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With God, for the People

A Sermon Delivered at the Ingathering for the 36th Annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations

Thursday, June 19, 1997, Phoenix, AZ
Rev. John A. Buehrens, President

It was just eight years ago. The place was Timiso ara, in eastern Transylvania—not far from where Romania borders on both Hungary and Serbia. A university town. Laszlo Tokes was 37 years old. He'd been sent there as assistant minister of the Reform Church. He was to be watched over by an older pastor who, like the Bishop, did whatever the Romanian authorities asked for. It was dangerous not to. Some estimated that every fifth person was employed, to one degree or another, by the Securitate—the secret police.

Laszlo, however, was determined not to be intimidated. The phone rang in the apartment he occupied in the church, along with his wife, Edith, and their son, Mate. "That's odd," he thought. "It never works when I want to call someone!" A threatening voice told him: "You will not live to preach next Sunday!", and expressed regret that all Hungarians had not been exterminated when the Jews were.

For the last year, you see, Laszlo Tokes had been speaking out against the government. Especially against the policy of "systematizing" the villages, as the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu had ordered. "Systematizing" the villages meant destroying them. Destroying the life and heritage of ethnic minorities—in other words— cultural genocide. Ever since he'd been a seminarian, doing student work in the villages, Laszlo's Tokes' motto had been "With God, for the People." His older colleague had died of a stroke, freeing Laszlo to speak his own mind to the people, who soon began to fill the church. Not just with Reform Hungarians. Students at the university started to think of the church as their own. A spontaneous interfaith community soon sprang up, since Tokes had formed a close and cooperative relationship with Erno Neumann, the local rabbi; with Baptists, Catholics, Unitarians, and Orthodox clergy and lay leaders. Nineteen Catholic priests joined their voices with Laszlo's in protest.

But since April, Laszlo's own bishop had been trying to remove him from his pastorate. In an interview that appeared on television in Hungary, Tokes had condemned the Romanian plan to bulldoze more than 7,000 villages. And the people of his Timisoara congregation would not knuckle under, insisting on their historic Reformed right to have a pastor of their own choosing. To keep the one who had resurrected the Timisoara church from spiritual death. They even quoted scripture to their own bishop (Matthew 12:33): "Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt; for the tree is known by its fruit."

The Securitate responded to this stance by making the Tokes family virtual prisoners in their own parsonage. In September, a respected lay elder of the church was thrown from a trolley. Others were harassed by police. One man disappeared, his body found days later in the woods. Police called it a suicide. At the graveside, as Laszlo conducted the service, police photographed those bold enough to come as mourners. The Reform bishops sent out a letter demanding that all ministers act in accord with both their decrees and those of the state —conformity was the rule of the day.

Laszlo's father, who in 1939 had left Romania to study in Basel with the great anti-Nazi theologian Karl Barth, was, fifty years later, a 72-year-old retired seminary professor and deputy bishop. He was banned from preaching. When he tried to go to Timisoara to show support for his son on Reformation Day, at the end of October, he was stopped at the train. When he tried to telephone Laszlo, the line went dead.

A representative of the Ministry of Religious Affairs had offered Laszlo safe passage out of the country, but he refused exile. Next, the government tried more physical intimidation. Four armed men burst into the Tokes apartment one night. Laszlo, wounded with a knife, saw that the unexpected presence of visitors caused the assailants to withdraw. A week later, the Berlin wall opened and fell. Huge demonstrations for democracy were held in those closing days of 1989, in Prague, Poland, Berlin and Bulgaria. But in Romania, the media kept reminding people of what had happened in Tiananmen Square.

Laszlo and Edith Tokes began to live barricaded in their apartment. Their son was sent away to safety. They could still reach the sanctuary of the church, but the Securitate watched constantly. Outside the Romanian embassy in Budapest, demonstrations in support of Tokes began. The Hungarian parliament voted to recommend Tokes and a Romanian defender of minority rights, Doina Cornea, for the Nobel peace prize. When the court issued an order, evicting Tokes from his church and home, parishioners and friends filled the streets in protest. The numbers swelled. Guns and tanks were brought in. At 3 am on Dec. 17, 1989, Laszlo and Edith, who was expecting another child, were hauled away by car, first for interrogation and then to the tiny, remote village to which the Bishop had ordered Laszlo transferred.

It was the week before Christmas. When the dictator Ceausescu tried to hold a rally in Bucharest, offering a pay raise for all workers, people shouted, "Remember Timisoara! Killer!" Bodyguards pulled the dictator back into the building. The entire event was broadcast, live on television and radio, as people stayed to chant, "Criminal! Down with Communism! Freedom!"

Army troops, when called in, began refusing to turn drag the people away. After the Defense Minister was said to have committed suicide, the Army Generals turned against the dictator. Shortly thereafter, he, his wife and son were hunted down and executed.

On Christmas Eve, in the village of Mineu, Laszlo Tokes read that he had been named to the Council of the National Salvation Front. No one asked him if he wished to serve. His reaction was to send messengers to all the clergy of the region, inviting them to an inter-denominational Christmas service, there in the village. Immediately after the service, he led a delegation from the Hungarian Reform church to the Romanian Orthodox church, to express hope for solidarity in the face of oppression, and shared work for a just peace.

But the generals in the Front had no intention of abandoning efforts to repress the Hungarians. Tokes soon resigned, going abroad to seek interfaith support for Romanian human rights. Soon he was elected first Honorary President of the Democratic Federation of Hungarians in Romania, and then, to replace the old Bishop who had been his persecutor.

From Kolosvar, where he'd gone to seminary side by side with Unitarians and Lutherans, congratulations came from the Unitarian scholar, his one-time teacher, Dr. Erdo Janos—who had been imprisoned for some years under the Communists, and who soon became the Unitarian bishop. When Bishop Erdo died last year, it was Bishop Tokes who spoke, saying that our mission—yours and mine—is to demonstrate a faith, not just in a unity on high, but in a unity also here on earth, where, in God's sight, we are all minorities, yet also all sisters and brothers, whatever our ethnicity, our beliefs, or our disbeliefs.

It is in that spirit that we have reverently here convened for this General Assembly, dedicated to the theme of interfaith cooperation, especially in the work of building more just and inclusive community. It is my honor now to introduce, to pronounce a blessing on our work together, the hero of the Romanian Revolution, Bishop Laszlo Tokes.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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