, near Budapest, and Békéscsaba in South-East Hungary. Those in Bicske are coming now every Monday to Golgota Budapest to learn the Bible and have Hungarian lessons.

The friends of ours in Budapest who help them asked me if Travis and I could come down and meet them today since we were in Hungary and our church had purchased these Bibles for them.

After breakfast with some friends from the Eger church, Travis and I took the train to Budapest, met with some friends at the church, and then went and joined the refugee Bible study, which was in English with translation into Farsi.

After Bible study, I got the opportunity to speak to the group. I told them about how Rosemary and I had spent years doing refugee ministry and we had seen several people from Iran come to faith in Jesus, and how we had also seen some of those people have their lives threatened, one man was attacked and almost killed, for their new faith.

For these people, the Gospel really is a matter of life and death – of all or nothing. As a result of becoming Christians, their lives will be at risk from their fellow countrymen for having converted and they will likely be disowned by their families and communities. However, though they may lose everything for following Christ in this life, they will gain eternal life in the next. Is it worth it? They would say: Absolutely.

One of the men, when they received the Bibles that our church sent them, held it up and said: “In my country I could be killed for reading this! Think about how powerful the message of this book must be that they want to do everything to keep us from reading it!”

One of the things I told this group, was that we were glad that we could provide for them the Bibles that we did, and that if they needed more, we would be happy to provide those also.

After I spoke to the group, I prayed for them. And after the prayer, Lisa, a missionary with Calvary Chapel in Hungary came over and showed me an email she had just received as I was speaking, from the Hungarian Bible Society, that they had located 30 Farsi Bibles, but they weren’t cheap. Lisa showed me the email and asked if I was serious about providing more Bibles…

We said yes, and we were able to purchase 30 Farsi Bibles for these young believers who have never owned a Bible of their own before. One of the men had received a New Testament in his language before, but was eager to read the Old Testament. Another man had received a Bible from us back in September, but had given it away to another man who wanted to read it and needed another one for himself to read.

Can you imagine not having access to a Bible? Or your faith being a matter of life and death? That is what these people face for their decision to follow Jesus.

God is doing a great work amongst these people, and he is going to use them to be evangelists to other refugees in Europe. These people are our brothers and sisters in the faith. Please pray for them and consider ways to support them. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.

 

Advent Meditations: 8 – Jesus Was a Refugee

1444031923669

behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. – Matthew 2:13-15

I remember the first time I heard the words: I was 19 years old and worked with refugees in Hungary. We had organized a retreat, in which we took some of the refugees who attended the Bible studies we held at different refugee camps around the country to a “retreat center” in the Buda hills – if you could legitimately call that place a retreat center. It was pretty rough – but at least a step up from conditions at the refugee camps, which were former Russian army bases and workers camps which had been converted into shelters for thousands of refugees from Asia, Africa and the Balkan Peninsula.

A pastor from Oregon who had a heart for refugee ministry had come out for the weekend-long event. That first evening, as we sat down for Bible study, he began with these words: “Jesus was a refugee too.”

Jesus was a refugee too.

I had always known the story found in Matthew’s Gospel, of how, after Jesus was born, Herod the Great had ordered that all baby boys in Bethlehem under 2 years old be put to death, so that the one who had reportedly been born King of the Jews would not threaten his power. Having been tipped off to Herod’s plans, Joseph took his wife Mary and the young Jesus and fled by night to Egypt… where they stayed until Herod died.

No one is quite sure how long Jesus stayed in Egypt, but tradition says it was somewhere between 4-8 years. Jesus spent his early childhood, as a refugee, fleeing a murderous regime…

In fact, part of the mentality that the Jewish people were instructed to have in the Old Testament, was that they had once been “sojourners” (what we would call “refugees” or “migrants”) and therefore they should show love, mercy and kindness to foreigners (refugees and migrants) in their land.

Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:19

King David was also at one point a refugee. In 1 Samuel 27 David was being targeted for assassination by a murderous King Saul. Ironically, the Philistines treated David better than the people of Israel did.

But here’s the point: part of the Christmas story is that when God became a man, he could have chosen to be born in comfort and to live a life of ease, but he didn’t. He chose to be born in a barn, to a teenage girl and a construction worker. He chose to become a refugee – to live in exile, despised and held in suspicion, treated as outsiders by those in the country they took refugee in.

Why?  So that he could relate to the poor.  So that he could even relate to the refugees.

When that pastor at our refugee retreat opened with those words: “Jesus was a refugee too,” suddenly he had everyone’s attention – and everyone wanted to know about this God, this Savior, who would become just like THEM. Who understood them, who could empathized with them, and who loved THEM.

Here’s the message of Christmas:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9

Loving the sojourner in your land: a great (and biblical!) way to celebrate Christmas this year.

 

Thoughts on the Refugee Crisis in Europe – and How You Can Help

Hungary has been in the news a lot lately because of the refugee crisis going on right now in Europe. Because my wife and I lived there for so long, many people have been asking for my opinion on what’s happening, so here goes:

What is happening right now is going to shape the future of Europe

This is something of historic proportions. Estimates range from 300,000 to over 1 million Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan migrants and refugees having entered already into Europe over the past several months. Countries like Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic are mostly homogeneous nations; they have had almost no muslim population to speak of. Until now, muslims in Europe have been based solely in the Western countries. That is now going to change.

I don’t believe that most of these migrants are muslim radicals; the great majority of them are people fleeing atrocities and horrible circumstances, which is very understandable. However, since the floodgates have opened up, there is no saying who all is coming into Europe right now, and I’m sure there is a mixed bag, with some of those radical elements being part of it, seeing a wide open door to Europe and taking the opportunity. Conspiracy theories are rampant as to the idea that this is a muslim invasion of Europe, but honestly, really radical muslims in Syria and Iraq who want an Islamic state would probably be most inclined to joining ISIS anyway, since that is what they want.

Long term solutions and short term responses

The long term solutions to this problem are certainly not something I’m qualified to give, but I would assume that peace and stability in Syria, and the defeat of ISIS is a big part of it.

The Dublin Agreement, which says that the first European Union country a migrant enters is responsible for registering them and then processing them is, in my opinion, unfair. It serves to protect the wealthy countries of North and West Europe and keep the burden on the poorer countries of Southern and Eastern Europe. I’m glad to see the Dublin Agreement being ignored and reconsidered. I do think the suggestion of Donald Tusk of Poland is fair, that the countries of the European Union should share the burden of these refugees. Some countries are not really affected by it, while others bear the brunt of it.

However, since the Dublin Agreement has been being ignored, with Austria and Germany accepting thousands of refugees who were “stuck” in Hungary, I expect even more refugees to come, as word of that spreads, and there is an apparent open door into Western Europe for anyone willing to make the journey. None of these people want to stay in Hungary. They are trying to go through Hungary into the wealthy countries of Western and Northern Europe.

In the short term, the response of Christians in Europe to the refugees has been amazing. I do believe that as Christians our calling is to love and serve those right in front of us, no matter their creed or nationality, and many of my friends and former colleagues in Hungary and Serbia are doing just that. Below I have included a link for how you can support their efforts.

The response of Hungarian citizens to the refugees in their country has been outstanding. They have treated them with love and respect. The video that was on the news yesterday of a Hungarian camerawoman at Röszke tripping and kicking refugees was despicable and not at all characteristic of the Hungarian people. This woman was filmed tripping a man carrying a child, so that he and the child fell, and later kicking a young refugee girl in the stomach as she tried to run by. It turns out this woman worked for a far-right wing news source, and even they didn’t approve of her actions and she was fired.

My wife Rosemary and I worked with refugees for years in Debrecen, Hungary – and what we found was that for many of these people from majority muslim countries, coming to Europe was the first time they had been exposed to Christianity and for most of them it was the first opportunity they had to hear the Gospel and read the Bible. We saw many people convert to Christianity, and I do believe that this may be a great opportunity for these muslim people to come to Europe and hear about Jesus. The work of Christians in loving them will make great strides towards this end. Pray that God would use this crisis as a way of bringing many of these people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

How you can help

Our friends at Calvary Chapel Bible College Europe in Vajta, Hungary – only a short drive from Röszke, the major flashpoint for refugees entering Hungary, are providing food and blankets, among other things, to the refugees who have been being kept at a temporary “camp” on the border, which is just a fenced off corn field, where refugees, including many children, are sleeping on the ground in increasingly cold temperatures. For the last few nights it has been 10 degrees Celsius / 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Here is the link to where you can donate to support their efforts.

We also have friends in Szeged, Hungary, only a few kilometers from Röszke, and they have been very involved with the refugees as well. Here is a link to their blog where you can follow what they are doing.

Pray for the refugees and those serving them in the name of Jesus!