by Dick Van Duizend, UUCF Partner Church Circle.
Imagine you are many time zones from home and way out of your comfort zone. You are in a poor farming village; most people only speak a language you do not know. You walk into an 800-year-old whitewashed stone church on a hill with a tall silver steeple or into a simple painted cement church with a flaming chalice on the roof peak. And you are immediately embraced and made welcome. You stay for the service sitting on a dark wooden pew or bench and although the words and liturgy are unfamiliar, you realize as you listen to the translation that the principles, values and issues presented are very much like those you hear when you’re sitting in UUCF’s blue chairs.
Twenty-six years ago UUCF voted to become a partner with the Unitarian Church in the village of Szentgerice in the Transylvania region of Romania. Twelve years ago, the congregation again voted to enter a second partnership with the Unitarian Church of Puriang in the Khasi Hills of northeast India. Since then, nearly 160 UUCF adults and youth have visited one or both of our partners and our partner ministers plus a few other members of our partner congregations have visited us.
My wife, Sharon, and I were on the 1992 trip to Transylvania with the UUCF Chorale. It was the first trip by a UU choir to a country just starting to emerge from more than 50 years of fascist and communist rule. We all were handed flowers when we arrived, and the bus was festooned with flowers when we departed a week later. When we sang in carefully learned Hungarian (Transylvanian Unitarians are ethnic Hungarian), the audience cried and quickly closed the windows so that the remnants of Ceausescu’s secret police would not hear.
We returned seven years later for the dedication of the medical clinic built by the residents of Szentgerice with financial and material support from UUCF and the Dutch partner of the Reformed Church in the village – a project identified, planned and carried out by the people of the village. That clinic has been self-sustaining for 15 years. In subsequent visits, we were able to meet students who received UUCF Partner Church Circle scholarships and have gone on to successful academic and professional careers, marveled how the community has transformed and delighted in the shift in focus of our partner relationship from the provision of desperately needed material support to one of friendship, exchanges of ideas and opinions and ongoing discussion.
Along with Emery Lazar and his late wife, Rita, we visited Puriang in 2005 to discuss the possibility of partnership and were challenged by the direct questions they asked about UUCF’s staying power and intentions (the frequent flyer miles generated by my constant work travel enabling this and other trips). We returned with Betsy Bicknell and others in 2008 for a participatory planning workshop, led by Khasi facilitators and supported by UUCF, in which over 200 residents of the village identified and prioritized a list of needs, identified potential resources and government programs and developed a detailed action plan. The plan energized the village council and facilitated creation of cooperative development boards that included members of the village’s religious communities.
Most of the needs listed have been met, without financial support from UUCF, including a water system, a road from the village to the fields, a taxi service to take people to medical appointments and a market. We have also seen how the tuition-free school supported by the Puriang Unitarian Church and assisted through UUCF Partner Church Circle sponsorships has grown from an elementary school to pre-K through 12th grade, so that local students can receive their secondary school education without the expense and difficulty of going to the state capital or another city. That school is now rated the seventh best in the state and its headmaster, Ditol Mylliemngap, received a UNESCO Global Educator award in 2015.
Through all of this, I have realized that Unitarian Universalism is not just a faith for well-off, well-educated Americans, but has meaning, strength and power for people in radically different cultures, with few material possessions and limited education and economic opportunity. The joy and pride of Khasi Unitarians in their indigenously created faith is infectious, and the reverence of Transylvanian Unitarians for their 450-year struggle to preserve a faith based on reason and choice is sobering. I have learned as well that true partnership on a mutual and equal basis is not easy. In working with our partners, we are forced to confront our economic and social privileges (our partners are members of marginalized minorities), address our own prejudices and those of our partners, improve our communication skills, practice humility and how to listen rather than be know-it-all Americans, and develop the ability to work together respectfully and appropriately. These are skills and practices that can serve us here as well as in distant lands.
Come by the Partner Church Circle table in the Commons during this fall’s scholarship drive to learn more about our partners.