I have been living in Budapest, Hungary for almost four months now, experiencing life, in all of its ups and downs, with the Hungarian people. I live in District eight, an area filled with stark contrasts as much of the city’s Roma population calls this neighborhood home and glitzy new businesses and cafes pop up on each corner. The city itself and this neighborhood especially, is refreshingly authentic in its feel and ascetics – what you see here is what you get, and I love that.
I work with the Reformed Church in Hungary, and my job here is quite multifaceted. In the mornings, I work at the RCH Ecumenical Office doing English communications work like writing articles for the English website, editing final translations of articles that have already been translated from Hungarian, and doing other miscellaneous communications tasks as they arise. Two afternoons a week I work at an after-school program for Roma children, teaching them basic English lessons as we do crafts and working with them on their social skills. Two other afternoons per week I work as a volunteer coordinator with the Refugee Ministry of the RCH, interfacing with clients and making them feel welcome, getting other volunteers set up, and doing basic communications tasks for them as well. On Fridays my schedule is entirely different and I spend the day at a local Roma school in my neighborhood, assisting the high school English teacher there. I act as an English conversation partner in her classes and help the youth become more comfortable with their oral English skills.
As cliché as this may seem, the most vivid experience from my time here thus far happened during the Christmas holidays; a time that, for many of us who are living abroad, can be a tough period. A few days before the holiday, an international group gathered at St. Columba’s Scottish Mission in Budapest for an interfaith community celebration of Christmas. The event was organized by Dóra Kanizsai-Nagy, head of the RCH Refugee Ministry, and drew guests from all different backgrounds and life experiences. Each year she coordinates an event like this for the clients she helps in her work, as well as for other interested community members, this year culminating in a group of around 80 people.
Those in attendance were Muslims, Christians, and Agnostics; they came from around the world, from Guinea, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and beyond. People from every economic and social class came together during this beautiful time of community, from those who have stable jobs to those who are still looking for work, and even those who are living on a volunteer stipend. In this eclectic group, none of this mattered. The most important thing was the sense of community and love that was tangible in the very air.
The evening began with a conversation hour where guests mingled and caught up; introductions were made for newcomers and those who had been before chatted with old friends. A group of Muslims and Christians soon broke off from the rest to decorate the Christmas tree in the middle of the sanctuary; children danced around with tinsel in their hands and ornaments were hung with care. When the time came to gather for the Christmas meal, a delicious mixture of Bangladeshi and Turkish food was brought out for the main course, and then traditional Hungarian desserts and cakes were brought out later. Community members swarmed the table in an excited chatter and filled their plates with the colorful and nourishing food, handmade by clients that Dóra and her staff have helped along the way.
The meal lasted for hours as people milled about, talking and tasting all the delicious morsels that were available. The chairs in the sanctuary, where the meal was served, were set up in one large circle, making it easy for the conversation to continue to flow as people worked their way around the room. Children shrieked with joy and played with the new friends they made while their parents rested and watched from afar. Smiles abounded throughout the evening as new friends entered, old companions reconnected, and the joy of the holiday season spread.
It would have been easy to characterize the people in the room by their differences: their country of origin, the language they spoke, and the religion they followed. Instead, everyone came together and focused on all of the things they had in common: a love of good food, the infectious joy emanating from the little ones, and the desire for unity in a time where so many things in the world try to divide us.
The various ministries of the RCH have done a fantastic job of cultivating a rich community through their work, as exemplified at Refugee Ministry’s holiday party, and it’s now up to us to learn from their example and spread this to the wider world.
As we enter into spring, may this extraordinary night of ecumenical, interfaith, and international celebration continue to set the tone for these days of rebirth and renewal that are to come in the spring season. May we view those around us as new friends to greet and focus on all of the important ways in which we are all part of one, big, human family.
Kearstin Bailey serves as a Global Mission Intern with the Reformed Church in Hungary. Her appointment is supported by Week of Compassion, Our Churches Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.